In no particular order: the first significant piece of crime legislation since 1986 was introduced to Parliament on 9 March. Among other things, it restores the offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’. During a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London last summer, mounted police charged at protesters, who threw small missiles and larger objects at the horses. One horse bolted, throwing its female rider to the ground. Last June, two black women – sisters – from West London were found murdered after celebrating the older sister’s birthday in a local park. No one has been charged, but two police officers were suspended after selfies they took with the women’s bodies were shared via WhatsApp. Footage of the shooting of a black man in London in 2019, captured on the CCTV of a nearby shop, turned up on social media sites in February. The man’s mother says she was told by police that it must have been released by the shop owner, but it emerged that the video in circulation had, in fact, been made on a phone at the police station responsible for investigating the murder. A number of officers have been placed on limited duties pending investigation for gross misconduct. ‘It was so unfair, my son mattered,’ the man’s mother told the Guardian. ‘It shouldn’t have been like this.’
Many newspapers in the UK ran a picture of a smiling young white woman on their front pages last week. It’s rare for missing persons to make the front page, even if they’re children, and indeed the woman was no longer missing when her picture appeared on the homepage of the BBC and the cover of the Times, the Sun, the Express, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail, the I, the Metro, the Telegraph and the Guardian, which also ran a front page with photographs of other women killed by men this year. The point made by the Guardian, perhaps unintentionally, was that this isn’t news: none of these women had made the front pages before. And it’s also not news in the sense that particular killings are only of public interest to the extent that they inform our understanding of broader social phenomena. Murders taken collectively, statistically, are public; deaths of private individuals are always essentially private. The high profile of this latest case might have presented an opportunity to review historical murder rates or the incidence of violence against women, to discuss ways to make public spaces safer and who should take responsibility for that, or any number of other subjects, including police corruption and brutality.
None of this requires that we know moment by moment what happened on the night of the murder, that we see colour-coded diagrams of the crime scene or maps of the surrounding area, learn about the victim’s personal history, hear comments from her friends and family and former schoolteachers – all the usual apparatus of the true crime story. We don’t need to know much about the police officer accused of the murder, either, except in so far as it pertains to issues that concern us. What we do need to know is the significance of his being a police officer, though it’s not clear that the media can be trusted with that inquiry.
Rates of domestic violence are higher among policemen than among men in general. It seems reasonable to assume some correlation between the licence to wield power in professional life and a tendency to abuse power in private. Perhaps for some that tendency is what gives the job its appeal. Trying to untangle these matters is surely more helpful for understanding the problem of male violence than anything we are likely to glean from a single case. In her new book, On Violence and On Violence against Women (Faber, £20), Jacqueline Rose writes that ‘what is never discussed in this argument, which assumes a perfect fit or continuity between manhood and a violence of which it becomes the supreme and deadly fulfilment, is the terrain in which men, and before them boys, do psychic battle … that terrain is not free of violence. It is drenched in it.’ Violence isn’t where some men end up, it’s part of what we understand manhood to mean.
A photograph showing the arrest of one woman – young, pale, her red hair spilling out like Delaroche’s Lady Jane Grey – at the vigil on Clapham Common on 15 March was used to illustrate the disproportionate force deployed by the police there. Watching the video footage, however, I was struck by the vigour with which she had been shouting and shaking her fist a moment earlier. I would have preferred to see that image on the front of the papers. There has been much discussion in recent days of women’s inherent ‘vulnerability’. But strength and size are less significant than intent. Everyone can learn self-defence; and perhaps everyone should. But if someone is determined to rob you or grab you on the street, there may not be much that you, the average person going to the shops or walking home from a friend’s, drunk or distracted or tired from your week, can do. Given the unlikeliness of a random attack, even in the dead of night, it’s logical not to alter your behaviour, unless simply to try to put yourself at ease. The more people use public spaces the safer those spaces should be for everyone.
But fear has its own logic. I don’t think the anxiety we feel walking home late at night manifests for most of us as a clearly defined, fully embodied threat. Someone with a possessive ex-lover might have reason to fear being in deserted public spaces. The reason your heart rate quickens when you hear footsteps behind you, however, or you start to speed up, keys clutched between clenched fingers, is the spectre of the bogeyman, the terror of the dark. It’s the Hitchcock movie, it’s your panic attack, your trauma. (Keys seem more like a lucky charm than an implement most people could wield in effective self-defence.) This sort of fear may be all-consuming, it may sometimes be answered with actual harm, but in most instances its origin is the psyche, not the world of real and present danger.
For most people, real and present danger lies in their interactions with authority, particularly authority of the sort that has recourse to physical power – the police, yes, but also the spouse, the adult child, the carer, the father. Authority may be figured as an abstraction, power with paperwork, something designated by Parliament or other bodies far removed from our everyday lives. But, as Hannah Arendt wrote of ancient Greece, ‘even the power of the tyrant was less great, less “perfect”, than the power with which the paterfamilias, the dominus, ruled over the household of slaves and family.’
More protection – more authority given to the police, more police in public spaces – isn’t the answer. The notion that potential harm is reduced by having plainclothes policemen (and presumably policewomen) in nightclubs and bars is plainly ridiculous. This proposal, a new amendment to the crime bill, not only ignores the true sites of violence but also perpetuates the dichotomy of feminine vulnerability and masculine power on which gendered violence depends. It isn’t surprising that so few people go to the police following rape or harassment by a person known to them, or that fewer still are prepared to heave their assault or abuse through the courts. The significant authority in their lives is close to home; this other sort is remote, impersonal and offers extremely poor returns on their risk. Those who do go to court cede what control they have to state authorities that are themselves potentially misogynist and violent. Groups like Sisters Uncut, who have instigated many of the recent direct actions, reject this authority in all its guises.
Unlike the annual roll call of murdered women read out in Parliament by the MP Jess Phillips on International Women’s Day, the Twitter account Counting Dead Women tells us something about each woman, something brief, but personal. There are updates on trials and investigations, birthdays are commemorated. It’s not an easy place to spend time, but it is a space that respects the private and doesn’t exploit the anecdotal, that recognises the relationship of specific loss to systemic and pervasive violence. We are not granted too much access to these women’s lives, or (more important) to their deaths, certainly not enough to incite voyeurism. There is no false outrage or pompous paternalism. It’s hard to imagine a newspaper or TV station managing the private-in-public in this way.
I was struck, scrolling down @CountDeadWomen, by the number of women killed by their sons. A psychoanalyst would find nothing remarkable in this, but it is helpful for thinking past the old stories of thwarted romance and the sexual dynamics of weakness and attraction. What is so stark in the quasi-Oedipal cases is what Rose calls ‘deepest thoughtlessness … a sign that the mind had brutally blocked itself’. Domestic violence has increased during the pandemic not simply because families have been cooped up together, but because so many people – so many men – have felt more desperate, less in control of their lives and further from sources of pride and pleasure than ever before.
Violence is also something in which women have a stake, not as victims but as agents in their own lives. None of us escapes the desire to be violent; most of us know what it is to enact it, too. If, as Arendt argued, power declines as violence increases, why do those who feel powerless recoil from inflicting it? Or are we just told that they do? The people most likely to face physical violence – sex workers, migrant workers, prisoners – and those, in particular people of colour, whose injuries are mocked or ignored, have more useful things to tell us about the reality of violence: finding ways to mitigate and manage threat, to know and deploy their own power, has been a historic necessity.
There’s no point in worsening one’s predicament. But if you think nice girls don’t fight then you gave up long before you gave in. Protest, no matter how peaceful, is violence as potential; it is concerned with resistance, transgression, visibility. Women are just as capable as anyone of looking for a skirmish, of being caught up in the moment, of needing to express their rage and humiliation. Jane Grey is led to the block like a sleepwalker; but we needn’t accept a posture of injured femininity. The policewoman thrown from her horse was no Penthesilea. We have to move beyond images.
Men are far more likely to be killed than women; trans men and women more likely to face harm. But many women live in fear of the person they share a bed with. Daily life under duress, the bruises that no one sees, this is what ought to trouble us. Will there be plainclothes policemen in our living rooms? What would it mean for individual women to be empowered – socially, financially, legally, physically? As the writer Charlotte Shane puts it, there is ‘no empowerment in petitioning for the protection or mercy of men’. For the BLM protesters, as for the people on Clapham Common, the police they encountered weren’t the envoys of a repressive force but the force itself. It was the police against which they were protesting.
There is a hierarchy here, of course. The bill comes before the law, the law before the crime, the police before the protester, men before women, white before black. Things don’t occur in no particular order or for no particular reason. But we accepted a long time ago that degradation, violence, even death, are products of ‘because I could’ and ‘because I wanted to’ – everyday stuff. And the response to these violations when they become news is characterised by similar thoughtlessness, similar entitlement.
Almost twenty years ago a 13-year-old girl was abducted and murdered while walking home from school. It took a decade to secure a conviction. Pictures of that girl are imprinted on my mind as surely as photographs of my own family. She’s standing at the ironing board, she’s at the beach, she’s wearing her favourite crop top. I wish they weren’t there. The media’s sustained interest in the case didn’t help to solve it any more quickly, but it did lead to other offences. The girl’s phone was hacked by the News of the World. One man made death threats against her sister, another man emailed her family and friends claiming she had been sold into sexual slavery in Poland, and a woman repeatedly phoned the family and school pretending to be the missing girl. If I were to be killed, I wouldn’t want my day in the Sun.