By MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News
(LONDON) — Video and images of police detaining women as they gathered in London Saturday to protest violence and harassment have sparked an outcry.
Hundreds gathered Saturday evening to honor the life of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who was found dead days after she disappeared while walking home from a friend’s apartment and whose murder has launched a national conversation on women’s safety.
With Britain currently under lockdown due to the novel coronavirus, organizers ultimately canceled the vigil — held at Clapham Common in south London, near where Everard was last seen — hours before it was scheduled to start due to concerns on the legal risks of attending.
The Metropolitan Police, which serves the greater London area, had also urged people to find “other ways to mourn Sarah in a safe way.”
Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer, was charged with murder and kidnapping in connection with her death, police said.
As night fell on the peaceful protest, during which attendees laid flowers and held signs saying, “We will not be silenced,” police could be seen in social media videos handcuffing several women and leading them away as onlookers screamed and booed. Photos also captured police detaining women.
The police response drew criticism from the mayor of London.
“The scenes from Clapham Common are unacceptable,” Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted Saturday night. “The police have a responsibility to enforce Covid laws but from images I’ve seen it’s clear the response was at times neither appropriate nor proportionate. I’m [in] contact with the Commissioner & urgently seeking an explanation.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said she has asked the Metropolitan Police for a “full report on what happened” after seeing some of the “upsetting” footage online.
Reclaim These Streets, which had been planning the vigil before calling it off Saturday, said it was “deeply saddened and angered by the scenes of police officers physically manhandling women at a vigil against male violence.”
“Now is the time for the police and the government to recognize that the criminal justice system is failing women,” the group said in a statement late Saturday. “Tonight, it has failed women again, in the most destructive way.”
Leading up to Saturday, organizers said police were trying to work with them on how to safely execute the event. Police ultimately declared it unlawful due to COVID-19.
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball defended officers in a late-night statement, saying people at the vigil were “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting COVID-19,” and that her officers “were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people’s safety.”
“We repeatedly encouraged those who were there to comply with the law and leave. Regrettably, a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items,” she said.
Police arrested four people for public order offenses and for breaches of the Health Protection Regulations, Ball said.
“Let me end by saying that across the Met, we review every single event that we police to see if there are lessons that can be learnt,” Ball added. “This one will be no different.”
Police warned people to avoid the area as protesters gathered Saturday evening.
“The gathering at #ClaphamCommon is unsafe. Hundreds of people are tightly packed together in breach of the regulations and risking public health,” Lambeth Police tweeted Saturday evening. “We are urging people to go home and we thank those who have been engaging with officers and who are leaving.”
Earlier on Saturday, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick released a video statement, asking people to heed COVID-19 mandates and find other ways to “express their sadness and their solidarity.”
“We are still in a global pandemic, and such a gathering would be unlawful, and would be unsafe,” she said.
Everard’s disappearance and murder ignited a national discussion on women’s safety in the days since she was reported missing.
Anna Birley, one of the organizers of Reclaim These Streets, had previously told ABC News that the group wanted to make it clear that women are not the problem.
“The solution is not to tell women to moderate or change their behavior. It isn’t about what we wear. It isn’t about what time we go out,” Birley said. “Actually it’s about the men who choose to attack or harass women.”
Everard was last seen March 3 in the area of Clapham Common at around 9:30 p.m., according to police. The marketing executive had been at a friend’s house and was walking back to her home in Brixton, a trip that should have taken about 50 minutes.
On Friday, Metropolitan Police said that a body found earlier in the week in a wooded area in Kent, about 55 miles southeast from where she was last seen, was that of Everard.
Couzens appeared in court earlier on Saturday and was remanded into custody.
A woman was also arrested on suspicion of assisting an offender.
ABC News’ Zoe Magee, Ella Torres, Matt Foster and Mike Trew contributed to this report.
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