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Bishop Treweek criticises policing of Clapham Common gathering after Sarah Everard murder

15 March 2021

Local priest says policing of vigil was ‘tone deaf’ in the circumstances


A woman holds a sign during a mass vigil for Sarah Everard held at Clapham Common on Saturday evening

A woman holds a sign during a mass vigil for Sarah Everard held at Clapham Common on Saturday evening

THE Metropolitan Police should have foreseen the “inevitable” mass outpouring of grief, sadness, and anger at the murder of Sarah Everard, and responded in a peaceful and Covid-safe way, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has said.

Ms Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, left a friend’s house on Leathwaite Road, near Clapham Common, in London on the evening of 3 March, but never arrived at her home in Brixton. Her body was found a week later near Ashford in Kent, identifiable only through dental records. Shortly before this discovery, a Met police officer, Wayne Couzens, 48, was arrested and charged with her kidnap and murder. He appeared in person before Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Saturday. The case will next be heard at the Old Bailey on Tuesday.

The murder sparked a public debate on the safety of women and gender equality in the UK. A vigil had been planned to take place on Clapham Common on Saturday evening, organised by the group Reclaim These Streets. It was cancelled. The organisers blamed “the lack of constructive engagement from the Metropolitan Police”.

Crowds gathered for a vigil on Clapham Common on Saturday evening, anyway, and photos and video footage later emerged of women being forced to the ground, shoved, and detained by Met police officers, sparking further outcries.

The Vicar of St Paul’s, Clapham, and the Priest-in-Charge of St Peter’s, Clapham, Canon Jonathan Boardman, said on Monday that parishioners had expressed concern about the planned gathering, given the lockdown rules, “even when the hurt and need for the support for women was fully understood and shared.

“I personally have valued immensely the support I have received as a priest in Clapham from the neighbourhood police officers — and, considering the extreme shock caused by the arrest of Wayne Cozens, felt how difficult it must have been for the Met Police to deal with the complexity of Saturday’s vigil.

St Paul’s Clapham marks the 9.30 p.m. vigil hour on Saturday by lighting candles

“At our churches and locally on our streets, so many of us felt it best simply to Mark the 21:30 vigil hour by lighting candles. Prayers were offered also with a special silence during the intercessions at our Mothering Sunday parish eucharist. But it is important to add that as a Christian community we also prayed for whoever had perpetrated the ghastly crime — Wayne Cozens or another/others — that they might turn from their wickedness and live.”

The church community had been quick to respond to the initial news of Ms Everard’s disappearance, he said, asking residents through social media, leaflets, and newsletters, whether they had security-camera images of her passing by. “Sarah’s family and friends were incredibly efficient and determined to look for evidence in the hope of locating her — the father of her partner made contact with us at both St Paul’s and St Peter’s, Clapham. She and they were in our public prayers by Sunday 7 March.”

By the following week, he said, “local concern did indeed spread to the aggression on the street which is experienced by all women. Clapham is a richly diverse and inclusive community with vocal, active women’s groups and churches which stand in solidarity with them. I’m perhaps the only male Church of England incumbent who follows three women predecessors — a sign of this since the mid-’90s.”

The Rector of Holy Trinity, Clapham, the Revd Jago Wynne, said that there had been “grief, confusion, fear, and anger” among people in the community and within his church. “The majority of those who have been laying flowers at the Clapham Common bandstand have been doing it with a recognition that ‘it could have been me’,” he said on Monday.

“At HTC, there are loads of women who are around the same age as Sarah, and many who will have walked a similar path to where she walked on 3 March.”

The church was open on Friday for prayers. “We didn’t want it to be seen to be in competition with the vigil when it was being planned, nor as an alternative to the vigil when it was officially cancelled — it was in addition, and was a chance for the whole community to pray. . . When we feel helpless and hopeless, the one thing we can still do is pray. As we approach Easter, at HTC, we want to encourage people that even when things feel hopeless, there is a God who is there with open arms for us to seek refuge in.”

The Vicar of St Barnabas, Clapham Common, the Revd Richard Taylor, said that he had been “horrified” by what he saw on social media of the handling of the vigil. “The policing was tone-deaf,” he said on Tuesday. “Given the nature of the event taking place — who they were remembering and why — and the way it was brought to an end, I’m sad to say I can’t think of a more inappropriate way for the gathering to have been policed.”

He and some parishioners had visited the bandstand on the Saturday afternoon to pay their respects and lay flowers, he said. “Having encouraged people to go to the vigil initially, I was disappointed to hear that it was no longer going ahead, and later, to learn that the option of a carefully managed Covid-safe approach in co-operation with the Police had been declined.”

The church, which has been holding services via Zoom, had been opened for private prayer and reflection last Friday afternoon, and, like others, had been contacted by Ms Everard’s family to help with the initial search. Mr Taylor said: “The connection with the parish and the proximity of her disappearance to our homes and church, made a dreadful situation feel very close to us all.”

The Met Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, has refused to resign over the handling of the protests, saying that the current lockdown laws had left the police in an “invidious” position. On Thursday of last week, she supported the forthcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 which would give police the same powers to “impose conditions” on static protests as they currently have with marches. This, Dame Cressida said, was in direct response to the escalation of the widespread Extinction Rebellion protests (News, 1 January).

The Home Secretary has asked for a “full report” of Saturday’s events.

Bishop Treweek told Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “Inevitably, with such a strong expression and outpouring of grief and sadness and anger from women, and indeed men, from across the country, people were always going to gather. . . There are big questions, therefore, about why this was not done in a Covid-safe way with Covid marshals, because people were always going to gather. And then the fact that we see those shocking scenes, made worse because it was dark, it was night-time, it was women, it was police.”

She described the case as another “tipping point” for cultural change — such as the washing up of the refugee boy Alan Kurdi on English beaches that sparked outcry over the refugee crisis (News, 11 September 2015), or the death of a black man George Floyd at the hands of police in the United States (News, 1 June 2020).

Bishop Treweek said that she had felt unsafe on the streets since she was a teenager and had felt the need to plan her safe return home on any occasion and anywhere, be it in Gloucester or in London.

“Some of that is fear,” she said, “but actually the fact that I have been taught from a young age to be careful, to think about where I am going at night time, that is something I have just accepted. Actually, what is it about our culture that is creating that mindset that that has become acceptable?”

The Church had undoubtedly contributed to this culture by its “misuse” of scripture through the centuries, she said. “We have used scripture to make women submissive to men. . . We have contributed to that pervasive culture that women and girls are lesser than men and boys and we have got a big part to play in redressing that.”

She hoped that her amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill (News, 11 March; 12 February), which is being debated at report stage this week, would contribute to a culture change. This included her a call for statutory guidance on the Bill to be “clearly linked” to the strategy concerning violence against women and girls. “It seems very poignant that this is happening at this time.” Another amendment was to ensure that migrant people, particularly migrant women, were given equal protection.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on social media on Friday evening: “I am heartbroken for the family, partner and friends of Sarah Everard, and all those whose lives she touched. They are in my prayers. May they know the suffering God alongside them in this unimaginable pain.

“Testimony after testimony from women over recent days have shown us something we have known and ignored for far too long: the profound impact of the sin of male violence, intimidation, harassment, sexism and abuse carried out against women. It is these sins — and the culture that perpetuates and condones them — that need our urgent repentance, our fervent prayer, and our resolute action as men.”

Ms Everard is originally from York; her father is a professor at the university. A message from York Minster on Monday encouraged people who had been laying flowers outside of the cathedral — in her memory “and to express their feelings about the violence which affects women’s safety so terribly” — to do so “while observing the ongoing safety regulations”.

A video of the bell of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, being tolled 33 times on Saturday at noon — once for each year of Ms Everard’s life — has been viewed more than 13,000 times on Twitter. College and cathedral representatives stood in silence in front of the cathedral to “show solidarity with all victims of gender violence”.

In response to the murder, the Prime Minister has doubled the Safer Streets fund to £45 million to support local projects targeting areas of potential concern for women and girls and prevent sexual violence.

He also announced a new pilot — “Project Vigilant” — under which uniformed and plain clothes officers would identify predatory and suspicious offenders in the night time economy. He said on Tuesday: “The horrific case of Sarah Everard has unleashed a wave of feeling about women not feeling safe at night. We must do everything we can to ensure our streets are safe.”

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