How Sisters Uncut derailed a vigil against male violence

Sarah Everard was 33 years old and working as a marketing executive when she was killed.

The kidnap, presumed rape, and murder of Sarah Everard last month has produced new recognition of male violence against women in the UK. A serving London Metropolitan police officer, Wayne Couzens, has been arrested and is to face trial for her kidnap and murder.

On the evening of March 3rd, 33-year-old Sarah Everard went missing walking home from Clapham to Brixton. Clapham is a very middle-class area, famous for its common (a large urban park), populated by young professionals and families. Sarah left a friend’s house in Clapham around 9pm, calling her boyfriend on her walk home, but she never arrived. The walk should have taken her about 50 minutes.

Couzens had spent the day working at the American Embassy in central London, where he served in the Met’s prestigious Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection unit. His shift ended around 8pm that evening. Police are now digging up his garden, excavating the fielding behind his house, and searching tunnels near the army base Couzens previously worked at, in search of further bodies. There is suspicion this might not be Couzen’s first murder because of the casual nature of how he carried it out: an after work activity, not taking the day off to properly plan snatching Sarah off the streets, making the crime seem routine and practiced.

Sarah’s remains were found in a builder’s bag in woodlands near Ashford, Kent, approximately 60 miles southeast of London. Identified only by her dental records, many presume Sarah’s body was burned beyond recognition. Couzens was arrested at his home on March 9th, less than a week after Sarah’s disappearance.

The case has captured the attention of Britain, with the mainstream media, civil society, and political class all making overtures about the seriousness of male violence against women. Incredibly, mainstream discussion about the harassment and abuse faced by women and girls has outflanked that of the political left. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “I will do everything I can to make sure the streets are safe and ensure women and girls do not face harassment or abuse.” Johnson captured public sentiment well, stating that Sarah’s murder “unleashed a wave of feeling about women not feeling safe at night.” Indeed, it had. Bowing to public outcry, Johnson scheduled a “Cobra meeting” — a cross-departmental meeting held to discuss a national emergency.

The weekend after Couzens’ arrest and confirmation that the body found was Sarah’s, a vigil was planned. Originally, the vigil organizers were 32 women from the area of Clapham, operating under the name, Reclaim These Streets. These were women largely comprised of professionals — women working in PR and a few Labour Party staffers. These women assumed authorities would cooperate, and sought to meet with the police so the vigil could go ahead with their approval, in line with Covid restrictions.

The vigil was to be held on Saturday, March 13th at Clapham Common, the park beside the main road where Sarah had walked home. The police were initially cooperative, assisting organizers in managing social distancing for an outdoor event (the UK is still in a nation-wide lockdown), but changed their minds, confirming they would not facilitate the vigil and that it was instead banned. Protest in the UK is not technically banned, because it is a human right, the government banned groups of people from meeting as part of “stay at home” orders early March. The organizers were surprised to be informed of this, as a week earlier, the police had facilitated a celebration march by Rangers Football Club fans — almost all male — through the streets of Glasgow. Those fans got drunk, did not practice any social distancing, and chanted anti-Irish songs, yet no arrests were made, the entire event allowed and overseen by a patient and willing police force.

The vigil organizers took the police to court to put the decision in the hands of a judge, hoping they would overturn the ban. Instead, the judge determined that, while the right to protest is a human right, that needed to be considered alongside the UK’s national lockdown orders preventing mixing outside with anyone outside your household. The vigil organizers determined the judge’s perspective was open to interpretation, and decided to go ahead with the event, in a way that ensured social distancing. In response, the police threatened to fine the main three organizers the maximum amount: £10,000. The organizers crowdfunded, reaching their goal of £30,000 overnight, at which point the police upped their threat to fine all 32 organizers, meaning a £320,000 fine, should the vigil go ahead. They were forced to capitulate, and the morning of the vigil, Reclaim These Streets’ Twitter account announced the event was cancelled.

Organizers proposed individual vigils take place instead, with people holding a candle on their doorsteps or placing a candle in their window for Sarah. Tens of thousands took part — even the Prime Minister — and many women organized smaller vigils in parks without bothering to consult the police.

By this point, outrage had reached fever pitch — Sarah Everard’s murder had dominated every national newspaper front page and news channel for days, with the BBC running continuous live updates. Thousands were undeterred by the police’s ban, and showed up to attend the vigil anyway. Without any official organizers or leaders, Sisters Uncut took over.

Sisters Uncut formed in 2010 in reaction to the then-Conservative government’s austerity measures, which led to cuts to domestic violence services, alongside other groups such as UK Uncut. They are best known for their flare-waving flash mobs outside City Hall, invading the red carpet at movie premieres, and other small-scale stunts that are highly photographable, such as dyeing the fountain water in Trafalgar Square blood red. These stunts gained media attention at the time, but Sisters Uncut has essentially been defunct since 2018. Torn apart by in-fighting, “accountability processes,” problematic behaviours, micro-aggressions, and interpersonal fallouts, the group spiralled into inactivity due to kangaroo courts taking up most of their time, limiting their ability to do actual politics.

Sisters Uncut are not a membership organization and essentially operate as a small clique. They do, however, have a sizable social media following, and are therefore able to impact political discourse.

Sisters Uncut have been described as anarchist, but are better understood as “radical liberals” who, in the words of Magdalen Berns, “are so open minded their brains have fallen out.” Their politics are consistently inconsistent — encouraging people to attend Sarah’s vigil on one hand, but, being anti-carceral, presumably do not support the arrest, trial, and potential imprisonment of Wayne Couzens for kidnap and murder.

The day after the vigil, Sisters Uncut called a protest outside the Met Police headquarters, encouraging protestors to lay down in Parliament Square to protest/mourn/commemorate the deaths of women in police custody or prison, several of whom were in fact male sex offenders — pedophiles and rapists who identified as “transwomen” and committed suicide in prison. That is no error nor out of step with Sister Uncut’s politics — their southeast branch defended Tara Wolf, a trans-identified male who assaulted a woman during a feminist rally. Like at Wolf’s trial, Sisters Uncut were accompanied by a large group of men, who brought a sound system to Sarah’s vigil, playing loud music, changing the tone of the event to one of male aggression.

Candles were lit for Sarah, and the crowd held up their phones to create a sea of light, before the narrative was shifted from male violence to state violence — as if Sarah had been killed by the state because Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer. In the UK, two to three women are murdered by men each week. It is true that police officers are the group most likely to commit domestic violence and the least likely to be convicted. A 2020 reports shows 19 convictions for 493 reports against police officers — a rate of 3.9 per cent — while the general population rate is 6.2 per cent. Nonetheless, Couzen’s alleged crime fits the pattern of male violence, not “state violence.”

Because the police decided to clear the Bandstand (the centre point of the vigil), dragging women out and arresting many who resisted, the focus was derailed. The photographs of police manhandling women at the demo are disgusting, but unfortunately those scenes enabled the conversation to move from sexual politics to state repression — a narrative preferred by the male-dominated left as it lets them off the hook, shifting blame away from individual men and to the state, instead.

But it was not just the police violence at the vigil that created this narrative — it was a deliberate creation by Sisters Uncut, who did not bring placards against male violence to the vigil, but ones against state violence. The group introduced chants against the police into the crowd at the vigil, but none naming men as culprits.

Numerous leftist groups, including Sisters Uncut, identified Cressida Dick — the lesbian head of the Metropolitan police force — and Home Secretary Priti Patel as responsible for violence against women. Last month, Patel introduced new anti-protest legislation, curtailing provisions for demonstrations, limiting the ability to organize, the right of freedom of assembly, and lawful political gatherings. This bill is a draconian attempt to curtail the right to protest under the guise of concerns about public safety. It will mean police can dictate when a protest starts and ends, even if the demonstration is just one person standing on a street corner. Failing to follow police directions can lead to a fine of £2,500. Tens of thousands have demonstrated against this legislation under the banner, “kill the bill.”

Without a doubt this anti-protest legislation should be opposed, but tying it to Sarah’s murder obscures the growing conversation around male violence. The vigil was indeed “banned” by police, but was organized for a woman murdered by a man. The central issue should not have been state violence, but male violence against women. The shift towards focusing on state actors, rather than Wayne Couzens and other violent men, is an unbashed attempt to exploit the murder of Sarah Everard in order to push an agenda preferred by the misogynist left. Women do not fear meeting Cressida Dick or Priti Patel walking home at night. But the left has a knack for blaming women for male violence.

The wider political class has responded much better. Within the House of Lords, Barroness Jenny Jones threatened to introduce a 6pm curfew for men. Misogyny has been made a hate crime in England and Wales. Charities are calling for street harassment to be criminalized. A YouGov study showing 97 per cent of UK women have been sexually harassed is making headlines in mainstream newspapers.

Ironically, the demonstrations that took place after Sarah’s vigil, organized by Sisters Uncut, did not create a safe atmosphere for women’s voices to be heard. My friend Grace, a mother of two in her 40s, telephoned me on her way home, shaken after being barged by men, who told her, “Fuck off, you silly cow,” when she challenged them. Another friend left early as she didn’t feel safe on account of trans activists in attendance and the atmosphere of male aggression. Both women had hoped there would be chants naming male violence — that even though men might be present, women would be centred.

This series of events meant focus turned away from Sarah Everard’s murder and male violence against women, partly because Covid restrictions preventing women from organizing effectively, but also on account of groups like Sisters Uncut reframing the narrative to suit their political aims. As the left slips further into liberalism and reformism, shifting from genuine revolutionary theory and practice towards postmodernism and identitarianism, we can expect more rank opportunism and more denial of women’s politics.

However, after having to defend sex-based rights successfully against gender identity legislation, the UK women’s movement is emboldened. As the left drifts further from feminism, women are working with one another in new and dynamic ways, in order to fight, once again, for basics.

This article was originally published at Collective Shout and has been published here with permission.

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