The Socialist 17 March 2021 |
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Violence against women - we will not be silenced
Saturday 13 March. They came in their thousands, defying the undemocratic establishment ban on peaceful vigils. Women and men in towns and cities up and down the country were determined to remember Sarah Everard, brutally murdered while walking home at night in south London. They were there to protest the everyday threat of violence and harassment that so many women face whether walking the streets, in their own homes, at school, on the university campuses or in the workplaces.
Socialist Party members were there with our leaflets and posters calling for an end to violence against women and the right to protest. This included the changes that we think are immediately necessary to reduce the risk of gender violence and to support those women who suffer violence, harassment and abuse. And, most importantly, how we think those demands could be met - through building a mass campaign - linked to a fight for the systemic change that would be necessary to completely eliminate violence against women.
What we think
Defend the right to protest
Protesting in Cardiff, photo SP Wales (Click to enlarge)
The ban on the vigils for Sarah Everard was an attack on the democratic rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. It showed that these rights are not permanent but must be defended at all times.
This was an attempt by the courts and the police to silence us and contain the anger that has been triggered by Sarah's death - but also by the way the pandemic and the lockdowns have shone a light on women's situation in society.
This happened just as the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill is going through parliament. This bill is a severe attack on the right to protest. It will give Home Secretary Priti Patel even more powers to clamp down, creating laws to define 'serious disruption' to communities and organisations, which police can then rely on to impose conditions on protests.
A mass movement needs to be built to both challenge sexism and gender violence and to defend the right to protest. The millions-strong trade unions, the biggest civil organisations in the country and the main bodies of the workers' movement, must mobilise to take a leading stand on this. The statements by Unite, FBU and NEU unions condemning the police actions against the vigil are a welcome step in that direction.
Trade unions, where they are organised, democratic and active in defence of their members, have shown how sexism in the workplace can be fought. This was demonstrated in 2017, when at Woolwich Ferries a predominantly male workforce was willing to strike in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman union member who faced sexual harassment. The action led to the removal of the most senior manager and the workers demanded that management positions should be filled by an election of the workforce.
Covid restrictions are being used to prevent expressions of justifiable anger. Safety during the pandemic is vital and it has been defended most effectively by workers and trade unions. It was bus workers who had to defy threats from the bus company bosses in London and take action for safety. It was members of the NEU education union who mobilised across the country against the rushed and unsafe reopening of schools after Christmas when the virus was rising.
Outdoor, socially distanced protests, well organised and stewarded, with PPE available - like the nurses organised last summer to demand the 15% pay rise they deserve - do not pose a threat to health. What has motivated the court and the police is the threat to the Tories and the capitalist system which they ultimately exist to defend.
Last week, a nurse was arrested and fined £10,000 on an action taken against the government's insulting 1% pay rise. In Leeds last November, bus manufacturing workers faced threats from the police to fine strikers if they continued to picket, citing the new Covid restrictions. They aim to make us pay for the pandemic spending - not their billionaire mates. That means undermining our ability to organise.
There is no party in parliament that defends working-class people's interests, including our right to protest and organise. The Labour Party has been shamed into opposing the policing bill by what happened at the vigil in Clapham. But Labour Party leader Keir Starmer's disgracefully failed to oppose Johnson's bill which protects current and future police 'spycops' from prosecution if they commit crimes while undercover spying on trade unionists and protesters.
Like the Tories, New Labour represent the interests of big business. Working-class people need to build our own party to defend our interests. This is why the Socialist Party is standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in the 6 May elections, as a step towards that.
The right to protest is not a given in a society based on the exploitation of the majority by a tiny minority. Defending it is part of the struggle for a socialist society.
What we think
Stop police brutality - justice for victims of gender violence
There was understandable outrage at the appalling scenes of Metropolitan Police brutality against women peacefully taking part in the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common. Those present were already furious that the Met had refused to allow a socially distanced vigil to go ahead. That women protesting gender violence could then be physically grabbed, dragged, pinned to the floor and arrested by the police almost beggars belief. That a serving member of the Met, 'one of their own', had been arrested and charged with Sarah's murder only enraged people more.
Almost as sickening is the hypocritical response of establishment politicians. Home Secretary Priti Patel was apparently "upset" by the footage. The same Priti Patel who called Black Lives Matter protests "dreadful" and is planning yet further draconian curbs on the right to protest through the police, crime, courts and sentencing bill (see opposite).
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has called for Met chief Cressida Dick's resignation. This is the leader of the same party that in coalition with the Tories was complicit in taking the axe to public services, decimating refuge and other support for women suffering from violence and abuse.
Sadiq Khan, Labour mayor of London, is "urgently seeking an explanation"; the same Sadiq Khan who is going along with Tory cuts to Transport for London that could seriously put at risk the safety of women travelling in the capital. And it's Khan who the Met reports to! Why didn't he speak out in support of the peaceful vigil going ahead in the first place?
What happened at the bandstand on Clapham Common will only further undermine the lack of confidence that women victims of violence already have in the police and the criminal justice system as a whole, which are seriously failing them.
Less than 20% of women who are raped report what happened to the police. Not surprising when only 1.5% of reported rapes end in conviction.
We remember the two sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, stabbed to death in Wembley, London, and the nauseating action of police officers taking selfies next to their dead bodies. Their mother said she had to initially organise a search herself for her daughters because of the Met's poor response. And Amy-Leanne Stringfellow, whose throat was slit by her partner with a sword in June last year - one of 110 victims of abuse killed since lockdown began. Her killer had been let out on police bail after assaulting her a month previously.
"Who do you serve?" "Who do you protect?" were two of the chants at the vigil attacked by the police. This is the same question that was asked after the deaths of Mohamud Mohammed and Moyied Bashir in Wales, and after the arrest of a protester in Manchester demonstrating for a decent pay rise for NHS workers.
Establishment politicians of all stripes hide behind talk about the 'operational independence' of the police. But police chiefs have themselves spoken about the 'political pressure' they face in policing protests. Investigations into police violence, racism, sexism and anti-worker attacks; decisions about operational priorities; these cannot be left to the police themselves or to capitalist politicians.
All of these state institutions both reflect and defend the capitalist profit system which is based on inequalities of power, wealth, gender and race. We need democratic community and trade union oversight of the police, as well as the criminal justice system. But we also need to fight for an alternative socialist system in which power and control are taken out of the hands of the minority who currently wield it, and in which the economy and society are democratically controlled and organised by the majority.
The Socialist Party leaflet given out on the vigils:
End violence against women
Capitalism = sexism, inequality and abuse
Grief, shock and an outpouring of anger have been unleashed by the appalling abduction and murder of Sarah Everard.
Her killing has shone a spotlight on the extent of violence, abuse and harassment that so many women face on a regular basis.
In the same week that Sarah was murdered, it was reported that a staggering 97% of young women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment.
Women fear for their personal safety outside the home; and inside it are at even greater risk from violence and abuse.
One in four women will experience intimate partner abuse at some time in their lives and two women a week are killed by violent partners or ex-partners.
Such levels of harassment, violence and abuse are systemic. They are the consequence of a fundamentally unequal capitalist system which perpetuates sexism and abuse.
The solution is not to tell women that they should change their behaviour! We should be able to go where we want, when we want, to dress the way we please and to live our lives without fear of violence and harassment.
That means organising for structural change that tackles the problems at their very root.
And we should be able to protest safely without the fear of being arrested or landed with a massive fine!
We have to fight to raise awareness and challenge sexist and misogynist attitudes and behaviour. We need to fight for better street lighting; for a fully funded, safe and affordable public transport system; for more spending on support services for victims of abuse and rape; for a change in the criminal justice system that currently means only 1% of reported rapes end in conviction; for democratic community control of the police.
But we need to go further. We live in a system where a small minority owns the wealth; where exploiting women in low-paid, precarious jobs generates enormous profits - and the unpaid work that women do in the home saves capitalism billions of pounds every year.
Private companies which dominate and control the media, beauty, fashion, leisure and other industries reflect and promote sexist ideas about how women should look and behave and turn our bodies into commodities to make a profit.
To eliminate gender violence and abuse we need fundamental system change that takes economic and political control out of the hands of the minority that profit from gender and class inequality.
That means a united struggle of all those who face discrimination, inequality and exploitation, in the workplace and in wider society. This is what the Socialist Party is fighting for. Join us!
Let's organise a mass movement to challenge sexism and violence against women!
Vigils for Sarah Everard
Clapham common: We will not be silenced
Socialist Party members went down to the protest in Clapham to demand the ending of violence against women.
We should be safe in our own homes, at school or work, on transport, going for a run or walking down the street. Free from sexual assault or harassment. These protests are an important part of that struggle and amazing to be part of.
Social distancing isn't properly implemented inside many workplaces, trade unions have had to fight to protect members at work. The police haven't arrested these bosses.
But when women and men protest for safety the police wrestle them to the ground and arrest them. It's the hypocrisy of a capitalist system which defends profit over everything else.
I went to the Clapham Common protest/vigil because I was outraged. The abuse of power and the gender politics enabling that behaviour.
It really hit a nerve as a woman knowing that it was not an isolated incident. Sexual harassment and assault is an inevitability in our lives. Despite the great strides for liberation that we have fought for, in a capitalist society our entire beings will always be commodified and some men will have a sense of entitlement to our bodies. That is terrifying and heartbreaking.
The vigil was a perfect mix of solemn respect and rightful outrage. It was an incredibly powerful environment, chants and banners, candles and bowed heads.
The strong police presence was insulting but totally unsurprising. The flowers on the floor outnumbered them anyway.
North London: Solidarity with bold organisers
I joined the Priory Park vigil in north London to demonstrate solidarity with the organisers who boldly continued with the vigil despite police calls to shut it down. By going I was protesting for all those who have not only endured abuse, harassment and violence but then been silenced by institutions that claim to protect us, such as the police.
West Dunbartonshire: Enough is enough
I organised the Reclaim the Night demo in my home town to give women an opportunity to get their voices and anger heard after the horrific murder of Sarah Everard.
Already an impoverished town due to Scottish National Party imposed austerity, the pandemic has made life for working-class women so much harder.
Domestic violence increased by 140% from April to August last year. The council introduced its 'No home for domestic abuse' scheme but our social work department was closed and moved to a town eight miles away.
The inherently sexist Universal Credit, which gives money for a couple to one person, is trapping women in violent and coercive relationships. This is while women are less likely to be able to access the furlough scheme, are in low-paid, frontline jobs, caring for elderly and sick relatives, homeschooling, and looking after the home.
Enough is enough. It's time the rotten, capitalist system with sexism baked into its DNA was removed. I wanted to offer the women who attended the demo a glimpse at a socialist alternative. That proper investment in well-paid jobs, funding for women's services, a nationalised public transport service which is safe and affordable and democratic control of the police are possible; to encourage them to get organised and fight for those measures.
The women who came out were heroic in defying the ban as we were the only ones to go ahead in Scotland. They all took our leaflets and are keen to be included in future events.
Birmingham: Searching for political answers
Over 100 people gathered right at the heart of Birmingham in Victoria Square, outside the council offices.
This was in spite of draconian laws recently introduced by stealth by the Tories to curtail the fundamental right to protest, and demands from West Midlands Police who pressured organisers to cancel the original event.
Although the original organisers did not attend, many women and people of all genders from different communities across the city grouped in the city centre. While the event began as a vigil, it was clear that attendees were looking for political answers to the deep-rooted structural issues faced by women.
Women members of the Socialist Party took the lead in delivering speeches to the crowd, raising the need for fully funded services and a socialist future to protect women and create real equality for everyone. We encouraged other protesters to come up and speak about their own experiences.
There was great interest in the political points being made, with many taking leaflets, papers and leaving their details with members to continue to discuss how to continue to take political action despite attacks from the Tories and capitalist establishment.
Ella Foley Doyle
Swansea (Click to enlarge)
Cardiff: Angry mood
About 150 women and men turned up to the vigil on the steps of the Senedd in Cardiff despite the ban on the events and having to walk through a gauntlet of police.
There was a somber but angry mood and many young women got up to speak about their own experiences of violence and the lack of support from those who should have helped them report the crimes.
Socialist Party member Mia Hollsing spoke about the extent of domestic violence and the need to unite the working class to act. She highlighted the failure of politicians in tackling discrimination and violence and the real impact cuts in public services were having on women's lives. She got a supportive response when she stated that this was the reason she had decided to stand as a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate in the Senedd elections.
The protesters saw the clear link between sexism, the lack of support in dealing with violent crimes against women and the racism experienced by the black community in the city. There was wholehearted support for justice for the family of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan who died after being held in police custody.
There was support for our demands that the trade union movement stands up for the right to protest and unites its six million members to root out discrimination and abuse in all workplaces, schools and colleges.
The determination to stand up and build a movement to tackle the way we are treated in society has hardened, and further protests are being organised.
Bristol: Sense of outrage
500-plus gathered on College Green in Bristol city centre. The crowd was generally peaceful, men and women, many holding candles and clapping; a few held up placards.
There was a police presence walking around the crowd in twos every few minutes and at the end of the vigil two police on horseback walked in to clear people away.
There was an underlying sense that people had come out, not just for Sarah. They were outraged at what had happened, and wanted change and to show their solidarity.
It was possibly the first time many had been out in a crowd since the pandemic and shows that the public do want to meet with others and stand up for what they believe in.
Paper sales and interest in the party should increase as we come out of lockdown, if this event was anything to go by.
Leeds: We need action
In Leeds, a crowd of over 100 people gathered outside Parkinson Steps at the University of Leeds, despite Reclaim the Night organisers moving the official vigil online. Leeds Socialist Party member and Women's Lives Matter campaigner Amy Cousens spoke at the online event.
It was mostly young women who gathered at the physical event, laying flowers and messages for Sarah on the steps. While there was a noticeable police presence, the mood of the crowd was quiet and emotional with people visibly upset and comforting each other. Although moving, the silence at this vigil hammered home that there is nothing left to be said. We need action.
Nottingham: Looking for a way forward
150 overwhelmingly young women and men gathered in Nottingham city centre.
One of the organisers of the event, from Women for Change, explained that it had been called as a vigil for Sarah and also to remember less well-known women, such as Blessing Olusegun, whose family were still fighting for justice. A minute's silence was held at 6pm.
People laid flowers and lit candles on the steps of the Clough statue, as did one police officer - in contrast to what happened in Clapham. The event was sombre and respectful. Attendees eagerly took our leaflets, looking for a way forward.
London: Police also attack peaceful Tamil protest
On 14 March, over 100 Tamils took part in a peaceful protest outside the house of activist Ambihai Selvakumar in London. She has been on a hunger strike for 16 days, demanding action against the Sri Lankan government.
The protest was complying with Covid-19 regulation, socially distanced, with PPE, etc. But the Metropolitan Police moved quickly, and used repressive and intimidatory tactics to disperse and arrest peaceful protesters.
There is shocking footage of a young person being dragged and pinned to the floor, and later carried to a police van. The person arrested has been released, but had to go to hospital later due to his injuries.
The right to protest is a fundamental democratic right. We must defend the right to protest and oppose the Tories' new anti-protest bill.
Socialist Party members in Hackney, London (Click to enlarge)
It made me angry
I went for a run and thought: "Would my friends and family recognise my clothes if they needed to? Am I being captured on CCTV? Is there someone lurking in the dark spots, between houses or behind a car etc?" And it made me really angry.
Happy 'buy cards and flowers for your mum, but we will arrest you if you protest for women's safety' day!
Helen Pattison, Ealing, west London
Where are we safe?
Women are not safe on the streets. Major hike in domestic violence - we are not safe in our homes.
A policeman killed Sarah Everard - we cannot trust our systems of protection. Men who have killed their wives in lockdown are having their sentences reduced to manslaughter - women are not protected in the courts. How long can we go in silence with no action being taken?
Amy Cousens, Bradford
Tory 'immediate steps' won't make women safer
The idea of plain clothes police in clubs sends shivers down my spine, especially after the spycops bill. Trained, approachable and accountable representatives in venues, that women can approach if needed, and who will actively intervene in an appropriate way, if needed, is what we want instead.
Bea Gardner, Waltham Abbey, Essex
The £25 million the government has coughed up straight away isn't nearly enough. But once again it shows it was always possible to find money.
The Tories are putting that money into street lighting, which does have a chance of reducing attacks, but also into CCTV.
CCTV isn't about prevention. All it should in theory do is make prosecution easier.
But plenty of stories have come up online of women reporting attacks and telling police where to find likely CCTV evidence, only to be ignored and have nothing done.
Adam Harmsworth, Coventry
Standing shoulder to shoulder
I remember the times I have been abused, patronised, sexually harassed, gaslighted, threatened, ignored, had my ideas stolen, put down, etc, by men.
But I also remember, since my teenage years in the 1960s, standing shoulder to shoulder with men, on strike, on picket lines, on protests and demonstrations, against pit closures and redundancies, bailiff busting against the poll tax, in elections, against the cuts, saving the Glenfield Children's Heart Unit, and standing up to racists and fascists whenever they come out onto the streets.
We have worked with men to struggle for a better life in my union, National Union of Teachers (NUT), now National Education Union (NEU) and my party, the Socialist Party.
On Mother's Day, I was also thinking of my mother and comrade, Daisy Rawling, who was sexually harassed at work during World War Two and raped by a soldier, which meant enduring an illegal abortion. Nearly 60 years of protests have gone by since then, and still 97% of young women report that they have been sexually harassed.
So what can be done? To find the solution, we must understand the cause of misogyny, sexism and violence against women.
Capitalism doubly oppresses women in the home and at work. It requires women to be the homemakers and carers and raise the next generation of workers. Then women have less bargaining power in the workplace because of family responsibilities.
Our culture encourages men to have a sense of entitlement and to dominate women - the slave of slaves as Karl Marx put it. Fortunately, many men consciously stand up against this culture.
The answer is to fight like hell to improve the lives of women now, and also build support for the struggle to end capitalism. The Socialist Party's new programme for women explains how that can be done - linking up with the organised working class.
Heather Rawling, Leicester
They cut services that kept us safe
I remember when London tubes had a carriage in them with a dedicated guard. If you were on your own, or if the carriages were empty and scary, you got in that one.
They got rid of this service that kept us safe. It was 'too expensive'.
The street lights have been turned off and turned down everywhere. Last year my street lights plunged us into darkness.
We had to threaten not paying the housing association our service charge. Nurses coming home late felt scared getting out of their cars.
It took them six months to fix it. All the time they took our service charge.
Women have less financial security due to cuts. Yes, men have to change, but then so do some female politicians who think its ok to cut the services that make us safe.
I think Met police chief Cressida Dick should go after the police treatment of the 13 March vigil. It illustrates the bankruptcy of the call to just get as many women at the top, and all our problems will be solved. We need system change and that system needs to be socialist.
Nancy Taaffe, Waltham Forest, east London
Barriers for working-class women
Running is something many working-class women face huge barriers to do. I train along a tow path, mainly in the dark.
At no point have I felt unsafe or been harassed. That would be different if I was a woman.
If I was a working woman with children, and with the societal expectation to provide most of the childcare and housework, I can only imagine it being nearly impossible to find the time to train.
We need a world free from sexism and oppression. We need free childcare for all and a 30-hour working week without loss of pay. That way everyone can enjoy leisure safely.
We need a world where people are free to hold vigils and protest. London Labour Party mayor Sadiq Khan and deputy Sophie Linden are responsible for policing. He could have instructed the police not to interfere.
Josh Asker, Waltham Abbey, Essex
They don't want to be held to account
Yet more proof the police are out of control. No force - which claims to exist in order to guarantee the safety of ordinary people - should be so unaccountable to ordinary people as to get away with attacking a vigil for a woman murdered by one of their colleagues, or be complicit in the deaths of two black men in south Wales in as many months.
Capitalism wants to keep the police unaccountable to us, so that they can be used against our protests and strikes.
Ross Saunders, Cardiff
Cramped classroom v socially distanced protest
So just to be clear - I am allowed to spend five hours a day crammed in a room with teenagers, but I'm not allowed to attend a socially distanced outside vigil to show solidarity with women suffering from gender violence? This has nothing to do with 'safety' and everything to do with crushing our right to protest.
The Police Federation says it doesn't understand the criticism from politicians, when the Met was only doing what politicians asked them. Politicians are slippery opportunists, especially when it all goes wrong.
No doubt the idea was to try to scare protesters into staying at home. The news has been struggling to rewrite the story that the vigil was the problem, not the Met's reaction. You can ban protest but you can't stop it!
Clare Wilkins, Nottingham
Union wins victory
There has been a legal win in the battle for women-only refuges for homeless women, backed by Unite housing workers' branch. The issue of women survivors being sent to mixed accommodation by Camden council arose because the Labour council passed on cuts.
We call on local councils not to make cuts to services, to stop carrying out government austerity policies, and to prioritise people's needs.
Paul Kershaw, chair, Unite housing workers
What should the unions do?
Sexism in schools
Teacher and Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies is standing to be the National Education Union's (NEU) deputy general secretary. He said:
A 2017 NEU survey confirmed the sexism and sexual harassment that young women and girls encounter daily in schools. Almost a quarter (24%) of female students at mixed-sex schools reported that they had been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school. Yet only 14% of students who had experienced sexual harassment said they had reported it to a teacher.
The NEU has called for consistent and ongoing action from schools and government to challenge sexism in schools. Schools, where women make up most of the workforce, face further cuts and job losses, particularly support staff.
Given the ongoing risk of rising community infections, it has been understandable that some people have questioned whether public protests should take place. But the risks of infection are considerably less in outdoor environments than the indoor ones like schools and workplaces that the government insists are 'safe' to attend.
Last year, Unite the Union successfully challenged another attempt by the police to use the Coronavirus Act to prevent legitimate protest - in this case the right to picket outside your workplace during strike action.
Unions have been at the heart of many gains won by women against sexism and oppression. They must now come together to support those protesting against sexual harassment and gender violence.
No more half-hearted appeals
Bea Gardner, postgraduate research rep, Southampton UCU (personal capacity)
I am glad that the trade unions have put together a statement, but I want to know how they will actively organise and fight for the demands they place on government. Women make up the majority in the trade union movement and we are angry.
How will our leaders give voice to that anger? Will they step up and defend the right to protest, to organise and to be able to express our anger? Trade union members are getting arrested and face fines for organising campaigns that the trade union movement should be doing.
How are the trade union leaders organising and mobilising to stop cuts in services, including specialist support services for those experiencing and fleeing violence? What about restoring the quarter of women's refuges that have closed since 2010? Will the union leaders continue to back the same politicians who have carried out these attacks?
No more solidarity messages in words only, or half-hearted appeals to the government, but a strategy that gives confidence that we can fight and win, and we don't have to keep putting up with all this crap.
Right to protest is fundamental
Hugo Pierre, Unison national executive council (personal capacity)
The right to protest is fundamental. It has led to so many gains for working-class people. Solidarity with all those who have protested against violence against women.
The Tories have used the courts and the police to clamp down on protest during the pandemic. The police fined a nurse for protesting against the pittance NHS pay rise, and now arrest protestors on a vigil.
The trade unions must not be silenced during the pandemic and must continue to organise protest, socially distanced and safe, and demand that this is allowed under the regulations.
Tories flout safety, not unions
Katrine Williams, vice-president DWP group in civil service union PCS (personal capacity)
The trade union movement has a key role to play in mobilising a mass united response to root out discrimination and harassment in every workplace. While dressing up the ban on protests as being about safety, the government has let employers flout safety regulations and put workers at risk, including in their own departments - as shown by the total disregard for the safety of the PCS members in DVLA. There over 2,000 workers are being forced into the workplaces - a significant proportion have contracted Covid-19 from unsafe, badly ventilated workplaces. But they have delivered a strong 'yes' vote for strike action in a ballot over safety.
Online Socialist Party meeting End violence against women - a socialist approach
- Register for Zoom details via Socialist Party Facebook page
- Friday 19 March, 6-7:30pm
A Fighting Programme for Women's Rights and Socialism
- New Socialist Party publication available now
- Email: [email protected]
Book: "It doesn't have to be like this" - £5.99
By Christine Thomas
- Women and the struggle for socialism, available at Left Books