Hundreds attended Millennium Square vigil for Sarah Everard, which condemned police and new government Bill
One speaker said: “They make the cuts and it’s us who bleed”
Hundreds of residents and students of Leeds gathered yesterday at 5pm in Millenium Square to hold a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard, the 33 year old killed by Met Police officer Wayne Couzens earlier this month. Police presence at the event was minimal.
Organised by Sister’s Uncut Leeds, the vigil reflected on Sarah’s death and also shined light upon other women targeted and killed by police in addition to criticising the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that threatens to restrict protests and increase police presence on the streets.
As stated on their Facebook page, Sister’s Uncut Leeds is the Leeds branch of a “feminist direct action group taking action to defend domestic violence services” open to “all of those who experience oppression as women.” They advertised the event through Facebook, asking for attendees to “follow social distancing measures” and to “bring placards, flowers and candles” to stand in solidarity with Sarah’s death.
The vigil began at around 5:15pm with speakers from Sister’s Uncut themselves giving heartfelt speeches concerning violence against women and the role of the police with regards to this issue. The atmosphere was sombre; reflecting how protesters gathered at this very square last year in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and awful reality of police brutality in the US and UK.
Whilst a different social cause, the speakers mirrored criticism of the police with statistics such as “194 women have been killed by the police in England and Wales since the 1970s” and there being “3082 police officers under investigation in 2015” read out by organisers. It was heavily emphasised that “criminalisation and the police do not keep us safe” responding to the government’s pledge to put “20,000 police officers on the street” as a result of Sarah’s death. Speakers suggested hypocrisy in this, as Sarah herself was killed by a Met police officer.
Sister’s Uncut weren’t the only speakers at the vigil. Speakers from non-binary groups, Reclaim the Night, poets, sex workers and Leeds University Marxist society spoke about violence against women and the controversial Bill that seeks to restrict basic protest rights.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the police additional powers to stop protests on the grounds of noise and to set start and finish times to those protesting. Speakers at the event reacted in outrage at the bill, asserting that it’s their “democratic right to hold the government accountable” and that they “strongly oppose the bill.”
This comes after the mishandling of attendees by police at the vigil in Clapham Common on the 13th March, setting an example of how increased police presence arguably fails to protect women. Alternatives to the proposed increased police powers like increased funding to domestic violence centres and protecting sex workers were raised as better ways of protecting vulnerable women by speakers.
The vigil concluded with all in attendance performing a die in, in which they were asked to lie down on the ground to symbolise the deaths of the 194 women killed by police. The names of these women were read out by speakers and on the steps of Civic Hall, green and purple smoke grenades were released – the colours of Sister’s Uncut.
As the protest ended, more candles were lit and people gathered round the steps to pay their respects at the vigil. Messages on plaques and posters read “killed by the system meant to protect as” and “abuse of power comes at no surprise” reflecting the substance of testimonies given by speakers.
Alex, and third year English student and the University of Leeds who attended the event, told The Leeds Tab: “I feel betrayed by the government and the police. Sarah could’ve been any of us, and she did exactly what we’re told to do to keep ourselves safe, but she still didn’t get home. I think it’s so important to come out and pay respects and try to fight against the systemic problems that create issues like sexual harassment, assault, and the murder of women.”
Sarah, a Geography student, said: “Just because Sarah’s murder didn’t happen in Leeds doesn’t mean it couldn’t. Sexual assault is such a huge problem for female and non-binary Leeds students walking around at night, as we saw last term with everything that happened with Headingley Stadium alleyway. It’s a tragedy that it has come to this, but we have to keep trying to educate people is the streets we’re entitled to walk can be safer one day.”
One speaker roused a deafening applause by saying: ‘They make the cuts and it’s us who bleed”.