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Sarah Everard killing and London police handling of demonstrations against violence targeting women sparks growing backlash

U.K. protests women's safety after brutal murder
British woman murdered walking home at night sparks debate on women's safety, sexual violence 03:02

London - Protests against gender-based violence continued Monday in London, as hundreds marched from outside Parliament around the city shouting "Sisters united will never be defeated" and "Justice for Sarah."

"We don't just want overpolicing and more police officers who abuse their powers towards women, we want actual action," said Jennifer, 25. "We want money spent on women's services, we want there to be a cultural change that protects women and fights against misogyny and violence."

The demonstration followed two days of protests sparked by the death of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, whose body was found last week after she went missing while walking home in the evening through well-lit London streets. The man accused of killing Everard is a police officer who had been reported for indecent exposure just days before her death.

Activists had initially applied to hold a socially distanced vigil on Saturday, but permission for the vigil was denied because the U.K. is currently under a national coronavirus lockdown. That didn't stop hundreds of people, mainly women, from showing up at a park near where Everard was last seen in south London. After about an hour, police moved into the peaceful crowd forcefully, eventually arresting four people, two of them teenagers.

"At the heart of this is Sarah, and Sarah just wanted to walk home, and she wasn't able to do that by a patriarchal society, by male violence, and we have to change that," Zarah Sultana, a Member of U.K. Parliament, told the crowd of protesters on Monday. "What I've seen from the Metropolitan police are catastrophic failures at every single level," she continued. "Women should have been allowed to collectively grieve, police should not have been violent."

In addition to highlighting the actions of London's Metropolitan Police, which officials including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel have criticized, the demonstrations have amplified calls for scrapping pending national legislation that civil liberties groups say would increase police powers to curtail protests.

Fears of not being able to demonstrate at all if the legislation passes led a number of people and groups to join Monday's protest.

"It's our last opportunity, potentially, to voice our opinions with freedom of speech," said 19-year-old Haley, who noted Black Lives Matter and climate activists Extinction Rebellion were also out.

"We're trying to say everything we can before we're silenced," she said.

Everard's murder has sparked a national debate about how violence against women is treated in the U.K. Britain currently has record-low levels of of rape prosecutions, despite an exponential increase in reports of rape over recent years.

"It's something that all women and gender-neutral folk experience, and there's no way around it," said Laura, 23, adding that people are quick to blame the victim.

"If you take the precautions, like I do, and you take a taxi — I've taken a taxi before and the taxi driver tried to rape me. Whatever I do, I'm not safe, and it's not exclusive to Britain, it's the world all over," she said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson convened a meeting of the government's crime and justice task force on Monday to discuss its strategy on violence against women and why rape prosecutions are so low. Britain's police chief constables were also set to hold an emergency meeting on the subject.

"We've learned one thing this weekend: It's the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy," former chief constable Sir Peter Fahy told a local radio station. "You've got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn't like certain demonstrations in the summer," he said.

Memorial site at the Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in London
Police detain a woman as people gather at a memorial site in Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard. HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS

Protesting, said 22-year-old Lena on Monday, is "our fundamental right. We are allowed to go out into the street and say to the world: 'You're treating us wrong.'" 

Police started dispersing the crowd, who had kept on the move throughout Monday's demonstration, around 8 p.m. local time.

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