Were women wrong to organise Saturday night’s Reclaim the Night vigil on Clapham Common?

In light of the brazen, bruising police mishandling of the peaceful protest which followed a police officer being charged with Sarah Everard’s kidnap and murder – it’s unbelievable that the question is even being asked.

But it is. And ironically, that’s the very reason the vigil took place – to highlight society’s almost instinctive aversion to women challenging its unwritten rules, especially in public and especially at night – two domains that have historically been the sole preserve of men.

Consider. The same vigil held during the day – with the same risks of Covid infection – attracted no police crackdown, whilst the police struggle to arrest women later probably created the only Covid-spreading risk of the day.

So, why do it?

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Presumably Met Commissioner Cressida Dick feared more demonstrations if this peaceful vigil went ahead. Now of course, that’s exactly what will happen.

As John F Kennedy said 60 years ago: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable."

No-one’s predicting revolution, but a new generation of women is not ready to back down – and thank God for them.

Despite all the recent advances in social attitudes, women are still stereotyped as the law abiding, passive, safety-conscious sex which retreats from challenge and confrontation, while men are the risk takers, hunter-gatherers and lawbreakers who "naturally" push boundaries. This deeply embedded double standard – expecting women to accept restrictions while men rail against them – is at the heart of Sarah Everard’s case. Taking all sorts of precautions this young woman "dared" to walk home at night to avoid "trouble". Her fault.

As if the threat of male violence is an immutable, untameable, unchangeable constant in our lives which forces all physically weaker, right-thinking men and women to adapt their own behaviour. As if the lighthouse attracts the storm.

Yet on Saturday, some women in London decided to change that narrative and refused to let lockdown act as a total and automatic veto on their right to protest – while shopping centres, parks and public places are positively hoaching with people – or display the shrinking hesitation customarily expected of the "fairer sex". Instead, they seized the moment, because that moment comes so rarely – and at such great cost.

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Last Thursday, on International Women’s Day, Jess Phillips MP read aloud the names of 118 women killed by men in 2020, commenting that “society has 'just accepted' dead women”.

Indeed, had the shadow domestic violence minister’s Common’s speech not been given a terrible topicality by Sarah Everard’s murder, it would have received no media coverage at all.

Kate Middleton’s visit to the daytime vigil at Clapham Common gave an unexpected boost to campaigners (and some sympathetic coverage for the embattled royal family), and since yesterday was Mother’s Day, I’d guess celebrating family members across the country shed a quiet tear for Sarah Everard’s grief-stricken mum.

Without all of this, without the headlines, the vigil, the plethora of dates celebrating women and the terrible fact of Sarah Everard’s murder, male violence would not be hitting the headlines and prominent male commentators like Andrew Marr would not be calling this a crisis of male power. And glory be, he is.

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that anything useful arises from Sarah’s murder or that the Clapham Common vigil was consciously staged to provoke a police response.

Reclaim the Night events have been held for decades after dark, because that’s when rules, behaviour and threat levels all change and the restricted nature of a woman’s public domain is laid bare. Back in the 80s when feminists like myself organised Reclaim the Nights on a regular basis, these marches were comradely, exhilarating and slightly scary. This weekend they also carried the threat of £10,000 fines for breaking Covid regulations.

So, I’d guess organisers didn’t act lightly. They pressed ahead because the issue of male violence is being talked about – and that happens once in a blue moon. Indeed, Labour is now set to vote against government plans to give police in England more powers to curb "noisy" demonstrations. Before Saturday night’s debacle, the party had planned to abstain.

If the Clapham Common women had sat politely indoors as instructed, the boat would not have been rocked and Priti Patel’s expansion of police powers would have gone unchallenged.

And of course, for Scots, there is another context.

Last weekend, Rangers fans were "facilitated" not lifted bodily from the ground by police in Glasgow’s George Square. Of course, we’re comparing two different police forces governed by slightly different Covid regulations.

But the comparison and message are crystal clear. Might is right. Calm women at a peaceful demonstration are easy to cart off. Tanked up men at a rowdy celebration are easier to simply observe. Neither case is an example of "intelligence-led policing" – just the worst kind of double standards.

Even the debate about whether to cancel the next Old Firm match is overshadowed by the same latent threat of uncontainable male violence – if the game is called off, will some fans "kick off"?

It looks as if politicians and police are running scared of this tiny cohort of angry men and the way they channel their energies and express their masculinity.

This has implications for everyone. Statistics show men are as likely to be victims of street violence as women. But though not all victims are women, almost all perpetrators are men. Research shows that Old Firm matches in particular are accompanied by an upsurge in domestic violence. Yet that report was laughed off by some fans.

So perhaps, there were more vigils last night.

Perhaps some officers added candles or laid wreaths before stepping back respectfully as they could have done on Saturday.

Perhaps Cressida Dick will get her jotters, since evidently nothing displaces the untouchable Priti Patel.

But more importantly than all of this, perhaps "ordinary" sons, fathers, brothers, husbands and partners will confound their own gender stereotypes and challenge the rampant "laddism" that currently defines and distorts masculinity.

That’s not emotionalism, weakness or sentimentality - it’s empathy, solidarity and real masculinity personified. 

And that can move mountains.


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