What Sparks Outrage Is Difficult To Anticipate: on the murders of Sarah Everard, Bennylyn Burke, and others

Did you hear about how police violently broke up a vigil at Clapham Common in south London the other day? The peaceful protest was for Sarah Everard, who was murdered on the 3 March, 2021 (ironically a few days before International Women’s Day and the week before Mother’s Day). She had been walking home and had passed through Clapham Common when a serving police officer kidnapped and killed her. 

Two days before that Bennylyn Burke and her two children were reported missing, with the older daughter eventually found at a house in Dundee. The owner of the house is believed to have bludgeoned Burke to death with a hammer, though her body and that of her two-year-old daughter Jellica have yet to be found. 

The vigil at Clapham Common attracted a large police presence. On the pretence that it was flouting lockdown restrictions, the officers manhandled and arrested protesters and stomped on flowers that had been laid in remembrance of Everard and women like Burke. 

After Everard disappeared police told women in the local area to stay at home and be extra careful walking in the area at night. But how much more careful can women possibly be? Everard was wearing bright, practical clothing and flat shoes and spent some of the journey on the phone to her boyfriend. Putting the onus on women takes the blame away from where it actually should lie – at the feet of the men who harass, stalk and murder women. Every year on International Women’s Day Jess Phillips, shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardle, reads a list of all the women killed by men in the last year in the UK. The list is collated by Karen Ingala Smith and has never fallen below 100. 

This year Everard and Burke are both included. But what’s striking is that between their names are four other women also killed at the beginning of this month. Samantha Heap was found dead at her murderer’s house on the 2 March, Geetika Goyal was stabbed in the street on the 4 March, Imogen Bohajczuk was found dead at her murderer’s house on 4 March, and teenager Wenjing Xu was attacked while working at her family’s takeaway on 5 March. 

On the 10 March Baroness Jones of the Green Party suggested a curfew for men in the House of Lords. She said; “In the week that Sarah Everard was abducted and, we suppose, killed—because remains have been found in a woodland in Kent—I argue that, at the next opportunity for any Bill that is appropriate, I might put in an amendment to create a curfew for men on the streets after 6pm. I feel this would make women a lot safer, and discrimination of all kinds would be lessened…Nobody makes a fuss when, for example, the police suggest women stay home. But when I suggest it, men are up in arms.”

Of course this idea has been met with widespread incredulity and outrage. How dare someone suggest that men should change their behaviour or make a small sacrifice as a show of solidarity. Social media is also awash with people questioning why Everard’s death has hit the headlines and provoked vigils and protests when Burke, Heap, Goyal, Bohajczuk and Xu have not. 

But what sparks outrage is difficult to anticipate. When Bennylyn Burke and her daughter Jellica were murdered I felt helpless, especially since their murder happened a few streets up from the house I grew up in. It made me feel sick to think something like this could happen in my hometown. And while I refreshed my social media feeds all day, desperate for some update, it seemed like a post or hashtag would be a meaningless action. What could I do? A heartfelt post won’t bring them back or help her surviving daughter. 

Burke and her daughter were killed in a domestic setting, and like Heap and Bohajczuk the violence happened behind closed doors in the perpetrator’s home. These cases make me feel powerless. I was once trapped in a house with a man who was trying to kill me. And I still blame myself for trusting him, telling myself I deserved the bruises and the fact the police dropped the case. In all honesty, I regret reporting that incident at all – as well as the sexual assault I reported as an undergraduate and the time I tried to tell the police about an ex-boyfriend who’d repeatedly raped me. I can still picture the female police officers I’ve given my statements to; the way they seemed to be unable to look me in the eye and their brisk, dismissive attitudes.

That’s one of the other aspects of Everard’s murder that’s so offensive, that she was killed by a serving police officer. That she was walking home. That she had done everything ‘right’ and she was still killed. We can lie to ourselves about domestic violence, distancing ourselves from the idea that it could happen to us. But when a case like Everards happens it forces us to confront the reality of how vulnerable we really are – and this makes some of us angry. It’s cumulative. As more people express outrage you feel more empowered to say something. You dare to imagine that things might change. 

The response of women around the country to Everard’s death is not a sign that we didn’t care about the others, but a sign that we care so much we can’t contain our collective grief and fear and anger any longer. 

The idea of a curfew for men might sound absurd, and in a way it is. There are also valid concerns that it might put trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people in more danger than they already are. 

But consider the thought for a moment. As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day – how can we ensure that one day there are no names at all for Jess Phillips to read out? Can there ever be a year where absolutely no women are killed by men? 

Words & Images: Ana Hine (apart from the CCTV image of Sarah Everard)

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