London police have stormed in to disperse crowds at a memorial for murder victim Sarah Everard after warnings that vigils and protests about violence against women would breach COVID-19 restrictions.
Police told organisers of events planned in London and around the country to honour Ms Everard that public gatherings would be in breach of COVID-19 lockdown rules and could lead to fines up to $17,900.
Organisers at Reclaim These Streets said they had cancelled a vigil on Clapham Common in south London near where Ms Everard, 33, was last seen 10 days ago.
Other events around the country were also cancelled.
But thousands — including the Duchess of Cambridge — went to Clapham Common during the day to leave flowers and drawings at a memorial to Ms Everard, whose killing has sparked widespread anger about women’s safety.
As more people arrived during the evening, some chanting “sisters united will never be defeated”, police moved in and tried to disperse the crowds gathered around a bandstand.
Video footage showed scuffles and some women forced to the floor.
“It’s pretty bad really, a bunch of mostly male officers looking at a crowd of women from the centre of the bandstand,” said Laura, 24, who did not want to give her full name for fear of reprisals.
“We’re not threatening anyone, we just want to pay our respects to Sarah.”
The local police force, Lambeth Police, said the gathering was unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic and risked public health, urging people to go home.
But Britain’s opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the scenes of crowds being dispersed at Clapham Common were “deeply disturbing”.
“Women came together to mourn Sarah Everard. They should have been able to do so peacefully,” he said in a statement.
“I share their anger and upset at how this has been handled. This was not the way to police this protest.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the police response was not appropriate.
“The scenes from Clapham Common are unacceptable,” Mr Khan tweeted.
“The police have a responsibility to enforce COVID laws but from images I’ve seen it’s clear the response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate. I’m [in] contact with the Commissioner & urgently seeking an explanation.”
Assistant Commissioner defends action of officers
Politician Caroline Nokes said she was shocked by what she saw.
“Truly shocked at the scenes from Clapham Common — in this country we police by consent — not by trampling the tributes to a woman who was murdered and dragging other women to the ground. Badly misjudged by #metpolice,” she tweeted.
Defending the force’s actions, Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said “hundreds of people were packed tightly together,” posing a very real risk of transmitting the virus.
She added that officers had repeatedly encouraged those attending to leave, but “a small minority” of people chanted at police, pushing and throwing objects.
“We accept that the actions of our officers have been questioned,” Ms Ball said.
“We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary. But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety.”
Calls to stop violence against women
Mr Everard, a marketing executive, disappeared while walking home from a friend’s house at about 9:30pm on March 3.
Her body was later found in woods about 80 kilometres away in south-east England.
Serving London police officer Wayne Couzens, 48, appeared in court on Saturday charged with her kidnap and murder.
Her killing has led many women to share their fears of walking alone and experiences of being harassed or attacked by men in public, with calls for more action to be taken to address violence against women and abuse.
With vigils banned, some women and campaign groups arranged online events and doorstep tributes with candles and lights while others left notes at the memorial on Clapham Common.
“Rest in peace Sarah. You could have been any of us. I hope you get justice,” read one sign placed atop flowers.
“It feels like we finally have people’s attention, so it was important for me to be here in spite of the ban [on the vigil] and honour Sarah’s memory,” said Hannah, 29, who asked not to use her full name.
“Groping, insults, being followed … literally every woman I know has experienced this,” she said.
Some women called for defiance and urged people to still head to Clapham Common on Saturday evening despite the ban, using the hashtag #vigilforSarah on social media.
Currently England is in a national lockdown to stem the coronavirus pandemic and people cannot leave or be outside of their homes except with a “reasonable excuse” and can only be outside with one other person.
The head of London’s Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, said in a video on Twitter that Sarah Everard’s death was a “terrible tragedy” that had caused shock and anger and she understood the desire for a major gathering but it was unsafe.
“I do appeal to people to express their sadness and their solidarity and their really strong feelings about women’s safety in other ways,” she said.