Regardless of where one stood on the issue, it still wasn’t a great look. Almost 40 years ago, TV news bulletins were awash with images of women being heavily manhandled by police as the former set up camp outside the Greenham Common airbase, protesting against the arrival of US cruise missiles on UK soil. In many respects, the scenario itself was a familiar one, following in a violent tradition that had characterised the old decade and would continue uninterrupted into the new. We’d seen it at Saltley Gate in 1972, in the streets surrounding the Grunwick building in 1977, and whenever the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League found themselves marching in the same neighbourhood; we’d also shortly see it on the picket lines of Yorkshire pits. And that’s not even mentioning the riot that erupted at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival or the incendiary wave of civil unrest that characterised the summer of 1981 in numerous cities across the country.
An army of coppers clashing with an army of strikers/demonstrators was so commonplace a fixture of British life in the 70s and 80s that it was probably more of a story if a strike or demonstration passed off with no arrests and no punch-up with the police. Of course, these explosive occasions were almost exclusively all-male affairs, where even if truncheons were only in the hands of one side, it was still a fair fight in terms of physical prowess. What made Greenham Common different was the simple fact that the majority of the protestors were women – and shrinking violets or not, it still didn’t send out a very positive message to see a big brute of a bobby reacting to women in the same way he would to rowdy football hooligans on a Saturday afternoon. Bras hadn’t been burned for that.
With changes to the law and the decline of trade union clout, industrial disputes are rare these days; rarer still are industrial disputes that spark the kind of physical clashes with the forces of law and order that once seemed part and parcel of strike action. Demonstrations, on the other hand, are still potential powder kegs, even if the police approach to them can be maddeningly inconsistent. The boys in blue didn’t appear too perturbed when Extinction Rebellion brought central London to a standstill in 2019, and their submissive response to BLM last summer was a nauseating spectacle that was rewarded with an outburst of vicious thuggery towards the police that made it look as though the authorities had lost all control of the streets to the mob. Since then, there’s been no further knee-taking, though there remain suspicions that some causes are regarded more favourably by the police authorities than others.
After the anarchy of summer 2020, there has been a notable clamping down on public gatherings of any kind, with lockdown rules and restrictions tightened to prevent any repeat of the ugly incidents in London and Bristol. Whenever there’s been a further attempt to stage the kind of protest the police didn’t initially have a problem with last year, the police have responded in a way that has inevitably led to accusations of a two-tier policing system – i.e. you can break lockdown rules if you’re carrying a BLM banner, but you can’t if you’re breaking lockdown rules by protesting against lockdown rules. When half-a-dozen people are unable to get together for a private family event in the privacy of their own homes, perhaps it’s no great surprise that a public gathering of hundreds in a public space – even if masks are being worn and social distancing is being observed as best as possible – is something destined to end in aggro. Lockdown legislation has effectively outlawed public gatherings, so any proposed event is a no-go; and if we accept that, then the reasons for staging one are immaterial. They ain’t allowed.
In the wake of the publicity surrounding the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard and the charging of a serving Met officer with the crime, a vigil for the murdered woman was planned to be held at Clapham Common. The announcement of this was greeted with a polite refusal from the Met, naturally citing Covid restrictions. It was then announced that the vigil wouldn’t be taking place so as to comply with the regulations, but the familiar floral tributes nonetheless began to swamp the Clapham Common bandstand; even the Duchess of Cambridge popped down earlier in the day and the atmosphere appeared to be in keeping with the routine Diana-esque vibe that is now customary when private grief becomes public property. Despite the official cancellation of the vigil, crowds gathered regardless and, as evening fell, the numbers were eventually sufficiently high enough to warrant police reinforcements in order to breakup what was an illegal gathering. What happened next depends, I guess, on which side you stand.
Whilst the term ‘peaceful protest’ has now become a euphemism for the exact opposite following its un-ironic use by the BBC to describe the BLM riot in London last summer, the fact that what was intended to be a genuinely peaceful protest on Clapham Common wasn’t given the official seal of approval is a bloody ridiculous state of affairs. One doesn’t have to support the idea of a gathering of this nature or the motivation behind it to conclude that it should have been allowed to take place. I won’t repeat Voltaire’s catchphrase here, but I think you know where I’m going. Anyone who believes these f***ing restrictions on our movements have reached the absolute limit now should feel the same way about it, whatever one’s position on the dubious morality of those pushing Sarah Everard forward as a posthumous poster-girl for a cause superimposed upon her.
Some say the crowds had been infiltrated by activists hungry for a confrontation with the coppers, knowing that it wouldn’t take much effort to provoke physical tactics on the part of the Met. It’s not too fantastical to surmise that this tragic death has been distastefully politicised in order to give these activists their ‘George Floyd’ moment – and that in itself is a disgraceful exploitation of a horrendous crime. Using the murder of a young woman as fresh ammo in the culture wars is beyond the pale. At the same time, had the police chosen to stand back and let the crowd get on with it – not unlike they did when the mob uprooted a statue in Bristol – then the crowd would have gradually dispersed, having made its point. By clumsily intervening and attempting to break up the gathering, the police gave any activists present precisely what they wanted, but they also would have enraged anyone there who actually turned up to participate in a non-violent vigil, those who have had enough of restrictions that have now been in place for almost a full twelve months. So many people in this country are at breaking point after a year of this, and this was the kind of moment guaranteed to make them snap.
No, it wasn’t a great look at Greenham Common in the early 80s and it’s not a great look in 2021. When the police moved in and began physically removing women from around the Clapham Common bandstand, there was no way they could make that action look anything other than brutal, awful and ugly. The images will linger and, in the same way the death of Sarah Everard has itself been politicised, the events of Saturday evening will be weaponised by all sides in the days and weeks to come; in the process, it will add yet another dispiriting layer to the seemingly endless layers of division that have taken every conceivable form – political, cultural, racial, sexual, ideological – since 2016. What a bloody mess.
© The Editor
4 thoughts on “UP THE JUNCTION”
It was inevitable that once the ‘vigil’ had been publicly announced, then no amount of un-announcement was ever going to stop a few thousand turning up to ‘grieve’ for someone they didn’t know at all and cared even less about only 10 days ago.
Despite the probability that some unreported form of organisation and agenda was behind the event, the Met Plod succeeded, as ever, in dragging a defeat from the jaws of victory. True, they had the law on their side, but policing has never been about the rigid application of every law – let’s face it, every sub-16 teenage pregnancy blatantly demonstrates two ‘criminals’ involved, but the Age of Consent Law is now never applied, although it remains on the Statute Book. But sensitive judgement has never been part of Plod’s mind-set – far less frightening than the hairy Greenham Common bunch and less threatening than a union of muscular miners, so let’s get stuck in.
A more sensible approach to that vigil would have been to police the perimeter but stand well back from the participation, there was never going to be any good imagery coming out of burly, brain-dead, hi-viz Plods grappling with non-violent young women who only have a night-light as weaponry.
But on the plus side, if this adds to the accumulation of pressures which soon sees the end of the abysmal Cressida Dick, then some good may eventually come of it, we can only hope – if they’d combined this vigil with one for murdered Brazilian electricians that may have helped.
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Just amazed at the basic stupidity of the police actions when ‘one of their own’ was apparently the guilty man. And at an event in which hundreds of mobiles acting as surrogate candles can then be switched to video cameras to record everything. I mean, bloody hell, Plod, you’ve excelled yourself this time.
Like politicians the police are a necessary evil. Having lived for some time in a small country I have seen that as soon as the police are out of the picture the looting starts. However there is no justification for the met’s heavy handed approach in this case. I have no more that I can add to eloquent (as ever) summary of events.
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A point made several times online over the past 24 hours is how all those who’ve spent the last six months demanding even tighter lockdown restrictions and crying out for draconian legislation rushed through without parliamentary scrutiny are now dumbstruck that this has astonishingly left us with an unimaginably authoritarian government. And who enforces that authority? The police, amazingly! A lot of post-sowing reaping going on at the moment.
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