I had to be in Brighton on Sunday, speaking about community safety at Labour Conference on a panel with Anneliese Dodds, the shadow secretary for women and equalities. My train pulled into Croydon after midnight and I ordered a taxi home. It was dark, there weren’t many people about.. Sabina Nessa’s killing and the vigil on Friday brought home how little had changed in six months. Women weren’t safer — I wasn’t safe. I messaged friends and shared my location just in case: “I’ll text you when I get home.”
On Monday, news breaks that Koci Selamaj had been charged with the murder of Ms Nessa. The details that emerged in the search for her killer have been heartbreaking. At the vigil, her sister spoke of the unimaginable loss she felt. Women in the 3,000-strong crowd sobbed and laid flowers. Our Reclaim These Streets inbox was filling with people offering to volunteer. We attended vigils for Sarah Everard, they said, and here we are attending vigils for Sabina Nessa. When will it end? What can we do? I’ve been asking myself the same questions over and over.
“A reminder we need to confirm details for the tree planting with Brent council”, says Ludo in our Reclaim These Streets organiser WhatsApp group on Tuesday. We’re planting it in Fryent Country Park, where Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry were murdered and where we stood with their mother, Mina Smallman, to remember them at a vigil in August. We want to show their mother that the community will never forget her girls. Not that a tree or a vigil could ever bring them back or lessen the pain for their friends and family.
On Wednesday, bone-chilling details come out about how Wayne Couzens handcuffed Ms Everard and snatched her in a “false arrest” before murdering her. He’s a former police officer, some headlines said, without mention that at the time he was a serving officer who abused the authority his badge to abduct, rape and kill a young woman. I cried when I read the impact statement from her mother. She described a yawning chasm, how much she yearns for her daughter, the waves of panic. I have no words except how sorry I am.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept thinking that, confronted with a police badge and handcuffs, any of us would probably have got in that car. The next day I saw the headline: “More than 750 Met Police employees have faced sexual misconduct allegations since 2010 — with just 83 sacked”.
Those policemen we’ve turned to for help in the past may have harassed their female colleagues, or been one of those who gave Couzens the nickname “the rapist” but did nothing about it.. Any remaining trust women had in the Met after Ms Everard’s disappearance and their heavy-handed policing of her vigil is gone.
Reclaim These Streets started life in my spare room last March and it’s from there that I’m still talking about violence against women and girls, and the dangerous misogynistic culture in the police. The décor hasn’t changed since Ms Everard went missing from just around the corner, and nor has the conversation. Women and girls still don’t feel safe — because we aren’t.
Anna Birley is a Labour and Co-operative councillor and co-founder of Reclaim These Streets