Boris Johnson’s government faced a devilish dilemma this Sunday. He wanted to support the work of the police, subjected for months to extraordinary tension to impose harsh distancing measures, but he was obliged to respond to a wave of indignation, without ideological distinction, at the images of the clashes in the Clapham neighborhood, south of London the night before. Thousands of people have demonstrated this Sunday at the gates of the Palace of Westminster, seat of the British Parliament, and at the headquarters of Scotland Yard to protest against the police action. Deployed agents charged late Saturday night against some of the women who had gathered at the vigil to remember Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old executive kidnapped and murdered two weeks ago. The suspect in his death, Wayne Couzens, 48, currently in custody, is a police officer. The Government itself has questioned the continuity of the main person in charge of the body, Chief Inspector Cressida Dick.
The organizers of the demonstration, under the slogan “let’s reclaim these streets”, had resigned themselves to the fact that Saturday’s vigil was virtual, or held in each house, after they failed to reach an agreement with the Metropolitan Police (popularly known as Scotland Yard). Current social restrictions to combat the pandemic prevented concentration. The social outcry at the death of Everard, however, made it necessary to respond intelligently to the summons. Thousands of women had reported on social media during the week their own fear of walking alone on the streets of UK cities, especially London. Interior Minister Priti Patel had responded by launching a public consultation process to improve the law and offer greater security to women and girls, which received more than 20,000 suggestions in 24 hours.
Vigils in remembrance of Everard across the UK were hard to stop. On Clapham Common, around a bandstand in the middle of the park, hundreds of women and men turned out on Saturday afternoon to lay flowers or simply show their respect. The initial strategy of the police seemed at first to be flexible and prudent in the face of such a sensitive matter. Dozens of agents surrounded the area doing nothing when Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and wife of Prince William, also came to pay tribute to Everard.
But as night wore on, the tension between protesters and officers increased. “Shame on you”, “the police did not protect her” or “arrest yours”, shouted a few dozen protesters in front of the police who were determined to prevent someone from breaking through the security tape that surrounded the kiosk. At the last minute, violent clashes broke out between the officers and some of the women surrounding the makeshift shrine. Four of them were arrested, but what sparked the outrage was the image, which immediately ran through the nets, of some of them being pushed to the ground while they were handcuffed.
“Some of the images of the Clapham vigil circulating on social media are terrible. I have asked the Metropolitan Police for a complete report of everything that happened “, Minister Patel announced on Twitter. Conservative politics, with a reputation for being tough and always ready to come out in defense of the work of the security forces, this time questioned the sensitivity applied in a tremendously delicate situation. Hours later, upon receiving a first report from Scotland Yard, she was not convinced and claimed that “there were many unanswered questions.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan met with Scotland Yard boss Cressida Dick early on Sunday and announced shortly after that he had not been satisfied with his explanations. “The scenes that show the way in which the police acted during the vigil for Sarah Everard are completely unacceptable,” said the mayor in a statement. And it demanded a double investigation, internal and judicial, of what happened.
Cressida Dick responds directly to the two authorities who have cast doubt on her handling of the incidents: the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London. “If it had been a legal rally, I would also have attended the vigil,” Dick responded to criticism this Sunday. “But unfortunately many people gathered at the end, there were speeches and my team rightly thought that all this posed a risk to the health of citizens under the current restriction measures.”
Neither the minister nor the mayor have directly demanded his resignation, as has been done, for example, by the Liberal Democratic Party. The opposition leader, Labor Keir Starmer, did not want to go that far either, but defined the scenes of violence as “deeply disturbing” and assured that peaceful protest should have been allowed. “I share your rage and anger at the way this has been handled. This way, a demonstration is not controlled by the police ”, Starmer denounced.
Scotland Yard’s first response, in the early hours of Sunday, had a defensive tone that ended up irritating all its critics. Helen Ball, Cressida Dick’s second, said in a statement that the agents “had faced a complicated situation” in which “hundreds of people crowded together posed a risk of transmission of covid-19”, and that “unfortunately, a minority started yelling, pushing and throwing objects ”at the police.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.