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How Sussex Police Turned a Vigil Into a Battleground

Written by Emily Marais

On the evening of the 13th of March, a small group of trees in Valley Gardens was adorned by candles and flowers. Standing around these symbols of grief were the women and allies of Brighton, embracing each other in despair at the news of Sarah Everard’s death at the hands of a Met police officer. The scene was one of solidarity and compassion, and the air was full with the painful and personal memories that each woman had been reliving over the past week. Each of us felt that we could have been Sarah Everard, and we felt emboldened to express our raw feelings.

In the midst of the candles, there were a growing number of placards. Women had handwritten messages on pieces of cardboard showcasing their disgust for the ongoing mistreatment of women at the hands of men. One sign simply said ‘97%’, referring to the proportion of women in the UK who have been sexually assaulted. Others declared this as the revolution of love and rage. It was clear to see that would not solely be grieving, as if this was an isolated event.

As the start time of 6 PM approached for the now-cancelled vigil, the numbers grew not only of grieving women but also of police vans. Women strained to make their voices heard to the crowds, as they recounted personal stories and bared their souls through poetry and song. We couldn’t hear every word but we certainly felt them, as they travelled along the hearts of those who shared this pain. Despite all of our efforts to focus on those who were expressing their struggles, we couldn’t help but feel the police beginning to gather around us.

As darkness began to fall, police officers were asking people at the edges of the group to leave, on the grounds of breaking coronavirus restrictions. We continued to face the speakers and cheered them on with a renewed sense of solidarity. The cardboard signs stating that ‘Women will not be silenced’ spurred us on to assert our right to protest.

One white woman, after recounting her personal story of abuse, encouraged a group of young Black women to speak so that everyone could hear. They shared the story of Blessing Olusegun, a 22-year-old Black woman who was found dead on Bexhill beach last year. They highlighted the disparity in media coverage and police resources used to uncover the circumstances leading to Sarah Everard’s death as compared to that of Blessing. At this point, Sussex Police were being directly addressed as culpable for this injustice, and face-offs were springing up as women refused to go home.

Tensions flared when four or five officers cut through the crowd to the Black woman who was speaking. Chants arose to ‘Let her speak’ and grievers pushed forward to protect the young speakers from the very police force that has failed to protect young Black women. It was hard to see what was happening in the crush, but we soon saw men being tugged away from the middle of the commotion and led to police vans waiting on the side of the road.

Before long, most of the crowd had been dispersed and those who stayed in defiance were repeatedly being approached by officers and threatened with fines. A friend of mine was handcuffed and put in a van with two male police officers, on account of refusing to pay a fine. Threatened with arrest, she was forced to agree to pay the fine. We watched helplessly as the police exercised their power over us, making an example of some and scaring away the rest.

In the week leading up to this vigil, women were experiencing grief and anger towards the men who continue to harm us and the complicity of police forces across the country. For Sussex Police to react to this outpouring of emotion with heavy-handedness was tone-deaf, to say the least.

Not only did the police presence disrupt a beautiful and necessary gathering, but they also made the event less safe. By threatening organisers with a £10,000 fine, they disallowed the presence of stewards who could have ensured proper social distancing. The police officers caused us to move closer to each other, for fear of being singled out and removed, and for fear of what would happen to the Black women who were being silenced.

Sussex Police must reconsider how it responded to this gathering, as coronavirus laws have an implicit exemption for ‘reasonable excuses’ to gather. If expressing collective grief for 97% of the women in this country is not considered reasonable, then we must ask on what grounds these decisions are being made. We must ask how we can expect a police force that doesn’t respect our right to protest to protect any of us.

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