UK: ‘For women to be respected, police reform is necessary but not sufficient’

CIVICUS speaks with Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, policy lead at the Co-operative Party and councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. 

Reclaim These Streets was formed in March 2021 to speak up against street harassment of women and girls, educate boys and men to take responsibility for the problem of violence against women and girls, and challenge the misogyny embedded in the ways laws are written and enforced.

Anna Birley

What prompted you to organise and how did Reclaim These Streets get started?

I live in south London, close to the place where Sarah Everard was last seen before going missing on 3 March 2021. Over the following week, posters appeared on every bus stop, lamppost, tree – her face was everywhere. We were in lockdown, activities were very limited, so when you went for a lunchtime walk with the one friend you were allowed to meet under lockdown regulations, you would see her face everywhere.

My friends and I realised we all felt scared. New details about Sarah’s disappearance were coming out every day and we put ourselves in her shoes, tried to imagine where she could have been, what she could have done, what could have happened to her. In our lunchtime walks, we found ourselves trying to retrace her steps. As we spoke with other local women, we realised we were all thinking twice about everything we did, changing our lives simply because we didn’t feel safe in public spaces.

For a couple of days, the police were door-knocking all over the area, not just trying to get information about Sarah but also giving women advice to stay safe. They were not telling men not to be predators – they were telling women not to go out after dark, not go out alone, to take extra precautions. That’s when our worry and our fear turned into anger.

On 10 March I texted my friends – we needed to do something together in solidarity, but also in defiance. We wanted to challenge the idea that we had to lock ourselves down, impose curfews on ourselves because male violence made it unsafe for us to be out there, because if we didn’t take enough precautions, we – not our aggressors – would be the ones to blame.

I set up a Zoom call in which we organised a Facebook event and looked up the regulations on COVID-19 and assemblies. We initially wanted to do a walk along the route Sarah had taken, but you need to get permission to march, but not for a stationary protest. We didn’t have time to request a permit, and we also didn’t like the idea of having to ask for permission for us as women to express our anger together, so we went for the stationary vigil. We chose Clapham Common because it is a huge open space allowing for social distancing, and also because it was one of the last places where Sarah had been seen alive. We did it at sunset so women could take back the park after dark.

We let both the police and the council know – I and another organiser are local councillors – because we wanted the event to be safe. We wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t be hijacked by anti-vaxxers or counter protests, and that women would be able to feel safe walking back home after the vigil.

The name, Reclaim These Streets, echoed that of the Reclaim the Night movement, which formed in Leeds in the late 1970s when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ was at large and the police told women the same things they were telling us now – to stay home for our own good and take extra precautions. We felt angry that we still had to fight the same battles over and over. Several decades had passed but the culture and the victim-blaming approach had not changed.

What obstacles did you face in organising and mobilising?

In March 2021, when we planned the vigil for Sarah, the UK was subjected to COVID-19-related public health regulations, and the police used these to try to prevent us mobilising. They said that we needed their permission, which wasn’t true. They threatened us, as organisers, with a £10,000 (approx. US$13,600) fine each, and with arrest under the Serious Crimes Act, on the basis that we would be inciting others to break the law. The Serious Crime Act is used against terrorists. Being charged under it would, among other things, prevent me holding public office again, effectively ending my career.

The police did nothing to facilitate our human right to protest. We tried to engage with them, because we wanted to know if they had intelligence that would help us keep women safe. We wanted to make sure that the policing would be sensitive to the need to build trust after a serving police officer was arrested for Sarah’s rape and murder, and to know that it would be proportional – for example, ensuring women wouldn’t be kettled or pushed into a close crowd when there were social distancing measures in place.

We started organising on a Wednesday, and by Thursday night, after receiving threatening emails and having a series of pointless meetings with police, we instructed lawyers and crowdfunded for a judicial review. The police insisted that there was a blanket ban on all gatherings; they couldn’t seem to differentiate between a birthday picnic and a protest. From what we could tell, they declared our vigil unlawful without conducting any risk assessment in which they considered our human rights under articles 10 and 11 of the UK’s Human Rights Act concerning freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

The judge agreed with us that a risk assessment be done and that it should take human rights into account, but the police said they had done it and the judge took them at face value. We met with police straight out of the judgment and proposed to do a staggered event over a longer period of time, and asked if we could make any changes to make the event more acceptable. But they wouldn’t budge, and while we were still at the meeting they issued a press release warning people it was unlawful to attend.

The vigil was supposed to be happening the next day, and nobody was able to confirm whether we would still be liable for a £10,000 fine if someone turned up even if we cancelled it. On top of this, at least 34 additional vigils had been organised all over the country. We felt responsible because we had told those wishing to replicate the event that the law allowed for ‘reasonable excuse’, and that this included our human right to protest. Now they could be subjected to significant fines and life-changing judicial processes for organising these events.

Despite the event being cancelled, women kept coming in throughout the day, bringing flowers, paying their respects. Even the Duchess of Cambridge came. Crowds grew in the evening, and right after sunset police moved in, pushing women together, manhandling some and pinning them to the ground.

We went back to court and now expect the judgment. We demanded to see the risk assessment that was supposedly conducted and insisted on the priority of human rights and the principle of proportionality. We hope our case sets a precedent and helps other people challenge arbitrary police decisions. For instance, there is a nurse in Manchester who was given a £10,000 fine for holding a solo protest – we hope this can help people like her too.

What do you think are the root causes of misogynistic policing?

Misogyny is not just a policing problem; it is a societal problem. Misogynists are the product of a society that sees women and girls as less. This manifests in countless structural inequalities: unequal pay, women doing more menial jobs, women being seen as home keepers and not being able to go back to the workplace, women being seen as objects and sexualised from a young age. 

The institutions that are doing better at shaking these views are those that are more diverse, transparent and accountable, that welcome whistleblowing and reward those who call out bad behaviour. But the police force is simply not set up that way. It is not diverse enough so it has a distinct white male culture and so it is perhaps less open to and tolerant of difference. It is the kind of profession in which comradeship is important for staying safe – but this can also result in police officers protecting each other at the expense of women, victims or the public. It can promote a defensive attitude and an unwillingness to confront problems.

Take the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, who was strip searched and humiliated in a police station in 2013 – this was basically state-sanctioned sexual assault. The officers involved were assessed by a tribunal of their peers that found them to have behaved in an exemplary manner; some were even promoted. Dr Duff didn’t give up despite being gaslit by the police for eight years: she went to court and was able to access the CCTV and demonstrate the appalling treatment she had experienced. That’s the only reason she got an apology or any recognition at all.

What changes are needed in police culture and policing practices?

Because it turned out that it was a police officer who was responsible for Sarah’s death, and because so many revelations of police misconduct and impunity followed, the police ended up occupying a more central place in our work than we had anticipated. But our focus is on women’s safety rather than on police reform. We know that for women to be respected and treated as equals, police reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What we need is to change the culture that sends girls to take self-defence classes instead of teaching boys to respect women.

This partly requires changing the law, because it currently does not give enough importance to crimes that specifically affect women. For instance, if you drop litter or a cigarette butt, or you leave your car idling, you will be fined. But if you follow a girl in her school uniform walking home from school, pull your car up next to her, drive at the same speed as she’s walking and make sexually explicit comments at her, as long as you don’t solicit sex from her you are not breaking any laws – unless you idle your car for too long, that is. The law should take more seriously some supposedly ‘minor’ crimes, such as flashing, which is a predatory power move that can also be a stepping stone towards more serious behaviour.

Part of the work is about changing culture, which is very hard to do. We are doing some work in schools for boys and girls to have conversations about consent and respect, reach an understanding of what misogyny is and think about ways in which they can champion gender equality. We campaign for women’s safety, mostly on social media, on a regular basis, not just when the ‘perfect victim’ captures the headlines.

As part of that, we have reflected a lot about the fact that we mobilised about a white woman – because she has kidnapped and murdered in our neighbourhood, but still, we were not aware at the time of other women whose cases had been treated differently because they were Black. We made a conscious decision to use our platform and privilege to raise the voices of women who would otherwise not get the same support and attention from the media and public institutions.

What concerns do you have about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill currently in the UK parliament?

Our experience is a cautionary tale about police powers. Police are being allowed to make judgement calls that they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more. 

The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill goes in the wrong direction. It’s a draconian piece of legislation that will grant the police even more powers and will restrict the right to protest. It appears to be aimed at placating people who were annoyed at climate protests for slowing down traffic or at Black Lives Matter protesters for defacing statues. It prioritises the circulation of traffic and the integrity of statues over the human right to express dissent, which is very dangerous.

What’s your reaction to the resignation of Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?

Our first reaction was of surprise – I don’t think even the Home Secretary knew she was resigning. But we were pleased she stepped down, because she had failed to tackle the culture problem of the Metropolitan Police. At the end of the day, leaders need to be held accountable for the organisations they run, and the buck stops there. When you are unwilling to even admit there’s a problem, let alone put together a plan to fix it, you become part of the problem.

Of course, this is a problem for many police forces across the UK, and other police leaders should also reflect on whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.

But Cressida’s resignation shouldn’t allow the rest of the police force off the hook. Fixing an institutional problem requires more than one person to leave. I hope her successor is not only a feminist but also someone who comes in ready to admit that there is a problem, is willing to ask for help and develops a robust approach to tackle the various forms of bullying and discrimination – misogyny and sexism, racism and homophobia – that are pervasive and create a nasty working environment that prevents others from calling it out.

We also hope that this will pave the way for the Angiolini Inquiry – a review into the investigation and prosecution of rape in London – to widen its scope and look into institutional misogyny instead of writing the problem off as a ‘bad apples’ issue. The inquiry needs to be made statutory too – so that it is led by a judge rather than a politically appointed chair, so that the police are required to comply and cannot close ranks, so that victims are at the heart of the inquiry and get legal support to contribute, and so that the recommendations have to be taken on board.

It's been almost a year since Sarah went missing, and at the time everyone – politicians, police, the media – said ‘never again’. It was supposed to be watershed moment. And then nothing. I can barely point to a single tangible improvement that has happened since. Safety hasn’t improved; nor has police culture. We are disappointed in the last 12 months, but we expect institutions to do better over the next 12 months.

Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Reclaim These Streets through its website and follow @ReclaimTS on Twitter. 

 

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