The challenge to the London Metropolitan Police’s ban on a vigil in the memory of Sarah Everard, who was abducted and murdered last week, was rejected in the high court on Friday 12 March. The vigil, taking place in Clapham in south London, was one of the tens of protests planned across the country in an outpouring of grief, anger and solidarity at the rape and murder of a woman.
Last Friday evening, a high court judge refused an application by Reclaim These Streets to make “an interim declaration” that any ban on outdoor gatherings under coronavirus regulations was “subject to the right to protest”. This has revealed the reality of the situation – that this ban is a choice, a political choice. It must be fought.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council had previously told all police forces that they couldn’t allow the 32 or more planned vigils to go ahead. The Guardian newspaper on Friday reported that one force, however, decided that it will allow vigils as long as they are socially distanced and people wear masks, saying that the outdoor events would pose little risk of spreading infection.
But now there is 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.
Effects of pandemic and austerity
The pre-existing gender inequality in society has meant that women, particularly working-class women, have been especially hit by the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. Our jobs, pay, hours and working conditions have all come under attack.
The austerity decade has exacerbated the undermining of our safety – cuts to street lighting, cuts to bus routes, sacking the guards on the trains, as well as the cuts to all the services we need.
The criminal underfunding and under-resourcing of support for victims of rape and domestic violence, incidences of which have increased, has been exposed. The effects of the decade of austerity, in particular, have been laid bare.
There is massive anger on the issue of women’s safety. In the last week, it has been reported that 97% of young women have experienced sexual harassment. That a police officer has now been charged with killing Sarah Everard will add to the anger. The police have been shown over and over again to be an institution that is not capable of defending women.
Negligence and prejudice by police and judges deny women justice and have condemned them to further abuse. For example, in 2013, officers in the specialist sexual offences unit in Southwark, south London, had been encouraging women to retract their allegations of rape so that no crime was recorded. Consequently, the proportion of recorded crimes proceeding to prosecution was artificially inflated.
Challenging the sexist ideas behind these reports that are prevalent within the police includes fighting for democratic oversight of the police by local communities and the trade unions.
An important part of fighting sexism is building a mass movement to challenge it. The Socialist Party calls for mass campaigning, including by the millions-strong trade unions, the biggest civil organisations in the country and the main bodies of the workers’ movement, which must take a lead on standing up to sexism – and on defending the right to protest.
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 workplace was willing to strike in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman union member who faced sexual harassment. The Unite branch built a campaign that posed the question of ‘who controls the workplace?’ 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.
Trade unions and working-class organisation have been key to the gains won by women against the sexism and oppression inherent in capitalism, which is based on class exploitation and oppression. The miners’ union played a significant role in supporting women’s struggle for access to birth control in the 1920s. It was women trade unionists in Ford Dagenham in 1968 who led the way to the Equal Pay Act – although that is yet to be fulfilled. And more recently it was a trade union-organised strike action by low-paid council workers in Glasgow that won half a billion pounds in unpaid wages for the mainly women workforce.
The trade unions must be mobilised now both to fight sexism and for an end to violence against women and to defend the right to protest.
Defend right to protest
This ban on the vigil is an attack on the democratic rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The ban shows that these rights are not permanent but must be defended at all times.
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.
But outdoor, socially distanced protests, well organised and stewarded, with PPE available – like the 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.
On March 7 a nurse was arrested in Manchester and fined £10,000 while on a protest action against the government’s insulting 1% pay rise. Shamefully Greater Manchester’s Labour Mayor issued a statement supporting the fine, saying “under current legislation protests and demonstrations are not permitted, whether we agree with the protest or not, and it is the responsibility of the police to uphold the law”.
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. But then the government conceded that the right to picket should remain, on the eve of the Unite trade union taking the health secretary and North Yorkshire police to court.
Socialist Party’s warnings
The Socialist Party has warned that the Tories would use the coronavirus laws to undermine the democratic rights of workers and young people to organise. They aim to make us pay for the pandemic spending – not their billionaire mates. That means undermining our ability to organise. It should not be forgotten that the first thing Johnson did after the 2019 election was to attack trade union rights.
Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, the Labour Party does not fight for our democratic rights. He has proved this by his disgraceful failure to oppose Johnson’s bill which protects current and future police ‘spy cops’ from prosecution if they commit crimes while undercover spying on trade unionists and protesters.
Labour MP Jess Phillips has been outspoken about violence against women. However, Phillips is a pro-capitalist politician whose opposition to inequality will never embrace the socialist policies that are really required to tackle it.
The Guardian newspaper recently reported that “among other things, the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill will give Priti Patel powers to create laws to define ‘serious disruption’ to communities and organisations, which police can then rely on to impose conditions on protests.” Patel has also been attempting to undermine the legitimate rights of protesters, saying protests conflict with the rights to the community for safety. This is a continuation of her attacks on the Black Lives Matter protesters last summer – and must be fought.
The trade unions have over six million members. That represents enormous potential to challenge these attacks and attempts at division. They also have the potential to organise mass action which can inspire broader numbers and bring massive pressure to bear on the government when it attacks our living and working conditions.
Linking the struggles
Socialist Party members who work in health have drawn up a model motion to fight for a response in the trade unions to the 1% pay rise. The right-wing trade union leaders are not offering such a lead. The motion includes the call for a national day of action of socially-distanced protests in towns and cities, as well as coordinated strike ballots across the health unions and an approach to other public sector unions for joint action.
This campaign will also require the unions to confront the issue of their rights to organise against attacks in the workplace and in doing that show a way forward for defending all our democratic rights.
There is no party in parliament that defends working-class people’s interests, including our right to protest and organise. That’s because the Tories and Starmer’s New Labour represent the interests of big business. Working-class people need to build their own party to do that. 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 Socialist Party stands for a socialist world free from sexism, violence and abuse. The party’s leaflet for the vigils explains that the fight against sexism ultimately means: “a united struggle of all those who face discrimination, inequality and exploitation, in the workplace and in wider society.” It explains that “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.”
We also have to explain that the right to protest is not a given in a society based on the exploitation of the majority by a tiny minority. Defending this is part of the struggle for a socialist society.