Updated: Oct 10
TW: Murder, Femicide, Police Violence, Male Violence, Sexual Assault
This article will explore 'The Blatant Complicity of the British Police in Stripping Women's Right To The Public Space, Sustaining Rape Culture and Racism'.
The public space is a place for important demands to be heard (Ozgen-Tuncer 2021); but as Kanes (2019) points out, “while women may feel empowered by protest in public spaces, they may also be limited or excluded from protest due to the public nature of the space” (Kanes 2019: 21). This applies to the violent police manhandling at Sarah Everard’s vigil. Sarah was a 33-year-old woman walking home in London. A policeman arrested her on the pretense of having breached Covid guidelines; he then subsequently raped and murdered her.
A peaceful vigil was then organised for Sarah, which saw approximately a thousand women attendees. It was a commemoration of Sarah’s life, but also a protest against her wrongful death, and a collective stand against systemic sexual violence committed by men against women. Despite the best intentions of those present, the vigil saw women mourners get violently manhandled by the police, and some were charged for breaching Covid regulations. Cressida Dick, the previous Met Police commissioner, affirmed that the police were right to break up the event as it was breaking Covid regulations (Tingle & May 2021).
Dick’s claim raises several questions; first, where were these rules when, six days prior to the vigil, four thousand drunk and rowdy Rangers’ football fans (most mask-less) partied on the street without facing consequences? Why was the women’s right to peaceful public assembly stripped away when drunken men were allowed to proceed? Why were policemen exerting such violence on women? Who is actually given space in the public space?
As Ozgen-Tuncer (2021) argues, “the city is the place to be heard; it’s also the place we’re fighting for. Fighting to belong, to be safe, to earn a living, to represent our communities, and so much more” (Ozgen-Tuncer 2021: 135). This interrupted vigil is central in showing how gendered discrimination shapes women’s access to the city. The breaking down of the vigil by police officers, while it was a policeman who murdered and raped Sarah, was a symbol of the most terrible sort. Women, attending the vigil, took a stand, protesting against the daily sexual violence exerted by men in the public space and the very fact that even the police cannot be trusted not to sexually abuse and kill women. Police forces justifying such violence against vigil attendees, using the very same reason Sarah’s killer used, are symbols of misogyny and the curtailing of women’s right to the public space.
Adding to the outcry, the previous chief of North Yorkshire police, Philip Allott, stated that women "ought to be streetwise" and should “just learn a bit about that legal process" in case a cop approaches them (Halliday 2021). This constitutes a blatant denial of police’s accountability, comforting the systemic victim-blaming that shifts responsibility to victims rather than to perpetrators (Ozgen-Tuncer 2021). The fact that such outrageous statements were made by different police leaders, in such a mediatised case, highlights the blatant complicity of the police in sustaining systemic victim-blaming discourses, which continue to uphold the tyranny of rape culture.
Although violation of women’s right to the public space happens to most women, the manner and frequency of such occurrence vary and a person’s race, caste, gender identity, sexuality, disability, or other traits, can compound and intensify one’s experiences (Tutton 2020). Using an intersectional framework to shed light on how gender-based violence intersects with other forms of oppression (Crenshaw 1991), I will present the extent to which British police are not only complicit but actively involved in sustaining racism and rape culture with the case of two Black sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry.
When Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were reported missing back in June 2020, the police showed no urgency towards the case, prompting the family to search and discover the stabbed bodies of their loved ones themselves, 36 hours after they reported them missing (Aljazeera 2021). The sisters were savagely attacked by a stranger in a London park where they were celebrating Bibaa’s birthday (Dodd 2021). The girls’ mother believes the police showing such little interest in the case was partly motivated by police racism.
To add to their insult, two London police officers shared photos of the two violently stabbed Black sisters on a group chat called “Covid cunts” (Dodd 2021), a misogynist insult that embodies the sexist abuse men have subjected women to over the centuries (Beirne 2019). Upon sharing the pictures on the group chat the officers called them (1) “dead birds” (Dodd 2021), another slang term for girls that is starting to be considered sexist since it is dehumanising, and (2) used unnamed racial slurs to talk about the two Black sisters (BBC 2021). The girls’ mother said such an act of dehumanising the victims “made [her] think of the lynchings in the Deep South of the USA where you would see smiling faces around a hanging dead body” (Dodd 2021), clearly linking the police’s unacceptable actions to racism.
Furthermore, by taking the pictures, the officers risked contaminating the crime scene, and therefore risked impeding the search for their killer (Dodd 2021). This act further shows how little the officers cared about catching the perpetrator, both to render justice to the sisters, and to prevent other women (possibly of colour if it was a crime motivated by racism) from getting murdered. Sure enough, had the killer not been caught, he would have continued to kill as part of a Satanic pact which consisted of killing six women every six months in order to win the lottery.
This case shows how police actions lie at the intersection of racism, misogyny, rape culture, and white police male privileges. However, it is far from being acknowledged as such by the police. Indeed, Cressida Dick (former Met Police commissioner) apologised and qualified the police officers’ actions as “utterly unprofessional, disrespectful and deeply insensitive” (Aljazeera 2021). Such a statement perpetuates the denial that such acts were motivated by the intersection of racism and misogyny and does not acknowledge the root of the problem, which further invisibilises the racist and sexist attitudes of the British police and its complicity in upholding such systems of oppression for women, and even more so for women of colour.
Aljazeera (2021), UK police officers admit taking, sharing photos of murder victims. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/2/uk-police-officers-admit-taking-sharing-photos-of-murder-victims (Accessed 16th July 2022).
Beirne, P. (2019), ‘Animals, Women and Terms of Abuse: Towards a Cultural Etymology
of Con(e)y, Cunny, Cunt and C*nt’, Critical Criminology, 28: 337-349.
Crenshaw, K. (1991) ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of colour’. Stanford Law Review, 43, p. 1241 - 1299.
Dodd, V. (2021), ‘Two Met police officers jailed over photos of murdered sisters’, The Guardian. Available at:https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/dec/06/two-met-police-officers-jailed-photos-murdered-sisters-deniz-jaffer-jamie-lewis-nicole-smallman-bibaa-henry (Accessed 16th July 2022).
Halliday, J. (2021), ‘Police commissioner accused of victim blaming after Everard case resigns’, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/oct/14/tory-police-commissioner-accused-victim-blaming-refuses-resign-sarah-everard (Accessed 16th July 2022).
Kanes, J. (2019), ‘Women, cultural rights, and public spaces: analysis and recommendations to advance women’s human rights’, International Action Network for Gender Equity and Law: 1-33.
Ozgen-Tancer, A. (2021), ‘Walking in Women’s Shoes: Precarity and Feminist Pedestrian Acts in Cinema’ , Feminist Media Histories, 7(3): 135–153.
Stott, C. Et al (2021), ‘Police Powers and Public Assemblies: Learning from the Clapham Common ‘Vigil’ during the Covid-19 Pandemic’, A Journal of Policy and Practice, 0(0): 1-22.
Tutton, M. (2020), ‘Our Streets Now’, in Zempi, I. & Smith, J. (2021), Misogyny as Hate Crime, Taylor & Francis: 165-183.
UN Women UK (2021), ‘Prevalence and reporting of sexual harassment in UK public spaces: A report by the APPG for UN Women’, SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND ITS REPORTING IN THE UK,APPG for UN Women: 1-28.
Ward, I. (2021), ‘Masks, Mingling and Magic: Gibberish Law in the Age of Covid’, Liverpool Law Review.
If you feel affected by the issues discussed in this article, or by any other issue surrounding PSH and Women's Rights, please check out our Support Directory.
For more information on PSH and other topics relating to Women's Rights, check out our social media pages.
Cover image courtesy of @Rebeccaleenart on IG