In the United Kingdom, Mother’s Day—or Mothering Sunday, as it is more traditionally known—is celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent, which this year fell early, on March 14th. The usual forms of celebration were out of bounds, as the country endures its third and bleakest coronavirus lockdown. Florists’ shops were legally required to be closed, nonessential retail in Britain having been shuttered since early January. Brunch was impossible: restaurants and pubs remain off-limits for both indoor and outdoor dining. Unless you actually live under the same roof as your mother, you weren’t even allowed to visit her, the exception being if your mother happens to reside nearby and could meet for a one-on-one, socially distanced walk, which is all that is permitted under the current prohibitions against household mixing.
If Mothering Sunday was an unusually sober affair this year, nowhere was that truer than on Clapham Common, a large park in South London, which has, in the past two weeks, become a site of commemoration for Sarah Everard, the young woman abducted after setting off on what should have been a fifty-minute walk home from a friend’s house in Clapham on the evening of March 3rd. During the missing-person search that followed, police released CCTV images of Everard as she passed through well-lit streets that are typically well-trafficked, even during a pandemic. Police expressed hope that she would be found alive—even after the arrest of a suspect, almost a week after she was last seen. But within hours of that arrest, it was announced that human remains had been recovered from woodlands in Kent, sixty miles east of London; these were later determined to be those of Everard. Most shocking of all was that her alleged abductor, Wayne Couzens, was himself a member of the Metropolitan Police: a forty-eight-year-old officer in the force’s parliamentary and diplomatic division, which protects embassies and governmental buildings. He has been charged with kidnapping and murder.
In the aftermath of the revelations, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner and Britain’s highest-ranking police officer, sought to offer reassurance, saying that “it is thankfully incredibly rare for a woman to be abducted from our streets.” The statement, however well intended, suggested that Dick was missing the point. “Dead women is a thing we have all just accepted as part of our daily lives,” Jess Phillips, a Labour Party member of parliament, said in the House of Commons, last week. “Killed women are not vanishingly rare. Killed women are common.” Phillips’s remarks introduced what has become an annual event, linked to International Women’s Day: the reading aloud of a roll call of the women and girls in the U.K. who had lost their lives at the hands of men during the previous year. The list, which included a hundred and eighteen names and took Phillips more than four minutes to read, started with Vanita Nowell, a sixty-eight-year-old woman from South London whose son was charged with her murder on March 13, 2020. It concluded with Wenjing Xu, a sixteen-year-old girl stabbed to death by a thirty-one-year-old man in South Wales two days after Sarah Everard disappeared. Everard herself was not on the official list, as charges had not been filed by the time of its delivery. Hers will be the first name on next year’s grim, inevitable roll call.
Everard’s death has functioned as a flash point, precipitating an often anguished, sometimes weary, national conversation about the omnipresence of misogyny. On social media, in newspaper columns, and in conversation, there was an outpouring in the style of #MeToo, in which women shared stories of being followed home at night or harassed when walking through the streets, especially after dark. Word circulated that police in South London, in another misstep, were advising women to stay home after nightfall. The Met was quick to disavow any recommendation that women should self-curfew, but many rebuked the initial suggestion that the only way to make streets safe was to empty them of women. Baroness Jenny Jones, a Green Party peer who sits in the House of Lords, offered a modest counter-proposal: that all men should remain indoors after six in the evening, freeing the streets up for women to walk without comment or molestation.
Under the banner of Reclaim These Streets, vigils and protests were planned all over the country for the evening of Saturday, March 13th, with some would-be attendees discussing on social media the irony of being unable to participate because getting to their nearest protest site would require going out at dark into streets where they felt unsafe. On Clapham Common—through which Everard had passed, apparently without incident, before her disappearance—a Victorian bandstand at the park’s center had already become an informal site of tribute and mourning. On Saturday afternoon, the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton was among those who stopped by to pay their respects. An official vigil was planned for that evening, and then called off, after the Met Police declined to give permission for an assembly, citing the stringent measures against gatherings currently in place because of COVID-19. Women gathered at the bandstand anyway, where they were met by a sizable police presence. In another instance of wildly insensitive policing, officers carried out a number of arrests, with images appearing on social media and on the front pages of the newspapers of two policemen who wrestled a young woman, Patsy Stevenson, to the ground, her red hair flaming against the black of her coat and the officers’ leather-gloved hands. “I’m 5’2” and weigh nothing,” she said afterward.
The next day, Mothering Sunday, around noon, the police were gone from Clapham Common. The Common is a wide, flat expanse, crisscrossed by paths and with open vistas, especially at this time of year, when the majority of its trees have yet to come into leaf. Graham Greene lived nearby in the late nineteen-thirties; his novel “The End of the Affair” opens with a bleak encounter on the Common during a downpour, where “black leafless trees gave no protection: they stood around like broken waterpipes.” The weather on Sunday was brisk—the kind of day on which the early flowering crocuses seem to regret their rash emergence, and children’s moods can shift quickly from playful to plaintive. Despite the lockdown, the paths were busy. Many visitors could be seen bearing bouquets of supermarket-bought flowers, or daffodils cut from gardens, or pots of not-yet-blooming bulbs. They were carrying them not for their mothers but to the bandstand, where thousands of cellophane-wrapped tributes to Sarah Everard had already been layered one upon another.
Amid the flowers were handmade signs: “On the Way Home I Want to Feel Free,” one read, while another, tied to a railing nearby, made a more pointed comment: “You Kill Us and Now You Silence Us.” Despite the social-distancing regulations, hundreds of South Londoners were gathered, in family groups or couples or alone. For the most part, the crowd was silent, or at least quiet, mourning not just Everard’s death but the conditions that permitted it, and the heavy-handed response to those protesting it. At one point, though, a small girl’s voice piped up, asking the irrepressible questions of childhood: Where was Sarah now? And was the man who killed her really a policeman, or only pretending to be one? “Hold all your questions for later,” her mother whispered, as mother and daughter approached to contribute their own bouquet to the unc