Why hundreds of women felt compelled to take part in the vigil for Sarah Everard – despite being told it was cancelled.
When Jaidah Chambers set out for Clapham Common on Saturday, she had no idea that by the end of the evening she’d be under arrest. She wanted to attend a vigil for Sarah Everard because she grew up in the south London street where the 33-year-old was last seen, even though the organisers had been forced to cancel it.
“I felt obliged to pay my respects given it could’ve been anyone that I have known my whole life,” Chambers told BBC News.
But what began as a peaceful coming together with candles and flowers ended with arrests and bitter argument over the role of police in dispersing the crowds. So why did Chambers and so many other women feel compelled to take part – and what went so badly wrong?
The vigil’s original organisers Reclaim These Streets had called it off and the Met Police discouraged attendance after the High Court declined to approve it on Friday evening. But hundreds of women went anyway – alongside activist groups – as well as the Duchess of Cambridge.
Many wanted to express their concerns over safety in public places. Some were drawn to what they saw as a safe space to pay respects to Ms Everard – while others were expecting a demonstration. “It was a bit of both – and was different things to different women – and you know what? That’s OK,” tweeted commentator Kate Maltby, who was among the crowds.
Katharine Hurwitz, who lives nearby, said: “I mainly wanted to pay respects to Sarah Everard and her family. It’s had a massive impact on me as a woman living around here and I think it has so many others.”
Dania Al’Obeid, who was also later arrested, said: “I didn’t know that there was going to be a large gathering. There was no way I was going to stay at home and let the trauma and upset and frustration brew inside me so, as many other women were feeling, I needed to go and pay my respect.”
It was “sorrow, frustration and solidarity” that inspired Rahila Gupta, a feminist writer and member of activist group Southall Black Sisters, to travel to Clapham Common.
“Already as a black woman I feel like a second-class citizen and then the misogyny compounds it. So I felt I had to go, I absolutely had to be there to show solidarity with other women who were there,” she said.
The scene in the park when she arrived struck Louise McLoughlin as “really lovely”. “The bandstand was the focal point and there were flowers, tributes, signs to Sarah,” she said.
But by the time Ms Chambers arrived, it was “very crowded”. She said: “We arrived, we found our position, it was very emotionally charged.”
With the police walking the difficult line between allowing freedom of expression and enforcing social distancing rules, Ms Chambers says she felt they wanted to “get rid of us”, saying: “If that wasn’t the intention it was how it looked.”
Though, “I spoke to some beautiful officers that night who seemed human to me, I could see compassion,” she added.
Shortly after sunset, around 18:00 GMT, attendees described feeling the atmosphere turn “very tense”. Around the same time, the Metropolitan Police say said they believed the event became “unlawful”.
Mindful of the coronavirus rules, they felt the vigil was posing “a considerable risk to people’s health”, as Met Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick later said.
At 18:38, Times journalist Emma Yeomans reported police were “moving in to Clapham Common bandstand, preventing speakers from talking to the crowd”.
Tweeting again at 18:48, Ms Yeomans said the atmosphere had become “very tense” and reported she had been knocked down by police officers moving through the crowd. “Mostly men now at the front pushing against police line,” she added.
At the same time, the PA news agency reported “boos, jeers and shouts of ‘shame on you'” as officers reached the bandstand.
Sisters Uncut, a group describing itself as an “intersectional feminist direct-action collective”, tweeted at 19:05 that, “as soon as the sun went down, police stormed the bandstand”.
Kate Maltby said activists from Sisters Uncut were making speeches from the bandstand shortly before the police moved in – and that she was worried the content of the speeches might be in contempt of court.
Another journalist, Helen Lewis, said later that she had heard police officers discussing an attempt to move into the crowd to start “dispersing” people.
Then at 19:21, Lambeth Police tweeted that the gathering had become unsafe, urging people to leave.
And PA reported a tussle between police officers and some of the crowd.
According to Dame Cressida, the officers were in a “really invidious position”. They tried “to get people to disperse from this unlawful gathering, and many, many, many people did, but unfortunately a small minority did not”.
Ms McLoughlin later recalled: “At that point, it became a bit of a push and pull and there were a few scuffles and all of the candles and glass and the signs and the flowers that would have been put down for Sarah, you could just hear the breaking of glass now and again as these things were trampled on.”
One woman said officers were “being really aggressive, twisting my arms”.
Ms Lewis added in a tweet: “The mood really turned when the police decided to move in and disperse the crowd, particularly when they formed a ring around the bandstand.”
Several people were arrested. Among them was Patsy Stevenson – a science student who said she only went to the vigil to light a candle.
Things happened in a “whirlwind”, she said, after she agreed to stand in solidarity beside activists on the Clapham Common bandstand. Photos of her being carried by police officers was later to dominate the front pages of Sundays papers.
But “I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never been to one of these things, I’m not like an activist or a protester,” she told ITV.
Dania Al’Obeid was also left astonished by what had happened. After her arrest, she later said, she “sat in the van, as my hands were handcuffed… just thinking: ‘Gosh, all I wanted was to stand with other women.'”
Just after midnight, the Met Police confirmed four people had been arrested for public order offences and breaches of coronavirus regulations. Ms Stevenson and Ms Chambers both said they were quickly released after providing details to officers.
According to Sir Peter Fahy, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, some of the tactics used by the officers and captured in photographs may have appeared “heavy handed” but were in fact standard procedures designed to protect those being detained.
Ms Everard’s family was not involved in Saturday’s event. In their only public comments since her body was discovered, the family described Ms Everard as “bright and beautiful – a wonderful daughter and sister”.
“She was strong and principled and a shining example to us all,” they said.
Not everyone who knew Ms Everard is happy about what the vigil has come to symbolise.
Her friend, Helena Edwards, wrote in a comment article for the political magazine Spiked!: “When I first heard of the vigil for Sarah on Clapham Common I was looking forward to attending – it felt good to be able to ‘do something’ and express my love for Sarah and my sorrow for what has happened to her.
“Less than a day later, I decided not to attend, as have many of her friends. I can’t speak for all of them, but my reason for not attending is this: my friend’s tragic death has been hijacked. It is not a tribute to her any more, it’s about something else – and I don’t like what it has become.”
Two separate investigations, one conducted by the Met Police and another by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, will review the role and conduct of police at Saturday’s vigil – with their initial findings reportedly expected within the next fortnight.
Despite coming under pressure, Dame Cressida has refused to step down over Saturday’s events, saying that what happened to Ms Everard had made her “more determined not less” to lead the Met.
Ms Everard’s body was found in Kent last week, while a serving Met Police officer, Wayne Couzens, 48, has been charged with her murder and kidnap. Detectives continue to investigate.
But for Jaidah Chambers, the priority now should be healing division. “I don’t want the narrative to be lost that we were there for Sarah and her family – that is the primary reason we were there to begin with,” she said. “For me, I just want us to work together – men and women – to try our best to drive out what is causing to such pain between us.”
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