There was simply no way I was not going to go to the vigil for Sarah Everard. I needed to join with, to stand with, other women, in a public space, and spend a few minutes being quiet and sad. The abduction and murder of Sarah has rocked my neighbourhood , not least because it happened right here, on the same streets we live and walk. We have been passing the MISSING posters for a week, forwarding the same whatsapp messages, holding our collective breath and hoping against reason for a happy conclusion. Which did not come.
The peaceful, outdoor gathering was marred by the aggressive actions of authority and the resulting anger exposed itself immediately for what it was. A complete misunderstanding that for women there are scarier things than gathering in public. The anger of those on the other side, those who felt that strong police action was not just justified, but necessary, manifested itself in language that was all too familiar, lots of phrases starting with ‘should’, followed by either ‘have’s or ‘not have’s. We can all fill in those blanks…worn that skirt, been out at night, walked that way, stood together on the Common. To put it more directly, the message was: you should have stayed at home. And I think it is exactly that which rankled the women here in SW London the most. After a year of obedience, we had reached our limit. We wanted, just for a few moments, to acknowledge what had happened in our midst, to be together, in our strange, masked, distanced sort of way, to lay beautiful flowers where something of unimaginable ugliness took place. To recognize that what happened to Sarah Everard is an extreme example of the experience of violence women live with everywhere, every day. Which is precisely why the photos of the arrested girls, with their little bodies and big eyes, embodiments of the protested violence, are so horrific.
“What is to be done?” we cry out. As touching, and necessary as they are, vigils in themselves accomplish very little. My mother reminds me of how many vigils have taken place after shooting sprees in the US, and not a single thing has changed. Violence, of all kinds, seems embedded in our DNA.
I spent a few hours last week in an on-line discussion group looking at paintings, stunning 15th and 16th century masterpieces, of the Easter story. Perhaps for the first time I realized how truly, shockingly violent these images are. Of course, much of the Easter story is violent, but not all of it, and spiritually and theologically the violence is not point of Easter. Yet, it is what grabs most of our attention, and, for that reason, numbs us to it. I have always been a fan of the police procedural, this past year has been one long gulp of international crime drama, France, Belgium, Senegal, Iceland, Sweden, Brighton. I can’t get enough, and yet the often-shocking violence portrayed is almost always against women. And like the exquisitely rendered crucifixions that fill museums, the repetition of these storylines dulls our reaction. Until we are yanked out of our complacency by the reality of violence on our own doorstep. What happened to Sarah was a shocking crime, but one that is relatively unusual. And the ugly truth is that any truly preventative measures will only come with a complete overhaul of ourselves as a species and our fascination with violence. Is such a thing even possible? Certainly, Sarah’s death was caused by the actions of one, one assumes deranged, man. Yet, we as the group that makes up society, is not free from blame. We have created this world in which terrible, terrible things happen. Can it be fixed?
That is indeed the question. The suggestions put forward by the government are well meaning, more lights on the streets would be great, but ultimately ineffective, and certainly would have done nothing for Sarah. Perhaps the only seriously sensible suggested I’ve heard so far was put forth, on Instagram, by the kickboxer and gym owner (and abuse survivor), Natasha Mina @thisgirlcanfight. She asked that the government get serious about tackling pornography, in particular child and violent pornography, on the internet. The government has proven how good they are at monitoring behaviour, so a serious effort at eradicating the proliferation of these images, and the crimes that allow the images to be made in the first place, would be a good use of resources. And my guess, would be more effective in the long run than a few more lightbulbs. It won’t bring Sarah back, it probably won’t even stop the next assault from happening, but it is a tangible, substantial first step to making this world a little less shit.
I’ve returned several times to the Clapham Common bandstand, the centrepoint of the vigil. Huge expensively wrapped bouquets among handtied stems. But what really struck are the many small pots of bulbs, just beginning to open. Life amidst so much death. And I realized that was exactly what all these people standing separately, silently, together meant to me: life, sad, mournful, sorrowful life, but life nonetheless. And in that life, hope.
The poet Salena Godden has “Hope is a group project” on her Instagram account, @salena.godden. Maybe that is the real reason we all came together on the Common, and continue to do so, because we need the group. The group to mourn, the group to hope, the group to lobby for change, the group to make something positive from all this grief. I think of the words of John Dunne, written way back in 1624, reminding us ‘No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’ Life, for better or worse, is a group project. Let’s go for better.