She Was Walking Home: How Sarah Everard’s Murder Revealed Feminism’s Fault Lines

On the last night of Sarah Everard’s life, she picked up a bottle of wine at a London grocery store and visited a friend before beginning her walk home. It was around 9 p.m. on March 3 and the 33-year-old marketing executive was wrapped in warm layers and wearing sensible sneakers. She took a main road, it is believed, that cut through Clapham Common, a park regularly populated by joggers and dog walkers. By 9:30 p.m., she was past the park and on Poynders Road, heading toward her neighborhood.

The streets would have been emptier than normal, with pubs and restaurants closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Sarah’s image was captured briefly on a private doorbell camera as she walked by herself. Then, she vanished.

Sarah Everard spotted on security camera footage in a grocery store before she disappeared in March.Photograph from Shutterstock.

In the following days, the news of her disappearance hooked somewhere deep inside women in Britain and unleashed a wave of grief and anger.

Online, women began sharing the everyday modifications they took to avoid danger in public–walking with keys thrust between knuckles, avoiding dark streets, adjusting outfits to cover up skin or obscure curves, calculating exactly what tone to use when responding to a stranger’s greeting without provoking anger or inviting further conversation–the weight of this eternal vigilance came tumbling out in a stream of tweets and Facebook posts tagged #shewaswalkinghome. Much has been made of the invisible labor women perform in terms of planning children’s birthday parties and refilling hand-soap dispensers, but this was another form of labor, comprised of constant, deliberate acts of survival.

Women in Clapham reported that they had been visited by police and advised not to venture out at night alone. The instruction was eerily reminiscent of what police told women in the 1970s when the Yorkshire Ripper, a notorious serial killer, was terrorizing Britain’s female population.

Back then, feminists in Leeds, bristling over the suggestion they should limit their personal freedoms to escape male violence, began organizing evening protests under the name “Reclaim the Night.” Was it possible that nearly 50 years later, this was the best advice law enforcement had to offer? The simmering anger reached a crescendo six days later when police arrested one of their own, a Metropolitan police officer named Wayne Couzens, and subsequently charged him with Sarah’s kidnapping and murder.

Posters along Sarah Everard’s last known route.Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

Alone in her apartment, Jamie Klingler, an event planner in her early 40s who runs the annual London Seafood Festival, was feeling useless and a little stir-crazy. “I needed to see other women. I needed people [who were as] angry and upset as I was,” she told me over coffee at a cafe in Soho.

Somewhat impulsively, Klingler decided she would organize a vigil for Sarah and announced her intentions in a tweet. She soon learned that another group of women were planning the same thing, organizing under the name “Reclaim These Streets”–a nod to the earlier feminist movement. The women teamed up, and over a series of Zoom calls, planned a vigil for Saturday, March 13.

The plan was to hold a socially distanced, masked event at the bandstand in the common, which was already serving as a makeshift memorial, blanketed in flowers and notes to Sarah. But when organizers reached out to law enforcement to ensure the gathering could go forward without violating lockdown restrictions, Klingler said, they were told that the event was illegal. The group went to court to fight for their right to protest, but ultimately felt they could not proceed without legal risk.

On the morning of the vigil, Reclaim These Streets announced that the event was off. Klingler appeared on several television and radio programs to urge people to stay home and participate in a virtual vigil instead.

It was, by that point, too late. A separate activist group, Sisters Uncut, which describes itself as an “intersectional feminist direct-action collective,” encouraged people to show up regardless. “We are angry.

We will not be controlled. We will not be silenced,” they wrote on Twitter. Started by predominantly women of color, Sisters Uncut is concerned with compounding forms of oppression–how racism and misogyny and classism, for example, overlap to create graduated experiences of discrimination–and is deeply suspicious of police.

To them, Sarah’s death was not only a tragedy. It was also an extreme example of the harm law enforcement can pose to women, among other vulnerable populations. Reclaim These Streets, on the other hand, was motivated by a generic, but genuine feeling of outrage about male violence. “None of our agenda has anything to do with the police, other than more training,” Klingler told me.

Klingler did not attend the vigil out of concern that she would be fined as an organizer.

Instead, sitting at her dining room table, she watched live coverage on the BBC. She had naively thought that the police would be respectful of the grieving women, envisioning them kneeling in solidarity like some police did in the U.S. as protests over racial justice swept the country. At first, the police stood back, despite the violation of social-distancing guidelines.

Women took turns addressing the crowd, sharing raw stories of male violence. By 7 p.m., the police had had enough. They began to press in on the crowd, ordering people to disperse. “Who do you protect?” the women chanted back at them.

When the vigilgoers did not move fast enough, police pushed them to the ground and began making arrests. Klingler watched aghast as the event she had imagined as a peaceful remembrance devolved into violence. “We were hearing women scream and watching flowers get trampled,” she said, tearing up. At the vigil, Sisters Uncut had distributed a pamphlet arguing that the answer to violence against women “does not lie with more police,” but they needn’t have; the heavy-handed actions of the men with badges made their points for them.

Police conduct door-to-door inquiries and searches along Atkins Road following Sarah Everard’s disappearance.Photograph by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

Not all incidents of abduction or murder receive national attention, but Sarah’s case dominated front-page news, triggering a flurry of stories and opinion pieces about violence against women.

Her disappearance tapped into the public’s already fragile sense of safety, corroded by months of fighting an invisible, deadly virus. And it was easy to identify with her actions that night. If a woman wasn’t safe walking home at nine o’clock on a main street in London, where was she safe?

Also: She was beautiful and young and white. (Approximately six months after Sarah’s abduction, a London teacher named Sabina Nessa was killed while out on a short walk. Some asked whether her death elicited less media attention because she was a woman of color.)

The overwhelming public sentiment in the commentary following Sarah’s death was that something must be done. But what?

To some, Sarah’s murder was evidence that more policing was needed to protect women from male violence. Others drew the opposite conclusion.

The entrance to Hoads Wood in Ashford, Kent, where Sarah Everard’s body was discovered.Photograph by Gareth Fuller/PA/AP Images.

By the time I arrived in London in April, Sarah’s family had stopped talking to the media, retreating inside their pain like a cocoon. I got the impression that they felt she had been unwittingly turned into a national symbol, and that no one had bothered to ask how she would have felt about it.

Sarah’s cousin, Tom Everard, encapsulated his frustration in a tweet. “This is all just so crushingly sad. Sarah is the best. What happened was unspeakable.

Unimaginable. Awful. But for her to be the lightning rod for this fury–however righteous?

No. Tragedies happen, as do acts of evil. No woman should be in fear.

But take a breath,” he wrote. Another one of Sarah’s friends felt that her death had been hijacked by people with political agendas. “It is not a tribute to her any more, it’s about something else–and I don’t like what it has become,” Helena Edwards wrote in an article for Spiked, an online Libertarian magazine. “Her abduction and murder is not, in my opinion, a symptom of a sexist, dangerous society…. I will not be blaming ‘men’ or ‘the police’ for the actions of one individual.”

It has since been learned that that one individual, 48-year-old Couzens, used his police authority to perpetrate his crime.

According to prosecutors, Couzens approached Sarah in a rental car and pulled over. Security camera footage showed the two of them standing by his vehicle. Then, he handcuffed and falsely arrested her, likely using COVID protocols as a pretense.

A couple who was driving by told prosecutors they assumed he was an undercover police officer arresting a woman who had done something wrong. Instead, they were observing an abduction. Couzens drove Sarah out of London before raping and strangling her.

Then he attempted to burn her body. Prosecutors said the totality of his crimes could be summarized as “deception, kidnap, rape, strangulation, fire.” 

Couzens pleaded guilty to the charges of kidnap, rape, and murder in the summer. On September 30, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In announcing the sentence, Lord Justice Adrian Fulford said that Couzens had irretrievably damaged the lives of Sarah’s family and friends and eroded the public’s confidence in the police. “Sarah Everard was a wholly blameless victim of a grotesquely executed series of offences that culminated in her death and the disposal of her body,” he said.

Serious questions remain about the culture of policing that allowed Couzens to serve on the force, despite a record of red flags. Before joining the Met in 2018, he was employed at the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), the armed police force in charge of protecting civil nuclear sites. There, he was nicknamed “the rapist,” according to the tabloid The Sun, because his behavior made his female colleagues uncomfortable.

In 2015, six years before he abducted Sarah, he was accused of indecent exposure after he was spotted allegedly driving while naked from the waist down. Kent Police, which received the complaint, is now being investigated over whether it handled the allegations properly. He is also accused of two incidents of indecent exposure in February 2021.

According to news reports, Couzens allegedly exposed himself in a South London fast-food restaurant three days before Sarah’s disappearance. Met police are now facing an inquiry into whether the agency properly investigated the claim.

People lay flowers at Clapham Common on March 13.Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

People gather to pay their respects at a vigil on Clapham Common.Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

Viewed through a wider lens, the tensions raised by Sarah’s murder and the mishandled vigil illustrate one of the biggest rifts in the feminist movement in England and abroad today: what role the criminal justice system should play in addressing gender-based violence.

Historically many feminists, predominantly white, have found recourse in the law, arguing in favor of more aggressive policing, tougher laws, and longer prison sentences for perpetrators. The thinking is that once violence against women is deemed socially unacceptable and carries with it high penalties, behavior will change.

But at a time of heightened awareness of police violence and racial inequalities in the justice system, a small but growing group of activists is questioning this crime-centered approach. Feminists like Mariame Kaba in the U.S. and Alison Phipps in the U.K. argue that not only are these measures not proven to work, but that broadening the powers of law enforcement, ostensibly to protect women, often ends up backfiring on those most vulnerable to violence. As they see it, “carceral feminism,” as this approach is called, neglects to take into account those who may be less likely to view law enforcement as a source of support, or worse, who view police as a very real threat, such as women of color, immigrants, sex workers, trans women, and lesbians.

The prevailing emphasis on the safety of white, cisgender, middle-class women at the expense of others also helps explain the surprising strain of anti-transgender activism alive in U.K. feminism.

Self-identified “gender critical feminists,” more commonly known as TERFs (“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”), often argue that women’s safety is endangered by allowing trans people full equality. In this calculation, though, only one kind of woman matters.

People light candles and pay their respects during a vigil on Clapham Common.Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

In the wake of Sarah’s death, some activists urged the government to pass a law to criminalize street harassment, despite the somewhat tenuous connection between being catcalled (exceedingly common) and abduction and murder by a stranger (exceedingly rare). The Labour Party officially adopted this position in May when it released a policy paper outlining its plans to tackle violence against women. “Labour agrees with campaigners who say public sexual harassment is a crime, not a compliment,” the paper states.

I spoke to Fiona Vera-Gray, an assistant professor at Sarah’s alma mater, Durham University, and author of The Right Amount of Panic: How Women Trade Freedom for Safety, about the concept. She said it would mean more policing of public spaces like parks, which would likely result in further oppression to already over-policed communities. She also thought it was unlikely Black and brown women would avail themselves of the law.

Feminists campaigning for law reform need to start having important conversations about “who really is going to use that law and who is it going to be used against?” she said.

In the summer of 2020, two Black sisters, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, went missing in a park in Wembley, northwest London, in a case with similarities to Sarah’s. The police were slow to respond, according to their mother, Mina Smallman. “They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was,” she told the BBC. “A Black woman who lives on a council estate.” Smallman organized her own search party, and the boyfriend of one of the sisters found their bodies in the park the following day. After Met police responded to the scene, two officers took selfies with the dead victims and sent the pictures around.

They have since been charged with misconduct in a public office. “Those police officers felt so safe, so untouchable, that they felt they could take photographs of dead Black girls and send them on,” Smallman said.

To some observers, there was an irony in using the murder of a white woman at the hands of a cop to push for increased policing that would undoubtably fall on Black and brown people also engaged in an urgent fight for equality. Embedded within the feminism movement is a “deeply kind of ingrained impulse to reach out to the state for protection,” said Phipps, whose 2020 book, Me, Not You: The Trouble With Mainstream Feminism, explores how some feminist activism can end up treating marginalized groups as disposable. “A lot of these women [campaigning for new gender violence laws] will have said, ‘Black Lives Matter!'” she said. Now they were calling for more power to the cops.

Protester Patsy Stevenson is arrested at the vigil in memory of Sarah Everard.Photograph by James Veysey/Shutterstock.

Labour also announced that it supported making misogyny a hate crime, a mostly symbolic gesture that would allow judges to give longer prison sentences to people who target someone because of their gender or sex.

In practice, though, it’s hard to prove that a specific animus compelled a person to commit a crime. In the U.S., for example, 36 states consider crimes motivated by gender bias as “hate crimes,” yet the charge is rarely successfully prosecuted. In the U.K., convictions for crimes against women, such as rape and domestic violence, have plummeted in recent years.

As Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, bluntly told me, “rape is basically decriminalized in this country.” And yet the policy paper did not address how passing more laws would help when police and prosecutors were failing to utilize the criminal laws already on the books.

In the charged days following Sarah’s abduction, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a plan to assign plainclothes police officers to bars and nightclubs to patrol for “suspicious offenders,” an idea that was widely mocked at the time. “[Think of] the people who exist in those spaces. Queer people. People of color,” Jess, a Sisters Uncut volunteer who asked to be identified only by her first name for fear of police reprisal, said.

Still, in July, the Tory-led government doubled down on the idea when it released its own plan on reducing violence against women. It also pledged to improve street lighting and increase CCTV coverage so “people think twice before committing a crime and can be identified and brought to justice more quickly.” What these measures would have meant for Sarah, though, are not so obvious.

I walked the route that Sarah is believed to have taken, more or less, on an overcast day in late April. Clapham reminded me of a neighborhood in Boston I’d lived in during college: friendly, safe, with a plethora of bars and restaurants and easy transit options.

There were few signs that the neighborhood had been the hub of a massive search party a month earlier. In the common, where the trees were starting to explode in green leaves, an outdoor exercise class for older people persevered even as a light rain began. At the bandstand, the sea of flowers that once encircled the stage was long gone, carted away in a flatbed pickup truck for composting.

Sarah’s family was given the cards and letters to do with as they pleased.

A very polite note taped to a pole in the bandstand asked the public not to place candles on the floor as it posed a fire risk.

Flowers surround the Clapham Common bandstand memorial to Sarah Everard.Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.