Boris Johnson said on Sunday he was “deeply concerned” by reports that a vigil for a murdered woman ended in violent clashes and pledged to tackle violence against women in the UK’s criminal justice system.
The Metropolitan Police force has faced a furious backlash from politicians and campaigners over its handling of an event commemorating murder victim Sarah Everard on Clapham Common, south London, on Saturday evening.
The scenes, where hundreds of people turned out to pay their respects to Everard, underlined how the case has ignited a wave of anger and solidarity among women across Britain, forcing a national reckoning over the way girls and women are treated.
Officers made four arrests at the event on Clapham Common, triggering violent clashes with some of the women attending. One video showed a woman being restrained on the ground by two officers.
Dame Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, insisted she would not resign over the event, telling Sky News that what had happened to Everard had made her “more determined to lead the organisation”.
Tom Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, has been commissioned to conduct an investigation into the Met’s handling of the vigil. Sadiq Khan, mayor of London said he was “not satisfied with the explanation” Dick had provided.
The fact that the man accused of killing Everard is a serving police officer has raised tensions further. On Saturday Wayne Couzens, 48, was charged with her kidnap and murder.
Dick said she had not wanted to see the scenes at the end of the vigil on Saturday night but defended the actions of her officers. She said they had been put in an “invidious position” by the need to enforce Covid-19 restrictions at the same time as allowing people to pay their respects.
Johnson said he had spoken to Dick and would chair a meeting of the government’s crime and justice task force on Monday that would look at what action could be taken to protect women.
“The death of Sarah Everard must unite us in determination to drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to protect and defend them,” he said.
Priti Patel, home secretary, Robert Buckland, justice secretary, and Max Hill, director of public prosecutions, will join the meeting of the prime minister’s task force on Monday along with Dick. They will explore how streets can be made safer and how the criminal justice system can bring perpetrators to justice.
The anger among many Londoners was reflected in the large numbers of people continuing to turn up to pay tribute at the Clapham Common bandstand — scene of Saturday night’s arrests — on Sunday.
It also prompted a turnout of several hundred people for a demonstration at New Scotland Yard, the Met’s headquarters. The protest was called on Saturday evening by Sisters Uncut, a feminist group, in response to the police’s conduct on Saturday.
Outside New Scotland Yard, one protester who gave her name only as Hannah said she was there because she had had enough of every woman and girl she knew making her decisions “based on the actions of violent men”.
“I’m here particularly today because the abuse of police power yesterday was unacceptable,” she said, referring to events on Clapham Common.
Another woman who gave her name only as Anna said she was there “in solidarity with all women”, adding: “I’m 21 and I’m terrified and the police are not the people who protect us.”
Officers policing the protest appeared at pains to take a more conciliatory approach than on Saturday, issuing polite reminders that demonstrators should try to maintain social distance and offering polite suggestions that it might be best if everyone went home.
The demonstrators marched from New Scotland Yard to nearby Parliament Square before heading to Trafalgar Square, Downing Street and back to Parliament Square. Many shouted “Shame on you!” and “Resign!” at police officers, and “The sisters united will never be defeated!”
The greatest tension arose around 7.30pm when demonstrators confronted officers guarding the statue of Winston Churchill on Parliament Square, previously a target for vandalism during protests. The demonstrators crowded around the officers, shouting, “Protect women not statues!”
Meanwhile the Johnson government is pushing ahead to introduce tougher laws to protect women who are the victims of crime. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill will be debated by MPs this week.
The opposition Labour party said, however, that it would vote against the bill. David Lammy, shadow justice secretary, described the legislation as a “mess” and claimed it could lead to “harsher penalties for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman”.
“In the 20 schedules, 176 clauses and 296 pages of the Conservatives’ police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, ‘women’ are not mentioned even once. This is a missed opportunity to tackle violence against women and girls that has become endemic in the UK,” he said.