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The policing of bodies and emotions: London in lockdown, March 2021.

By Steve Pile, The Open University

Policing bodies involves assigning people to a ‘proper place’. That proper place is struggled with and struggled over, often, in tragic circumstances. At around about 9pm on 3 March 2021, Sarah Everard left a friend’s house near Clapham Junction in South London. She decided to walk home in Brixton Hill, across Clapham Common, along the busy A205 South Circular Road. Six days later, on 10 March, police found human remains in Hoad’s Wood, over 50 miles away. The discovery followed the arrest of a serving Metropolitan Police officer: a highly trained firearms officer, working for the elite Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection branch.

Sarah’s story resonated with women’s long-standing fear of walking in British cities, especially at night; the involvement of a police officer intensifying that fear to the point of action. The woman’s rights group, Reclaim These Streets, sought permission to hold a vigil on the Common on the night of 12 March. The Metropolitan Police refused. Reclaim These Streets took their case to the courts, but lost. Against the right to protest, the Metropolitan Police argued that the need to enforce strict social distancing under the COVID19 lockdown meant that the vigil was unlawful and could not go ahead. The message was, and remained, “stay home”.

Two worlds of bodies and emotions were in conflict: a proper place for protest colliding with laws assigning people a proper place during a public health emergency. It seemed protest had lost: Reclaim These Streets moved the protest online and urged people not to gather at the Common but to light a candle on their doorstep instead. Yet, many people felt too strongly about what had happened to Sarah not to show their feelings in public. The injunction to “stay home” seemingly requiring them to buckle under the threat of being in a public space at night. On 12 March, hundreds of people gathered on Clapham Common for a peaceful vigil, too emotionally affected by Sarah’s death to express their anger and solidarity. They chanted “shame on you” at the police. Banners read “end violence against women”. Flowers were placed. People paid respect in silence.

As it got dark, phone lights substituted for candles. Then, the police decided to disperse the crowd. Mobile phone footage showed ugly scenes, with male police officers pushing and shoving increasingly angry women away from the Common. The following day, politicians from both the Left, such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and Right, such as Home Secretary Priti Patel, described the scenes as upsetting and unacceptable. Questions were raised about the balance of freedoms: between the right to protest and the need to protect the people during the pandemic.

For me, this is about the clash of two different bodily regimes (i.e. ways of assigning bodies to a proper place). On the one hand, Reclaim these Streets are demanding that women have a right to public space in cities, including at night. They have a right to be safe in the city. The city is, thus, a proper place for women. Including when they are angry, demanding, protesting. On the other hand, COVID19 (since the first lockdown in March 2020) has radically altered the map of proper places for everyone. It is not just that new terms, such as socially distancing, have emerged to change how people need to police themselves spatially in relationship to other people. Nor that there are new spatial injunctions: stay home, stay local. It is that lockdown was backed up by the law (thereby converting public space into a kind of carceral space).

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the vigil and its policing, I am arguing that the ugly scenes were a product of two regimes for policing bodies and feelings coming into conflict. However, these are not the only bodily regimes operative in this moment. People were quick to point out that there had been a vigil for Sarah Everard, yet other deaths had not produced such a visceral outpouring of anger, grief and solidarity. In particular, Mina Smallman asked why the deaths of her daughters had not prompted anything like the reaction that Sarah Everard’s had. Her answer was simple, because they are black.

On 5 June 2020, at about 7pm, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry met friends in a park in North West London to celebrate Bibaa’s 46th birthday. As the friends dispersed, Nicole and Bibaa are thought to have been left together in the park just after midnight, staying there until at least 1am, listening to music, taking photos, enjoying themselves. By 2.30am, however, they were no longer answering their phones. The family say the Metropolitan Police were slow to act. They decided to search the park themselves – and it was Nicole’s boyfriend, Adam, who found the bodies. They had been stabbed to death.

Later, it emerged, appallingly, two police officers had taken selfies with the bodies. For Mina Smallman, the actions of these two officers reminded her of lynching in America’s deep south, where people would pose for photographs around the hanging bodies.  In an interview on 26 March, Mina pointed out that such photographs were intended to terrorize black people. It was, she said, impossible to imagine that white bodies would be treated this way. There was no vigil after the deaths of her daughters.

Other deaths do not even make the national news. Some deaths are simply ignored. Take my own neighbourhood in north London. On 19 January 2021, shortly after 9pm, Anas Mezenner was found injured at the junction of West Green Road and Willow Walk in North London. He died from stab wounds hours later. He was 17. Anas’ death barely made even the local news. At 4pm on 22 February police were called to West Green Road again. There were reports of a stabbing. Emergency services were unable to save another young man’s life. His was 21 year old Tyreke Watson. Witnesses claimed to have seen him being ambushed as he came out of a corner store.

Tyreke’s death added two sensational elements, so now both deaths made the national press. The first was proximity: a month apart, Anas and Tyreke died barely two minutes away from one another; second, was the undertone of gang violence. Both deaths now cast in the same narrative: warring gangs of black and minority ethnic youths. The neighbourhood lies between two postcodes: N15 and N22. Each postcode dominated by a notorious gang: Wood Green MOB in N15, Tottenham Mandem in N22. The turf war between the gangs regularly spills over into violence – and murder. The deaths of Anas and Tyreke already have a narrative, so their deaths required no new story to be written. No interviews with relatives. No vigils required.

Irrespective of whether these young men had anything to do with gangs, or indeed these postcodes, their story was folded into the continual replaying of the long-standing myth of black criminality. The deaths of young black and minority ethnic men in London has become simply unremarkable, normalised even. Here, two conflicting bodily regimes are evident. One is organised “from below”, by gangs that assign young men’s bodies to particular neighbourhoods/postcodes – and that violently police their social order. The other renders certain young male bodies almost invisible, unable to hear the experiences of young black and minority ethnic men and their families. Not only do these ways of assigning bodies to a proper place clash with one another, they seem entirely at odds with bodily regimes that see and hear and speak the death of a young white woman so vividly and intensely.

London is not alone in wrestling with the different ways that bodies are assigned to a ‘proper place’. Nor is it alone in making some bodies more visible than others, in speaking the emotions of some people more than others, in hearing the experiences of some people more than others. And there is a politics to this, in which people struggle not only to be heard but also to be paid attention to. Whether they are or not, a direct outcome of the relationship between bodies, power and space.

About the author: Steve Pile is a Professor of Human Geography in the Department of Geography at The Open University. His work has focused on the relationship between place, space and the politics of identity.

This post builds on Steve’s latest book:

Pile S (2021) Bodies, Affects, Politics: the clash of bodily regimes Oxford: Wiley RGS-IBG Book series which is available to purchase here.

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