TThe last known sighting of Bibaa Henry alive was on his birthday. She was excited and was heading to a summer picnic in the park with her half-sister Nicole Smallman. Images later retrieved from their phones showed the two women dancing exuberantly in the dark, waving colored lights.
It was Nicole’s boyfriend who finally found their bodies, after what her grieving mother later described as a frustratingly slow police response to reports of her disappearance.
This week, the man accused of murdering the sisters went to trial. The names Nicole and Bibaa were understandably on many women’s lips as last weekend’s vigil was planned to remember Sarah Everard at Clapham Common, because of course it was never just Sarah Everard. It was a criminal justice system that too often disappointed women.
So that’s the larger context for the shocking image that emerged from Saturday night’s unofficial gathering of a young protester pinned to the floor by male officers. Women come out to protest against male violence, and that’s your answer? Of course, he was taciturn, awkward, horribly misjudged. But the problem is not just how the police respond to protests. It’s what the criminal justice system has or has not done to enrage women in the first place.
Cressida Dick, the first female commissioner of the metropolitan police, says she will not resign. The first Minister saying he found the images “very distressing”; but the newspapers were informed that he had the full confidence of the government. The organizers of the vigil also say that the last thing they want is a “crowd” against another woman. Dick is, of course, ultimately responsible for the behavior of his heavy-handed agents, whose history of police protests has been checkered, to put it mildly. But it is politicians who enforce the laws that govern protest in a pandemic, and she had consulted with the Interior Ministry at all times.
On Friday morning, Police Minister Kit Malthouse confirmed that there was a call during which the Met made it clear that it would not allow even a secure Covid vigil. The organizers of the vigil duly canceled. However, it should have been made clear that asking people to stay home and light a candle was not going to be enough, when the goal was for women to physically take back the streets. Inevitably, crowds gathered. Even the Duchess of Cambridge arrived briefly, earlier in the day, to pay her respects. She was rightly praised for a gesture of solidarity. But imagine the front pages if the Duchess of Sussex had appeared last summer, signaling her support for Black Lives Matter.
The parallels are too strong to ignore. Last summer, thousands responded to the murder of a black American man by a white police officer taking to the streets amid a pandemic. On a gut level, more women can now understand what it means to fear the police. But there is also another, more depressing parallel. Black Lives Matter was a torrent of emotion that shook the world; politicians went crazy to agree that this was a turning point. Yet nine months later in Britain, the most tangible sign of change is legislation before parliament this week, which promises tougher sentences for tearing down statues and scribbling graffiti at the Cenotaph and a crackdown on loud or disturbing protests. .
Ten years to deface a war memorial, when rapists can get away with half of that, seems like the answer to a question that absolutely no one is asking. Where a fair and understandable anger should be quenching, the government has somehow ended up criminalizing its expression. But you can’t boil and arrest to get out of something like this.
Right now, women are angry about almost everything: angry that Sarah Everard died, when she was walking home. Angry at initial suggestions, thankfully soon quashed by the Met, that the answer to young women disappearing from the streets of London should be for local women to stay indoors while men go about their business.
Angry at the violations that we know should go unpunished, when the number of cases processed has dropped to a paltry 1.4% of the complaints filed; angry at the thumbs and the flashing lights and the belligerent men who haunt the corners and darkest corners of the internet. Angry at the fear that prevents us from going for a run after dark or taking shortcuts through the park.
If it’s not entirely clear what specific changes women are calling for, how could it be, when so many different women are rightly angry about so many different things? – then the reopening, after the death of Sarah Everard, of the government consultation on violence against women and girls offers a good opportunity to set the record straight. the domestic violence bill that just became law, allowing us to take a few more steps forward, is also really welcome. But we are not finished here, not a long chalk.
Why is misogyny not yet classified as a hate crime? How could the change of culture that should accompany legislation on violence against women be promoted, because the law is not the answer to everything? Where is the strategy, densely detailed and laden with practical understanding of what continues to go wrong, to bring more rape cases to trial?
Today, the appeals court rejected a request for judicial review submitted by women’s groups who wanted answers on why prosecutions for rape have decreased in the last five years. The judge dismissed suspicions that the Crown Prosecution Service may have quietly changed its policies. But if not, it is clear that something else has gone wrong, and an intergovernmental review of the handling of rape complaints within the criminal justice system has been underway for two years.
The CPS suggested this week that there were early signs of progress, with police reporting more rape cases and prosecutions increasing slightly. But today, only one in every 70 recorded violations leads to a charge; a little is not enough.
Few would envy the delicate line that the police have had to follow during the confinement, between a sometimes rebellious public and the virus. They face Solomon’s judgment in deciding when the protests should or should not be allowed to continue. But the way society manages the right to express public anger is only half. It is what we do with the causes of that anger that makes the difference.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism