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Protests sparked by Sarah Everard killing refocus on controversial bill to give police more powers

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 — British lawmakers Tuesday evening allowed a controversial new policing bill, which critics say would curtail the public's right to protest, to proceed to the next stage of Parliamentary debate. The "Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill" has become the focal point of demonstrations in London after officers used heavy-handed methods to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was killed last week while walking home at night.

The man accused of killing Everard is a serving police officer.

Demonstrators gathered outside the House of Commons as Parliament was debating Tuesday, chanting "Kill the bill."

"It's not enough for us to say the police don't protect us. We must say loud and clear that the police are the causes, not the solution, of the racist and sexist violence we experience," a protest organizer told the crowd gathered in London's Parliament Square during the fourth day of protests in the city.

"This is for Sarah and for every other woman," Ngozi Fulani, who runs the London-based domestic violence charity Sistah Space, said. "Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Blessing, whether they're in America or over here, brutality is brutality."

The policing bill

The "Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill" would, if passed into law, give the police additional powers to curtail protests, including imposing start and finish times on static demonstrations, as well as limiting noise the authorities deem to cause, "intimidation or harassment."

"The loose and lazy way this legislation is drafted would make a dictator blush," Member of Parliament Gavin Robinson said during the debate ahead of Tuesday's vote. "Protests will be noisy, protests will disrupt and no matter how offensive we may find the issue at their heart, the right to protest should be protected."

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said in a statement that she wanted to reform police powers after last April's Extinction Rebellion climate change demonstrations, "specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt."

The bill would also make it an offense for a protest to block traffic entrances to Parliament, effectively limiting the public's right to protest outside the seat of the U.K. government.

After the heavy-handed policing of the vigil in honor Sarah Everard on Saturday night — and in light of the fact that the man accused of killing Everard is a police officer — critics have said that, in addition to raising civil liberties concerns, enhancing police powers will do nothing to address the problem of violence against women.

"We are sick of male violence, whether it is at the hands of the state, our partners, our family members, or strangers," Member of Parliament Nadia Whittome said during Tuesday's debate. Explaining that she had participated in the protests against the policing of Saturday's vigil for Everard and the bill, she added, "We march because some people don't survive male violence."

Widespread opposition

More than 150 organizations, including human rights and religious groups and trade unions, sent an open letter on Monday to Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel, who oversees law enforcement in the U.K., asking her to reconsider the legislation.

They argued that the bill, which was only published for public scrutiny about a week ago, "is being rushed through parliament during a pandemic and before civil society and the public have been able to fully understand its profound implications."

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

"For a country that so often prides itself on civil liberties, this Bill represents an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens, in particular those from marginalised communities, and is being driven through at a time and in a way where those who will be subject to its provisions are least able to respond," the letter says.

Britain's opposition Labour Party, which was initially going to abstain on the vote, on Sunday announced that its lawmakers would vote against the bill. Still on Tuesday, the bill passed to the next stage of debate.

On Monday, in response to Everard's killing, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a separate plan to tackle violence against women by increasing CCTV coverage and street lighting, and putting more undercover police officers on patrol in bars and clubs when they're allowed to open again.

But protesters argued that while CCTV and lighting can be beneficial, especially in light of the Everard case, more police with more powers won't address the root of the problem.

"We don't just want over-policing and more police officers who abuse their powers towards women. We want actual action," said Jennifer, 25, during Monday's demonstration. "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." 

"They're taking our control. I know that my generation don't want that," said Nancy, 19, who was demonstrating outside Parliament on Tuesday evening. She pledged that she would continue protesting the bill, despite any potential increase in police powers.

"People are scared of being called radical or crazy or oversensitive, but especially with women, we do all we can and we walk home with friends, and we call our boyfriends, and we keep our keys between our fingers, so this is all we have left now."

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