'The Police's Response To Sarah Everard Vigils Show Little Has Changed Since Yorkshire Ripper Era'
| Last updated
Featured Image Credit: PA Images
When Sarah Everard was first reported missing, seemingly vanishing without a trace as she walked home from a friend's house in Clapham, women in the area were reportedly urged to avoid going out late at night.
The misogyny that surrounded the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper's killing spree is well-documented. Sutcliffe initially targeted sex workers, who were seen to be "disposable" by police, survivors accounts were poorly handled, and women were blamed for any attacks for drinking or going out too late.
While many consider attitudes towards women to have changed since them, there was still a nasty undercurrent of sexism in the Sarah Everard case. Urging women to stay indoors is all very fine and well, but it fails to account for the women who have to work late, with walking home being their only option.
Anonymous online commentators and ugly internet trolls also blamed Sarah for her tragic fate, asking online why she didn't get a taxi or why she was even out at all.
It's something that's left Al Garthwaite angry. Having lived in Leeds most of her life, she remembers the police's botched response in the Yorkshire Ripper case, and how she fought to help women's voices be heard.
Al remembers helping to organise England's first ever Reclaim the Night march in 1977. Having been an active feminist for six years, dedicating her time to making the world a fairer place for women, she was determined to make sure women's voices were heard.
Gathering in Hyde Park in Leeds and marching towards the city centre carrying banners, leaflets and torches, Al was one of around 80 women looking to make a stand against violence against women, who were all suffering at the hands of the Yorkshire Ripper.
"Us women marched together shouting: 'However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes, no means no,'" Al, now 73, tells Tyla. "The general reaction to us was incomprehension, because we were providing an entirely different way of thinking."
Nearly 50 years on, Al - who works as a Labour councillor for Headingley and Hyde Park in Leeds - has mixed emotions about similar street marches nowadays. While she's happy she, alongside thousands of other women, are still fighting the good fight, she's also overwhelmingly sad that protests for equality are still necessary.
"There's still an underlying current of sexism in society," she says. "There's a lot of men that are very defensive about it.
"The 70s were notorious for its appalling attitude for women, particularly by the police. We didn't expect the police would be any sort of protection, and women who reported rape at that time were treated so badly, it was appalling.
"Reports of domestic abuse were dismissed as well. There was this attitude that it's between a man and his wife, and you don't get involved and all this sort of rubbish. What have women done to deserve that sort of awful attitude? I wish I could say that all these attitudes have completely gone away. I'm well aware they haven't."
Women have been spurred on to take to the streets and protest once more in the aftermath of Sarah Everard's murder. She was found dead in woodlands in Kent earlier this month.
Al is both tired and infuriated at how women in the area were reportedly urged to stay indoors for "safety".
"It's disgraceful," Al said. "Why impose a curfew on women where when women are not the ones who are being harassed, sexually assaulted, raped and killed? It doesn't make any sense at all. It also doesn't account for the women who need to leave the house for work.
"I agree with Baroness Jenny Jones who said it should be a curfew on men after 6pm at night. Why should women be the ones punished when we've not done anything wrong?"
The anger and grief over Sarah's death culminated in a vigil for her last weekend, which soon descended into chaos over the presence of the Metropolitan Police.
Al described the scenes from Clapham Common, as "ridiculous" - with women 'thrown to the floor' and arrested by the Met Police for breaking lockdown regulations.
"It was very bad policing," she said. "But police brutality has been a problem for decades. When it happens to young, middle-class white women, it is very sad. But it's something that's been happening to Black people for many decades. Look at the Black Lives Matter protests last year.
"I worry about the new Policing Bill that was voted in by parliament this week. It gives police or the government the leeway to potentially stop peaceful protests. And I think in a society that is democratic, that that is wrong.
"I don't support far right protests on the streets, but I think the best way to deal with them is with big counter protests which are peaceful and show those sorts of beliefs are not acceptable. That is democracy."
Al understands the outpouring of anger women are feeling, having spoken to the many young students that live in her area. While she sighs at the repeated #notallmen she has seen on Twitter, Al stresses that now more than ever it is important for men to be allies.
"Some of the young women I talk to say that they haven't had anything really bad, just everyday hassle. Well, everyday hassle is not acceptable," she says.
"If you ever try to argue with some men about the matter, they immediately say 'not all men.' No-one is saying it is all men. But when you're walking down a poorly lit street with a man right behind you, you just don't know.
"Men can be our allies in causing real change. We need men challenging other men about their attitude.
"Education is vital in this. While sex education is taught in schools, more can be done to educate men in the workplace - particularly all male workplaces, about respecting women."
Despite having spent most of her life campaigning and fighting for women's equality, Al is optimistic that things are improving.
"Back in Leeds in the 70's there were no rape crisis centres, there were no Women's Aid refuges for women experiencing domestic abuse," Al says. "We had to set up these structures ourselves, using our living rooms to help women in need.
"Even though it's absolutely appalling that it's taken Sarah's death to prompt discussion, I am optimistic that these conversations will start to bring about real change."
Some measures announced by Home Secretary Priti Patel include pouring in an additional £45 million for funding local areas, putting more streetlights in poorly lit places and putting plainclothes police officers into bars to stop harassment.
While reaction to these measures have been mixed, Al welcomes the changes.
"The way the government has announced these measures are crass, but I think they're all sensible ideas," she says. "I think it's a bit it's a bit stereotypical thinking to hear the words, 'plainclothes police officer' and immediately think they'll be men.
"There are a great many women in today's modern police force, and some of them are very keen to see an end to harassment against women and want to fight it."
Al adds she will never give up in the battle to make the world a safer place for women even when she does struggle to hear some of the news.
"It's easy to get overwhelmed, but don't let it," she says. "If we let it overwhelm us, they've won.
"I haven't stopped. I will never give up."