The vigil and the violence: A story symbolised by three women and covered with widespread media ignorance

'Why would the police do this?' cried countless commentators who seemed to be suffering from amnesia.

This is a story symbolised by three women and none of them is Priti Patel or Cressida Dick…

The vigil at Clapham Common — like many other events across the UK — was about Sarah Everard, the horrendous way her life was ended, and why it was not some isolated horror despite what men with all the stats to hand might tell you. It was a demonstration of solidarity, sadness and anger.

While the sun was up and the police were still cosplaying as civilised, the Duchess of Cambridge arrived at the vigil to pay her respects. She didn’t wear a mask and mingled closely with the crowds. She was never going to face a fine for ‘illegally’ gathering or ignoring social distancing rules. Many media commentators were in raptures making implicit and explicit links to the week’s other royal story.

After night fell, and long after the royal had returned home, the police piled in to break up the peaceful gathering. They swung elbows and fists, trampling the candles and flowers left in tribute to a woman alleged to have been murdered by one of their own. Held down by two police officers on her back and her mask still in place, Patsy Stevenson became the unintentional face of the police’s predictably brutal over-reaction.

Stevenson told Counterfire:

The fact that the police turned up was just disgraceful because before then it was a peaceful protest. I was arrested by police for standing there; I wasn’t doing anything, they threw me to the floor, they have pictures of me on the floor being arrested and I’m 5’ 2” and I weigh nothing. Several police were on my back, trying to arrest me; they arrested me in cuffs, dragged me away, surrounded by like 10 police officers, and when I got into the van, they told me ‘We just need your name and address then we’ll let you go with a fine. So I don’t see the point of the arrest, I don’t know what that was for…

BBC News — despite clear footage of the police wading into the crowd — headlined its news story Sarah Everard: Confrontation with police at ‘unsafe’ vigil, a formulation of words that could easily have been dictated by a Met Police press officer. An hour later, it republished its tweet with a new headline that was hardly much better Clashes break out between police and people attending a vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham, London.

ITV News used the same word ‘clashes’ as if the power dynamics between a police officer’s fist and a peaceful protestor’s head are equal. ‘Clashes’ is a weasel word that allows reporters to avoid getting into the question of who is to blame and who acted first. Footage from the events made it abundantly clear that this was a show of force by the police.

The c-word makes an appearance in the headlines of stories from The Times, The Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday and The Observer too.

And yet beard-stroking blue tickers on Twitter still wondered if Patsy Stevenson was ‘asking for it’ and Facebook filled up with (almost universally) men opining that the vigil was ‘illegal’ and that the women shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The excuses for another example of male violence were many.

The media ignorance and compliance with the police line — a learned response from years of accepting police estimates of protest numbers as gospel — was matched by media opportunism.

The lockdown septic — not a typo — the crew at The Spectator jumped to top a piece published earlier in the week with an image of the police’s actions at the vigil and pushed it back out onto Twitter for clicks, while its political editor (and Friday Times columnist) James Forsyth joined Andrew Neil, The Spectator’s publisher and grand poobah of GB News, in pushing the events through the prism of their existing political obsessions:

I’m not sure why James wasted time tweeting that to be honest when he could have simply got his wife to mention it to her boss, the Prime Minister. Or if she was too busy, dropped a line to his best mate (and best man) Rishi Sunak.

Inevitably, there was a lot of talk last night about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is due to be discussed in Parliament tomorrow. It will introduce further draconian powers to suppress protests and will make the scenes at last night’s vigil and the BLM protests last year look like rambunctious teddy bears’ picnics.

But how were the newspapers discussing the bill before the Old Bill went boots first into a peaceful vigil attended by lots of people who happen to look very much like most of their columnists? Well…

The Times has written three stories that touch on the Bill in the past month — one about comments from a justice minister that longer prison sentences do not stop crime, one about a provision in the bill to close a loophole around sports coaches having sex with young people in their care, and a leader column which argues the Bill is…

… best seen as a populist gesture to show that the government understands the public appetite for firmness on matters of law and order rather than a serious attempt to resolve pressing issues with a justice system that was in need of an overhaul long before the pandemic.

That populist flavour has tickled tastebuds at The Telegraph which is always hungry for retribution. It has published 10 stories in the past month, salivating over the prospect of 10-year sentences for people who damage war memorials, punitive action against Gypsies and Irish Travellers, and those new powers to massively restrict the right to protest.

On the last issue, you can expect Telegraph columnists to talk out of both sides of their mouth following the events at the vigil: “Yeah, we didn’t mean that kind of protest. We meant a different… uh… shade…”

The bloodsuckers at The Daily Mail have been even more excited about the prospect of Priti Patel having more power to press her boot down on protests. It headlined one story on the bill, Justice for all: Priti Patel is to be handed powers to crack down on activists wreaking havoc... and rapists and thugs will serve more jail time under wide-ranging new bill.

The Sun has only written twice about the bill. Once to hail “a tough new law” on drink driving and once to tease the prospect of Priti Patel breaking open Ian Brady’s briefcase to reveal the secrets of “the Moors Monster”. It’s all a little bit, “Sun readers don’t care so long as the Bill has big tits.”

The fact is that most of the newspapers and their readers were happy to see the government and the police get more powers to suppress protests until it occurred to them that they might be used on people who look and sound like them. It’s fine when it’s people of colour, members of the GRT community, LGBT+ people, or ‘lefties’, but nice respectable middle class ‘taxpayers’? Unthinkable.

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