Sarah Everard’s murder was described by Met Commissioner Cressida Dick as ‘rare’ and yet it happened here. The generational impact this will have on our community will not heal quickly.
// Local resident, and Clapham Park Creative Co-op Community Producer, Thérèse Mullan, reflects on the aftermath of Sarah’s murder. //
Poynders Road in Clapham Park has been the centre of my universe during lockdown. It will have been the same for many of us in the community. Poynders is where I kept fit at night after shifts. It’s where I sat in Agnes Riley Gardens on days off. It’s where I walked in the dark mornings and dark nights of winter to get the tube to and from work via Clapham South.
On March 3, 2021, at 9.30pm, Sarah Everard was abducted from this unremarkable and often busy residential road in Clapham, and murdered. Our community, for a short time, lived inside a crime scene, part of a story which gripped the world and sparked much important debate.
To give people a timeline from a community perspective and how I experienced them living here in Clapham Park, I have written them as below:
— By Friday March 5th, ‘MISSING’ notices were shared on social media. I saw them and noticed the girl had gone missing from the road which joins the road I live on. Sarah Everard was the same age as me so it particularly resonated with me.
— By Saturday March 6th, ‘Missing’ posters were being attached to every lamppost in Lambeth. Our walks in the local parks were met with teams of orange jackets scouring for clues.
— By Sunday March 7th I met Sarah’s friends who were handing out ‘Missing’ leaflets to local coffee shop queues. “Have you seen our friend? She lives off Brixton Hill and never arrived home on Wednesday.” “No, I’m sorry”. In retrospect it is extremely difficult to not see their faces.
Local ‘WhatsApp’ groups whispered: women shouldn’t go out alone. When mystery descends as a dark cloud over a community, it can be difficult to keep your head out of suspecting those around you, something I feel this community suffered during this stressful time. Personally, I heard reports of gangs holding women hostage on the Clapham Park estate. Some social media groups were warning against a local rapist. As the frenzy gained momentum, a police appeal for local doorbell footage finally unearthed images of Sarah walking past a local house. A picture of her final moments before abduction from our locality, was beginning to emerge.
On Monday March 8th, while making rounds of a local block of flats on Poynders Road, it was reported through different mediums that the police were beginning to advise females not to venture out alone after dark. On this International Women’s Day, it was as if irony had sat down at my dinner table and poured salt on my wounds. I am a feminist, but I was frightened.
On Tuesday March 9th, local flats at Poynders Court were taped off and taken over by forensics. Rumors hit local WhatsApp groups that this was now a full blown murder investigation. It was on this night that news came that an arrest had been made – a police officer from Kent.
By Wednesday March 10th, there were police searching our sewers. I started to get a bad feeling. Photos of police divers emerging from the local pond in Agnes Riley Community Gardens hit the newspapers and as our area was cordoned off, my heart became heavy. That evening, a week after she had gone missing, Sarah Everard’s body was found over 50 miles away in Kent.
On Thursday morning, March 11th, I went to work feeling like I had been shot through the chest. The sadness that penetrated through my body made me physically nauseous.
“Can you believe he was a policeman?”, my aunt texted me from America. I thought about her question that night in bed. Why hadn’t it stirred me?
Sadly, as a community we have also been no strangers to police brutality and there have been many points throughout our history where collective community anger has bubbled into historic riots. When Wayne Couzens was initially named as the off-duty police man taken into custody as a suspect for abduction, it felt upsetting to be absent from shock.
On February 28, 2021, three days before Sarah’s abduction, officer Wayne Couzens indecently exposed himself to someone in a local South London takeaway. Despite the incident being reported, Wayne Couzens went to work as a protection officer at the American embassy on the March 3rd, without sanction. Following his shift, he drove down the South Circular at 9.30pm and stopped in the place we live. He took one of us. He murdered one of us.
Sarah Everard was a woman walking home through our estate. When Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, assured us that such incidents are ‘extremely rare’, the proximity to the abduction meant we couldn’t be comforted by this. This had happened to our neighbour, and in our neighbourhood. As the days progressed, we learned that incidents of men sexually assaulting and killing women were not uncommon. In fact, sexual violence was described as an ‘epidemic’ by the BBC after research from 2017 showed that 3.4 million women in the UK have been sexually assaulted. I am one of them.
In 2013 in broad daylight as I walked home from work in Brixton, a man walking beside me grabbed my behind and tutted at me while whispering, ‘sweet little thing’. My instant reaction was shock and outside Brixton police station I hit him and shoved him away from me. The man became violent and began spitting at me and verbally abusing me in front of a whole street. He called me ‘an acrid bitch’. A Lambeth police officer separated us. He made no attempt to reprimand the man who continued to shout vicious abuse at me over the policeman’s shoulder, telling himcalmly only to ‘walk on’. For five minutes the police officer listened to me, a 26-year-old woman in tears, and assured me that although what the man had allegedly done was wrong, I couldn’t go around hitting people. “It’s a compliment,” he said. “You should be happy” and suggestedI go home and have a nice cup of tea.
I That police officer walked away feeling he had been fair, and I walked home feeling extremely violated. I told my friends this story and sadly they shared so many similar incidents across their lives, where they had been conditioned to expect and deal with sexual assault — not if it happened — but when.
The Met police told me that day, through the inaction of their officer, that they did not mind I was assaulted in broad daylight. On February 28th, they didn’t take other local women seriously either, allowing an armed Wayne Couzens return to work, having exposed himself in a public place. As local women we have the right to be outraged, insisting that Couzens should have been prevented from abducting and murdering Sarah Everard.
The bandstand on Clapham Common became the focal point for public grieving, with the Metro running with a photo of Sarah and the headline: ‘Abducted near Clapham Common’. This misrepresentation of location began to shift some blame onto Sarah with some on social media questioning, “What was she doing walking through the park at night by herself? All women know not to do that”. It wasn’t just on social media. I heard it from women in the shops. I heard it from women on the tube: “I can’t believe she walked through that park alone”.
Sarah Everard had, in fact, made it through Clapham Common without incident. She was actually abducted a 15-minute walk away, on a busy residential stretch of the A205 South Circular that stretches through Poynders Road, one of the UK’s busiest commuter routes. It is not somewhere one would describe as ‘lonely’. (It’s also worth pointing out to anyone who is not local, that the A205 goes straight through the Common and is often busy with dog walkers and joggers, buses and cars when Sarah crossed it on her walk home at 9pm.) The danger is that history will remember this as a lone women taking risks at night, shifting blame from the culprits.
Throughout lockdown I have exercised at night on Poynders Road because it is a busy route and for lone women, busy should mean ‘safe’,right? On the left, where Sarah Everard walked, there are multiple apartment blocks, and residential houses line the right along with three bus routes.
Overnight, Lambeth council managed to install extra lighting through Clapham Common, such was the frenzy to help women feel ‘safer’. More and more we heard about the things women should do to keep safe at night. They shouldn’t wear a ponytail. They shouldn’t wear dark clothes. They should wear flat shoes for quick getaways. The lists went on and yet the last images of Sarah Everard show she did everything right and was still murdered. I so desperately wanted to share in that sense of grief and togetherness with my fellow Londoners. While Clapham Common lies a mile from the abduction site itself, I could understand that because of the pandemic, it served as a wide outdoor area in which people could hold a vigil and observe Covid guidelines. On Saturday afternoon, the Metropolitan Police deemed the event illegal and the vigil was stood down after being threatened with fines. I take personal issue with the Lambeth Police’s insistence that they were protecting us from Covid.Those who exercised their right to protest that Saturday night were doing so peacefully until police were sent in to surround the memorial site. Scenes of male police officers wrestling women to the ground were shocking.
It is two months since the disappearance of Sarah Everard. Her ‘Missing’ posters have faded, some have been blown away by the wind, many removed and discarded. I think of Sarah’s friends who I had spoken with at the coffeeshop queue, and I wonder how they are dealing with this? They should have been looking forward to the summer ahead. I think of all the female friends who have walked alone at night from my house down Poynders Road for over a decade. I thought of Sarah’s mother, on Mother’s Day, and how this will shape the rest of her life. I think of her father. Her brother. Her sister. Her cousins. Her aunts. Her uncles. Her grandparents. Her schoolmates. Her colleagues. Her neighbours. And I think of what this story will do to the generations of women who will come after us here in Clapham, how they will be told to be especially careful at night. Cressida Dick said what happened was ‘rare’, but how often this happens is not the point; the point is it happened here, to our neighbour.
What do we all collectively take away from this? It’s time for huge reform of the Met. It’s time for huge reform in men. A council can put up as much street lighting as they want to help women feel safer, but until men accept that the change lies with them understanding consent, women will continue to walk home alone in the dark.
Thérèse Mullan is a music producer, writer and resident in Clapham Park. Words and images copyright ©2021 Thérèse Mullan.