White women use their privilege to challenge power

First and foremost, my thoughts and sympathies to the family and friends of Sarah Everard whose life has been taken so early and brutally.

The past weeks tragic events have sparked back into life the ongoing battle for women’s rights — to move freely and peacefully without threat of harassment, violence or death. Suffice to say this is a long and ongoing battle that was not created but reinvigorated by this latest reprehensible attack. Reclaim the Night for example has been a regular event over decades — an eerily similar example of violence perpetuated by the police against peaceful female protesters took place on a march in Soho in October 1978 that led to women being injured and 13 arrested following a “clash” with the police.

However, perhaps what has changed in this heightened era of identity politics is a palpable and widespread anger towards the other half of the human species called male, with some going as far as calling for men to be placed under curfew! This has triggered the predictable ‘culture war’ backlash but a serious question underlies this which is should all men be held equally accountable for a small minority that rape and murder women? Should the misogynistic male dominated and increasingly unequal society that we all inhabit be a curse uniquely attributed to all men? These are interesting questions that undoubtedly deserve further exploration.

My wife however, who inspired me to write this, helped me to search deeper and perhaps point to a positive outcome to this sad event. She was disturbed — but found it difficult to articulate exactly why — about the outpouring of genuine concern and distress people were communicating (primarily across social media) at the outset of Sarah’s disappearance. In separate social media circles and paying very little attention to mainstream media these days, I admit that the initial furore passed me by somewhat. Obviously, this could not last. As I temporarily peered into the mainstream media frenzy of saturation coverage the tragedy had triggered, it struck me. Living in London, we are aware that a lot of people go missing — almost on a daily basis — including women and children, girls and boys. What then, was it about this particular situation that caused such popular concern and discomfort for my other half? I am aware that some people will take offence at what comes next and many may have already guessed what I am about to say: She was young, pretty, blonde, with a beautiful smile — middleclass(?) and had her whole life in front of her. Truly and unarguably tragic. But is it any more or less tragic than the many other women, girls and boys, who go missing or are murdered on a regular basis across London and the UK? More to the point, why are they deemed less important, why do they not warrant such outpouring of social and mainstream media concern? As I write this for example, I have heard of a black woman from close to where I live in South London who has disappeared, not from the already gentrified Clapham or Balham or the rapidly gentrifying Brixton but from the less glamorous Mitcham. What about her and the many black and brown children disappearing from our streets on a daily basis that barely get a mention? Why don’t they get the same media attention they deserve?

While the focus on violence perpetuated by men against women that this ghastly event has brought about should not be questioned, is there a cost when the gaze shifts from what is right to what is white — when white lives appear to be valued more than others? I think this was at the root of what was disturbing my partner. There is no doubt that if you are white you almost have an automatic right to be treated better — more sympathetically and given more attention — by the media. Then I started to think again about the anger and predictable media chatter that focused on how this is a man problem — of course it is, but is that enough? Is that too simplistic? And then the grizzly truth began to trickle out — a man was indeed predictably arrested. But not just any old man: a serving Met police officer no less. I was not particularly shocked to discover that a policeman has now been charged with Sarah’s murder. A lesser known fact for those hating on men as a whole in this moment is that male police officers are disproportionately more likely to be perpetrators of violence against women (40% compared to 10% of males generally according to some studies in the US for example). Perhaps therefore this should be the focus of the backlash rather than against all men — and this certainly seems to be further vindicated by the brutal police attack on a peaceful women’s vigil in the aftermath of Sarah’s murder. This then got me thinking about race again — and what has already been highlighted by Black Lives Matter and also, in another but related way, the Extinction Rebellion protests this past year. That police disproportionately target people of colour — for arrest and death — and that black and brown people can least afford the luxury of the Extinction Rebellion arrest badge of honour.

Maybe then a positive outcome of this sad event is seeing how enraged white women, first mobilised over social media appear to have become the spearhead of a new vanguard, mobilising their white privilege to both reinvigorate the fight against violence perpetuated by men while also, (and perhaps accidentally), challenging a more fundamental attack on the right to protest. And when, as now, protest is under such an unprecedented threat there is no time to lose. This threat includes the current Crime and Policing Bill that was being rushed through Parliament. It has now become apparent that this Bill appears to have been a deliberate strategy to put temporary Covid legislation on a more permanent footing once the public had been softened up. When combined with the Spy Cops Bill, tacitly supported by Starmer’s order to abstain, the current situation looks like a truly shocking wide ranging assault on people’s hard-fought freedoms. Sisters Uncut took up the mantle, widening participation and increasing the intensity of protests. Starmer moved from meek abstention to voting against the Crime and Policing Bill and, although voted through, its passage has now stalled. Perhaps the reason for such draconian measures is because protest can work and this scares those in power, particularly when police brutality is being articulated by angry white women.