After a Metropolitan police officer was charged with the murder of Sarah Everard in March, there was a wave of postings on social media as women shared their experiences of sexual harassment and violence by men.
On 13 March, countrywide vigils were organised by a new feminist group, Reclaim These Streets.
However, the day before, the home secretary, Priti Patel, told police chiefs that she wanted the demonstrations stopped because of the COVID risk. Police told organisers any such vigil would be illegal under COVID-19 regulations. They refused to discuss ways in which the vigils might go ahead.
Some planned vigils were cancelled but in other places they went ahead, including Clapham Common, where Sarah Everard had been kidnapped days earlier.
During the day, hundreds of people, including the duchess of Cambridge, laid flowers on the common in remembrance.
By 6pm, several hundred women had congregated. Direct action group Sisters Uncut addressed the crowd from the bandstand.
The Met forcibly dispersed the crowd, pushing and handcuffing demonstrators.
Four women were arrested for public order offences and for breaching the Coronavirus Act 2020.
After considerable public anger, Priti Patel launched an inquiry by HM inspectorate of constabulary and the fire & rescue services. Their review, published on 30 March, found the police had ‘reacted appropriately and were not heavy handed’ and had been ‘justified’ in their stance with respect to the COVID regulations.
While the risks of transmission were ‘too great to ignore’, according to the inspectorate, the police response had been a ‘public relations disaster’.
Pictures of policemen forcibly restraining women at a rally in remembrance of the murder of a woman by a male police officer – and against male violence against women – were certainly that!
The review also concluded that the Met had incorrectly interpreted COVID restrictions and that not all demonstrations were unlawful during a Tier 4 lockdown.
On 14 March, thousands of people marched from New Scotland Yard to Parliament Square in a protest led by Sisters Uncut (which later joined with a demo by Reclaim the Fight). The police response was hands-off.