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Women lead fight for right to protest, as government pushes through bill to criminalise political opposition by Sophie Bolt

“It’s clear the violent Met police attacks on women attending the Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common on Saturday had nothing to do with concerns of spreading COVID & everything to do with violently crushing a new radical protest movement.”

By Sophie Bolt, East London activist & Labour Party member

It’s clear the violent Met police attacks on women attending the Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham Common on Saturday had nothing to do with concerns of spreading COVID and everything to do with violently crushing a new radical protest movement. Given the attempts to roll back women’s equality, women’s protest is needed now more than ever.  And just as the Black Lives Matter movement has shown, mass protest is effective at forcing change.

We know this is why the government is pushing through the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill. It wants to criminalise and narrow down political opposition to its catastrophic handling of the COVID pandemic, its doubling down on austerity to reduce wages and living standards as well as its continued failure to take action on climate change. It wants to strangle the Black Lives Matter movement which shines a spotlight on worsening racism driven by a far-right government determined to whip up hatred against Black communities and migrants to deflect from its economic assaults.

Just as the Black Lives Matter movement, precipitated by the deliberate murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Chauvin, became a catalyst to express outrage at systemic racism, police brutality and deep-seated structural inequalities in the US and in Britain, so too the murder of Sarah Everard has been a catalyst for women to speak out against a criminal justice system that is also rigged against us.

It’s a system that leaves women unprotected against male predators and fails to convict rapists (now the lowest ever since records began in 2009). It’s a system where police officers take selfies with the corpses of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, stabbed to death last June. And it’s a system where over 190 women have been killed by police officers, in prison or in state custody, most recently highlighted by Sisters Uncut.  It is also a system, that under successive Tory governments, locks up grandmothers who have committed no offence and deports them before they’ve had a chance to appeal.

Johnson’s decision not to adopt a Zero COVID approach to the pandemic has killed over 120,000 people and forced thousands of women to work unsafely on the front line. It’s forced thousands more out of work and into poverty, whilst burdening them with greater levels of unpaid caring responsibilities. And whilst domestic violence levels have increased, the pandemic has also made it much harder for women to escape.

Given this context, the scale of public anger and grief at the murder of Sarah Everard is not surprising.

It meant that thousands of women planned to attend her vigil on Saturday. If the Met Police had been genuinely concerned about COVID restrictions, it would have facilitated the event, which was supported by the local MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy and the council, who had offered stewards to ensure the event complied with all social distancing guidance.

The Met Police’s refusal to cooperate disrupted and undermined women’s right to publicly share their grief, show solidarity with other women and peacefully protest male violence. And the brutal policing of the unorganised vigil on Saturday, defended by Cressida Dick, no doubt traumatising and terrifying for many there, sent a message that women should stay away from any political protest.0

But on Sunday thousands more women led protests against the violent policing and to oppose the Policing Bill.

Women have always been at the forefront of progressive struggles, like Sylvia Pankhurst who fought for universal suffrage, for workers’ rights and against racism, fascism, colonialism and war. Today, young women have led protests forcing government to back down on A-level results. They are also central to the youth strikes against the climate emergency. Its young Black women playing a leading role in the #BLM movement, profoundly challenging Britain’s reactionary colonialist past and its racist present.

And its now women again leading the fight to defend our right to protest, both in parliament with MPs like Bell, Apsana Begum and Diane Abbott, and in the massive street protests.

Women in the Labour movement have a critical role to play in linking up with these progressive struggles, so that we can help build the strongest resistance to all the attacks we face under this far right Tory government.

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