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Sarah Everard Vigil Organiser Says Government Dealt Police A “Difficult Hand” With “Unclear” Protest Rules

Sarah Everard Vigil Organiser Says Government Dealt Police A “Difficult Hand” With “Unclear” Protest Rules
4 min read

The government is “at fault” over violent scenes at a Sarah Everard vigil event earlier this month as they didn’t provide police with “proper guidance to work from” on coronavirus restrictions, an organiser has claimed.

Officers from New Scotland Yard had been “obstructive” towards organisers, despite the local Lambeth Police initially being “friendly” and “constructive”, Labour councillor Anna Birley, who represents an area near where the vigil was held told the home affairs selection committee this morning.

Her evidence comes follows fallout from the Reclaim These Streets vigil on Clapham Common in South London on 13 March —  held in memory of Sarah Everard, who disappeared while walking home on 3 March and was found dead a week later.

Many have expressed anger at the Met Police’s “heavy-handed” tactics after footage showing officers forcibly detaining female attendees at the event was shared widely on social media.

But Birley said the government also needed to be held accountable for the style of policing that took place at the vigil.  

“While we don't feel the police behaved well towards us, they were also dealt a difficult hand by the government by being given a set of regulations which didn't make clear what the exemptions were and were left down to police forces locally to interpret in their own way,” she told MPs.

“[The regulations] gave a lot of power to police to decide what the law was before something happens, rather than judging after an event whether something required intervention or not.

"I think that was difficult for them.”

Local police had initially engaged with the vigil organisers, but Birley said that the “tone changed” once officers from New Scotland Yard — the headquarters of the Met Police —  became involved.

“We found [New Scotland Yard] to be very obstructive," she continued. "We think that it came across that they were disregarding the local officer’s leadership.” 

Birley also raised concern about the distinction made by police between a vigil and a protest, and how that affected police behaviour on the night. 

“The local Lambeth police would talk about a vigil, and everything we wrote was about a vigil, and they referred to it as a vigil," she said.

"New Scotland Yard officers talked about us as protest organisers.

“I think that that said a lot about their understanding of the strength of feeling and grief that we were feeling in the local area.”

Shortly after the Reclaim the Streets vigil for Sarah Everard was announced, organisers were forced to cancel the event on the advice of the police, who argued that such a gathering did not comply with current coronavirus restrictions.An attempt by legal representatives to get a ruling from the High Court saying that the event could go ahead was unsuccessful. But, judges did state that current restrictions could not ban all protests outright. 

“What the legal judgement tells us is that at no point would it be lawful to have a blanket ban on protest, whether it's the police enforcing that or the government saying that,” Birley explained.

“The police were wrong in their interpretation of the law previously, but I think that the government is also at fault for having not made that exemption explicit so that the police had proper guidance to work from.”

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the Labour MP for Streatham, near to where the vigil took place also spoke to the committee, and criticised police for not saying the gathering was illegal from the outset.

“If they at any point had thought that it was illegal, they probably should have said from the outset asked the organisers to take the event down, and not to publicise it but they didn't do that beginning they were offering support and asking to work together to make a plan,” she told the committee.

“By not doing that initially, by not asking if they thought there was an issue for the event to be cancelled, they effectively allowed people to attend on that day, exactly as we explained they would.”

She also said that police had chosen to shut down the event once people had begun making “left-wing political speeches” from the Clapham Common bandstand, as this signified the event was a protest rather than a vigil.

The death of Sarah Everard reignited existing calls for better protections to tackle violence against women, and more effective action agaist those who commit it. 

“What the officer explained to me is that everything was fine initially, but then people got up onto the bandstand, and began making political speeches,” Ribeiro-Addy said.

“At that moment, that's when the police had to come in and stop people from making speeches because we aren't allowed to protest and that signified that it was a protest.”

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