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Vigil hosted on Zoom after pressure to postpone in-person event

Reclaim Sheffield Streets “heartbroken and angered” by South Yorkshire Police decision to block in-person event on Devonshire Green, remembering Sarah Everard and other victims of gender-based violence, due to Covid restrictions.

Reclaim the streets vigil devonshire green 1
Tim Dennell.

Organisers moved a Sheffield vigil for Sarah Everard and other victims of gender-based violence to Zoom on Saturday after South Yorkshire Police warned of potential fines.

The original event, hosted by Reclaim Sheffield Streets, was to take place on Devonshire Green, with attendees asked to socially distance and wear masks.

The group released a statement saying they were “heartbroken and angered” by the police’s decision. Gabby Willis, 25, who fronted the online event, explained that many people were involved in the organising of the vigil.

“It is so heart-warming to see so many people coming together and sharing their experiences, listening to each other, and grieving for everything that we have been through – and what we have to go through – on a daily basis.”

Everard went missing in Clapham while walking home from a friend's house on 3 March. Her body was later found in Kent. Met Police officer Wayne Couzens has been charged with Everard’s murder and is now awaiting trial.

Despite the cancelation and last-minute changes, the Zoom vigil reached the cap of 100 people. A range of speakers shared experiences, feelings and poetry, which was followed by a minute’s silence for Sarah and other women lost to violence.

Gabby Willis reclaim the streets organiser

Online vigil host Gabby Willis.

Sheffield Hallam Student Union.

“People from Sheffield always pull together. Whenever there is a demonstration or an event there is always such a mix of people there who care, put in the effort, and want to make a real change to things.” Gabby said.

TalyaSkitcher displayed a sign that she had originally made for the in-person vigil at Devonshire Green listing the names Bibba Henry, Nicole Smallman, Naomi Hersi and Blessing Olusegun.

“It is extremely important to remember trans women, gender non-conforming people, and the black women and girls we have lost. It is so much worse for them. We need to know their names too. We are less likely to hear the stories of these women and we need to come at it with the same effort as we have for Sarah.”

Eleanor O’Brien, an English teacher working with primarily autistic pupils, highlighted how those with disabilities are also more at risk. She said it was important to acknowledge how much more vulnerable neurodivergent people may be to these issues.

“They often do not understand risk as much as neurotypical people might. Moving into this field makes me even more terrified of gender-based violence, because they are so much less likely to perceive the threat than we are. I don’t think that this is talked about enough.”

Mourners laid flowers and signs at Devonshire Green over the weekend. Reclaim Sheffield Streets hopes to rearrange the in-person demonstration for later this year, but expressed frustration that it was unable to go ahead on Saturday.

“I just feel like there is a lot of double standards going on, because there have been so many anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protests which didn’t show any regard to social distancing. It just felt like everyone is turned a blind eye to those things,” Gabby said.

Reclaim the streets vigil devonshire green 3
Tim Dennell.

The law doesn't specify whether a demonstration on a major issue of public importance is deemed a ‘reasonable excuse’ to be outside under Covid restrictions. However, organisers of the London vigil lost their legal challenge in the High Court against a police ban.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is also set to be debated by MPs this week, with proposed changes to laws around protesting. Police chiefs would be able to put more restrictions on demonstrations, such as imposing time and noise limits.

Many of the speakers shared a frustration regarding the ban. Jean Lane said she felt that there were two main problems – the first being the rising violence against women, and the second being the right to protest.

“I was around at the beginning of the women’s movement, where we were campaigning, fighting, protesting and getting arrested for it. From my point of view, it does feel like we are going backwards again. Every time we fight, we do make gains, but if we don’t keep it going, we lose them again.”

Holly Johnston, a nurse and NHS Workers Say No campaigner, explained she recently had to cancel her own demonstration against the 1% pay raise for NHS workers because of legal restrictions. She highlighted that 77% of NHS worker are women and that they are often gender-stereotyped with the narrative of ‘doing it because they care’.

“This ban is a choice – a political choice – and it must be fought,” she said.

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