The murder of Sarah Everard in South London, the arrest of serving police officer Wayne Couzens for the killing, and the police attack on a vigil for Sarah, on Clapham Common on 13th March, have again thrown male violence against women into the front of public consciousness. At least until the mainstream media and male commentators forget the ‘issue’ and move on. For women, it is never out of their minds.
For many police, despite several decades of diversity training, women reporting male assault are still a nuisance. And organised protest against male violence, like much protest, is a challenge to their institutional control of the streets, to be squashed. old laws or new laws, Covid or not, a collective of angry women asserting their right to walk without fear have to be put back into fear. The only police response to anger about male violence is – more male violence.
The attack and arrests at Clapham Common are not the fist time angry women’s protest against abuse by men has been subjected to assault by the boys in blue. In October 1978, a Reclaim the Night demo in London was attacked by police in Soho.
Reclaim the Night in the UK was born in Leeds. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, were inspired by news of co-ordinated women-only ‘Take Back The Night’ marches against male violence and sexual harassment, held across towns and cities in West Germany on the 30th April 1977.
In every sphere of life women negotiate the threat or reality of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Reclaim the Night articulated the demand for the right to use public space without fear – as a civil liberty, as a human right.
There are an estimated 47,000 rapes every year, around 40,000 attempted rapes and over 300,000 sexual assaults. 95% of women don’t feel safe on the streets at night, and 65% don’t even feel safe during the day. 73% worry about being raped and almost half say they sometimes don’t want to go out because they fear for their own safety.
Leeds women formed a Reclaim the Night Group after reading the report of the night demos in Germany and discussing action against male violence at the “Revolutionary Feminist” conference in Edinburgh in July ‘77. The series of women murdered in West Yorkshire by the Yorkshire Ripper acted as a spur to action. Peter Sutcliffe sexually attacked and murdered thirteen women across Yorkshire between 1975 and 1980. Women in the area were angry that the police response to these murders seemed slow and that the press barely reported on them when it was mainly women involved in prostitution who were murdered. But when a young student woman was murdered, the press and the police seemed to take more notice. The police response was to tell women not to go out at night, effectively putting them under curfew. This was not a helpful suggestion for any women, those working late shifts or night shifts, or those involved in prostitution who often had no choice about whether they went out at night or not. Feminists and a variety of student and women’s groups were angered by this response and also by the sensationalising of the serial murders, which they felt hid the real fact that all too many women are affected by male violence and that this was in fact common. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist group called for women to march in cities across the UK on the night of 12th November 1977 against rape and for a woman’s right to walk without fear at night, they advertised this in national newsletters and publicised it to women’s groups. Hundreds of women took back their cities on that night, marching with flaming torches through centres and back streets alike. They made the point that women should be able to walk anywhere and that they should not be blamed or restricted because of men’s violence.
The Reclaim The Night march was founded women a voice and a chance to reclaim the streets at night on a safe and empowering event, to put the issue of women’s safety on the agenda for this night and every day.
The Leeds group decided to fix a date for a march which they published in WIRES, the National Women’s Liberation Newsletter. They also sent letters to women’s centres and publications calling for support. The idea caught on.
In November 1977 there were actions by feminists in Leeds, London, Lancaster, Bristol, York, Newcastle, Brighton and Manchester.
The first Reclaim the night action in London in 1977 focussed on images and spaces that objectified women, like sex-shops and adverts. For many in the women’s liberation movement, reclaiming the public space not only meant reclaiming it from male violence, but also from the constant objectification many women experienced: “it was the clarity of revolutionary feminist analysis on pornography that influenced the march in London, ensuring it went round Soho and protested about pornography.” Those marching in London’s 1977 Reclaim the Night stuck stickers on sex-shop windows stating ‘THIS DEGRADES WOMEN, THIS EXPLOITS WOMEN’ alongside chanting: Yes means yes No means no However we dress Wherever we go.”
Participants described the action in London:
“The first Reclaim the Nights were more spontaneous, anarchic, smaller, less safe – And for those of us who were on them, no orderly march could ever rnake us feel so high, so strong. In London, we were eerie, whooping, and and humming menacingly – we rushed at policemen and strip joint owners, making them back off — we ran where we wanted…”
This is the best high-flying demo I’ve EVER been on! Hundreds of women wailing and dancing through the streets of Soho. “Sexist crap, sexist crap, SEXIST CRAP!” startling bystanders.
The manager of The Pussy Parlour tight-jawed, face flesh quivering as he scrapes stickers o” his windows. “What does this mean?” he hisses at me as I take his picture. “Can’t you read?” 1 say. THIS DEGRADES WOMEN, THIS EXPLOITS WOMEN.
One woman is running ahead squirting windows with water, followed by others slapping stickers on with such exuberant violence you think the windows must break and hope they will.
A man steps out of fluorescent lit doorway and gets his chest squirted then slapped with a sticker
Not like any other march. No stewards, cowed by police, cajoling people to keep the ranks. No. We are all over. Humming, buzzing, shouting. A real woman’s march – a rampage. Surging, droning, chanting. Women Fight Rape.
Yes means yes
No means no
However we dress
Wherever we go.
Flame-lit faces of people who have found the spirit to fight a mammoth war. One woman stops another to get a light for her
torch. A young black man comes over, blows out the torch and turns to run off to his smirking mates.
She belts him over the back with it and it re-ignites, burning a hole in his jacket. Women’s laughter in the torchlight. Men looking at the jacket under the streetlight.
It is a measure of how confident men feel of their unconditional right to abuse women that so many of them step into our group and smugly insult individual women. Sometimes other women rally round in defence and the men wander off.
One delightful woman has a bag of maggots for sprinkling on the offending males.
It is so fluid this “march” – very fast at times, running around at, over cars, stopping traffic. I think police are not used to running. They come along behind ripping down stickers, muttered comfortingly into radios – little gestures, by stiff spectators.
Around the event, before and after, there are objections: that it should’ve been held locally, not in Soho; that it might be confused with a Mary Whitehouse-type campaign; an ex-prostitute told me she didn’t agree with it because she thought it would be bad for the business of the prostitutes in Soho. I’m sure there were more that I didn’t hear. But this event isn’t the be-all and the end-all, the definitive Perfect demonstration. It should be a starting point, an inspiration, a learning experience, a step forward. It does not preclude other actions. Women’s liberation is about supporting other women. Let’s do it.
Whatever politicking went on to do with the organisation of it (and I wasn’t in on it) it was a blow-out to be there. It was wild. There. There, where normally we walk silently, stewing inside, keep exhilarating just to MOVE, expressing our disgust to ourselves. It was our feelings, instead of the eyes-down-look-like-you’re-going-somewhere walk, the woman alone walk. We ran and jumped, and argued and stretched ourselves.
At the end we meet in Leicester Square. And all the piggy men. I sense a sporting violence from them.
“Wot you doin’ ‘ere? You ain’t even ugly.” (This man got bopped in the face.)
“I should come here to pick up my chicks.” (A denim-clad slickster.) Horrible, slimy men.
May the day come when sex shopowners and stripclub owners can’t buy insurance, are afraid to do business for fear of their plate glass being smashed, for fear of their plushy interiors being messed up, for fear of their own crummy lives. I saw fear in the eyes of those traffickers. They are afraid of our rage. They should be.”
A year later, there was another Reclaim the Night in London, held on 31st October.
This time, a police attack on the demo in Soho ended with 16 women arrested.
Halloween had been chosen partly as 31/10 had been called as an international day against violence against women., but also in celebration of the idea of witches as symbol of women’s power. Women dressed as witches.
The walk was peaceful and happy until large numbers of police arrived, truncheons drawn, and began hitting out wildly, causing many severe injuries. They also arrested 16 women, beating up not only demonstrators but at least one ‘bystander’.
Anny Brackx commented on the event in women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib and made some suggestions about future actions:
“Hallowe’en was Reclaim the Night International. In Edinburgh for “stance women ‘Reclaimed the Meadows’ — notorious for sexual assault. Dressed as witches they swarmed across the park and down to the city centre, singing and shouting. But in London the march was disastrous.
The words women’s liberation movement seem to make a little red light flash these days at Scotland Yard. Every so often they must mark out an area as subversive, which they then keep an eye on and try to wear down by frightening people into passivity. But may be the police raid on a London National Abortion Campaign benefit is not connected with the police brutality a few days later against women trying to reclaim the night from male domination and violence. I shouldn’t be surprised though if Astrid Proll’s feminism had set them sniffing around.”
A poem about the action and arrests, which also appeared in Spare Rib:
Out in the open
31 October 1978
This is Halloween
And we stroll in fancy dress and masks and make up
to reclaim the night for women
to walk when we like where we like
without being afraid
till uniformed arms reach out
at random without warning
with relish on their boyish faces
under their protective helmets
and I see police truncheons making contact
with our bodies and our heads:
down up down up down up
as blood careens down women’s cheeks
along the soho street of strip clubs and porn shops
tonight on brewer street
they do not seize me or my friend
we must seem like passersby
not young enough to conform to the troublemaker image:
I am after all of grandmother age
And they are of course mothers’ sons
who drag us to the ground and kick us
hold us by the throat
twist our arms behind our backs
pull us by the hair
and carry one of us spread-eagled and without her shirt:
they do not let us cover her with her coat
but they round us up at random
into their waiting vans
suddenly I am reminded of all I have heard
from survivors in my family
of gestapo roundups of scapegoats and dissenters
on the continent four decades past
and I am sick with fear and foreboding
Later on in the central police station
I see hatred of us
on older police officers’ faces
before they fingerprint us illegally
before they refuse telephone calls to solicitors illegally
before they slap across the face
some of the sixteen arrested women
and lock them in the cells till four o’clock in the morning
seven hours later in the court’s waiting room
while the sixteen are being charged with varying offences
I see some of the same law men from the evening before
arms crossed soft spoken amused patient
Down up down up down up
I do not forget truncheons moving into flesh
because I know this launches the backlash
we have felt was imminent
the more we step out of our stereotypes –
this displays patriarchal hatred of us
out in the open
now that the precedent has been set
for open warfare on women –
first with the suffragettes and now with us –
the next move is ours
or the final solution will be theirs:
we are an endangered species
who walk to reclaim the night
The police attack spurred some thinking about the success and achievements of the Reclaim the Night actions, on Anny Brackx’s part:
“What happened made me think about our politics and practice, and specifically the way we confront male violence, with or without blue helmets. I started reading some early feminist writings: Carol Hanisch’s ‘Critique of the Miss America Protest’ (Nov.’68) was especially useful but also depressing. It seems we haven’t learnt much in ten years,
Here are some Questions all this threw up for me, which some of us are beginning to discuss:
- We definitely need better pre-action planning. The problem is how to be organised, without falling into the rigid party discipline trap, which stifles individual imagination and diminishes personal responsibility. Is it ever worth getting arrested? What happens if we get split up? How do we deal with each other’s reactions to violence?
- What was inspiring about Reclaim the Night —for women watching as well as those taking part—was that our presence itself was a political act — women making the night safe by their togetherness. Before, we had got away with acting spontaneously — we took everyone by surprise.
This time we didn’t, and we won’t next time if we don’t sit down and do some thinking about male violence: how we can subvert, counter or avoid it.
- A sexshop centre is an obvious target as a symbol of the exploitation of women. But what about reclaiming our local areas for women?
- We need to clarify whether our actions are designed to reach as many women as possible, or whether they are mainly confrontations with male power. Sometimes they cancel each other out; we might have to choose or separate them out —mass propaganda events, and zap-guerilla actions.
- We shouldn’t get stuck in a rut (Reclaim the Night can become a ritual too). We must continue to devise different ways of operating as our feminist consciousness grows and changes. There’s a lot we can learn from the non violent tactics of the ’60s, and from the suffragettes …. There a real so many ways of exposing rapists and consumers of pornography. They often operate in
the dark, and that’s no accident. Let’s expose them: photograph them going into pornshops, identify rapists, paint the word over their houses and workplaces.”
The first six of the cases of the sixteen arrested women in the 1978 Reclaim the Night resulted in their acquittals.
In Marylebone Magistrates Court, Ethel Findlay, charged with obstructing the police, produced a photograph of a policeman hitting her while she was on the ground. This, and her verbal evidence, caused Magistrate, Sir Ivor Rigby, to say that PC Donald had “not only given untrue evidence but had deliberately lied.”
When Jean Fraser was being tried, it was pointed out that one police officer. Sergeant Lamb, had come to court wearing a male chauvinist pig tie. Later the defence barrister. Marguerite Russell, asked to see his notebook and forced him to admit crossing out a sentence in which he described hitting women over the head. The magistrate stopped the case, saying he had heard enough
—and that the police evidence was inadequate. He did the same when finding Andrea Webb and Jane Grote not guilty.
Marian Laurens was acquitted on two charges of assaulting police. In evidence, a policeman said she had called him a ‘cunt’. Her barrister explained that no feminist would use this word as an insult, and the magistrate took the point. “Since the demonstration was protesting against exploitation of the female body I find it unbelievable that she should have used this epithet.”
Mary O’Brien, who took off her jumper in a personal protest against the pornography on sale, was cleared of a charge of insulting behaviour when it was pointed out that there was no ‘public’ around to insult. She was fined a nominal £5 for assaulting a policeman, having offered no defence.
A few weeks later, more cases were heard by three different magistrates.
The threatening behaviour charge against Barbara Hughes was dropped, but she was found guilty of obstruction and fined £25, although the police produced no corroborative evidence. The court heard how Barbara was carried by police, spread-eagled, naked to the waist — her clothes having been torn off her. Two women told how they’d twice tried to cover her up but each time a policeman shook her violently so that her coat fell off. Judith Skinner was also fined £25 when found guilty of insulting language and behaviour. Again, no corroborative evidence, and the prosecution counsel refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the photographs shown or to agree to the sequence of events established and accepted in previous cases. The magistrate, Christopher Besley, assumed that women had attacked the police. although no evidence of this was produced by the prosecution.
He ruled out of order any attempt to give evidence of the severe injuries inflicted on the women, and also admitted he was “as deaf as a post”.
The charge of threatening behaviour against Em Lawless was thrown out of court as the magistrate “could find no evidence of intent”.
The prosecution had to withdraw the case against Ann Taubman after the arresting officer discovered she had left her notebook at home in Orpington! Fortunate really as she claimed to have arrested Ms Taubman at 9.55pm in Brewer St when the procession did not leave Leicester Square until after 10pm. Jill Posener was found guilty of assaulting a policeman and fined £50 despite the extreme vagueness of the policeman as to the details of the alleged assault. As the defence pointed out, he replied “I don’t know” at least 15 times during cross-examination. Val Cook, Sarah Mosedale and Sally Collings were all found guilty of obstructing the highway and given a year’s conditional discharge. Two of them had to pay £50 court costs.
By putting each case before a different magistrate, the trials resulted in an immense discrepancy in what each has allowed in court and a very different set of verdicts from the first cases in front of Ivo Rigby. Individual policemen, having given evidence in one case, then went on to contradict themselves in another; their previous evidence was ruled admissible in the later case. An application that all these cases be heard by one magistrate was refused at the beginning.
Police evidence throughout was uncorroborated and bore little resemblance to the situations described by each of the women and witnesses, yet most of the magistrates chose to believe the police.
The November arrests were followed by another Reclaim the night through Soho on January 20th 1979:
“Over 2000 women walked through Soho on January 20, ‘Reclaiming the Night’ there for the fourth time. With torches and who’d never done it before found this national event jubilant and energising; and we showed that — with numbers and fairly tight organisation — we could march without being attacked by the police…”
London Reclaim the Night marches went on throughout the 1980s, but tapered off in the 1990s… However, Reclaim the Night was revived in London in 2004, and continued into the present.
Looks like they’re needed more than ever.