The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Outrage over use of force at Sarah Everard vigil shows perils of policing protests in lockdown

Police stand guard in London on March 15 at a memorial to Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped and killed while walking home earlier this month. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

LONDON — After widespread condemnations of how authorities broke up a weekend vigil for a slain woman, Metropolitan Police took a more restrained approach to a follow-up demonstration outside Parliament on Monday evening. But as the night wore on and crowds marched through central London, police ordered people to disperse.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier in the day had acknowledged the outrage over the killing, saying, “We’ve got to recognize that the tragedy and the horrific crime that we’ve seen in the case of Sarah Everard . . . has unleashed a wave of feeling from people, from women above all, who do worry about their safety at night.”

“Women,” Johnson said, “must be heard.” But he did not address how police should handle large demonstrations, which have been banned because of the coronavirus pandemic.

London police faced backlash for their heavy-handed tactics in breaking up a March 14 vigil for Sarah Everard, whose suspected killer is a police officer. (Video: Reuters)

That left police, once again, having to determine whether to enforce covid restrictions or give space to the protesters.

On Saturday, police broke up a vigil-turned-protest in south London by people mourning Everard, 33, who was last seen walking home on March 3 and whose remains were found in a large bag last week.

A police officer, 48-year-old Wayne Couzens, was charged with kidnapping and murder. Couzens served in the Metropolitan Police Service’s division of parliamentary and diplomatic protection.

As images of women being pinned to the ground by officers and arrested during the Saturday vigil spread widely, there were calls for Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to resign over her force’s handling of the crowd.

Dick defended the officers’ actions, noting that the event — however heartfelt and well-intentioned — was “an unlawful gathering” that posed “a considerable risk to people’s health.”

She said, “If it had been lawful, I’d have been there. I’d have been at a vigil.”

Among the prominent people who did attend was Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. The prime minister said he and his fiancee lit a candle at home.

Dick said police were confronted by “a really big crowd” that did not follow orders to disperse.

“This is fiendishly difficult policing,” she said.

Johnson’s government rallied behind the head of the largest police force in Britain, pointing to her career-long commitment to protecting women.

On Monday evening, hundreds gathered in Parliament Square and held aloft signs reading: “They came with flowers, you came with force,” “women matter” and “I am here so my daughters don’t have to be.” The police looked on.

At one point, the crowd chanted “kill the bill.”

This week, the House of Commons began debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which Johnson said would toughen sentences for rapists and block the early release of sexual offenders.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the legislation does not do enough for women and girls. Others say the bill will introduce new curbs on the right to peaceful protest.

Emma Kirkham, 49, a graphic designer who was at Monday’s demonstration, said protesting in the middle of a pandemic “was not a decision I took lightly.” But she said if the bill impacted her rights, “then we need to be out here.”

Britain is struggling through its third national lockdown. Although schools reopened last week and a vaccination campaign is speeding along, people have been ordered to stay at home except for essential work and travel. Shops, pubs and gyms are closed, and large gatherings — even for weddings and funerals — are prohibited.

The public, politicians and police are divided over how to balance fundamental human rights against the spread of a virus that is lethal for some.

The Saturday gathering began with silent mourners laying flowers and ended in scenes of chaos, as police dragged protesters away in handcuffs, while the crowd chanted, “Arrest your own” and “Shame on you.”

A snap poll by YouGov found Britons are split on whether police should have allowed the vigil to go ahead. In all, 40 percent thought the police should have allowed the vigil, and 43 percent did not.

Marion Visagie, 49, a health-care professional who said she is a survivor of domestic abuse, said in a phone interview that she was “totally against” large demonstrations during the pandemic. “Covid rules are there for a reason,” she said.

“I didn’t not go to the vigil, because I don’t believe in the cause. I didn’t go because I respect the law and respect my fellow citizens to keep everyone safe,” she said, adding that she lit a candle for Everard in her front garden instead.

Kath Thomas, 36, a civil servant, stood in front of the makeshift memorial to Everard on Monday, wiping away tears as she took in the floral tributes.

“We think of Great Britain as so far ahead in this stuff, and you have something like this happen and you’re reminded really quickly that there is a huge way to go,” she said, speaking of Everard’s killing and women’s safety.

Thomas said she is sympathetic to the difficulty of policing crowds during a pandemic.

“I completely see both sides,” she said. “The police can’t say, ‘No public gatherings, but we will allow this one.’ They were in an impossible situation.”

Megan Henson, 27, an actor who was wearing a mask and stayed apart from the larger crowd with her friends, said, “I just had enough, the violence on the streets, the everyday sexism, the way the vigil on Saturday was handled by the police, it spurred me to come out.”

“I respect it’s not great timing with the pandemic, but you can’t choose when these moments of history happen. George Floyd sparked a political movement that was necessary. Likewise, with Sarah Everard’s murder, we have to use this momentum, we have to make our voices heard.”