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#KillTheBill: Lessons for Movement-Building from Abolitionist Feminist Organizers in the UK

#KillTheBill: Lessons for Movement-Building from Abolitionist Feminist Organizers in the UK

Abolitionist feminist organizers are turning a moment in the aftermath of a murder into a visible movement connecting gendered violence to the importance of #KillTheBill.

This essay discusses murder and police violence 

By Maya Bhardwaj

Over the past week in the UK, the South London abduction and murder of a young middle-class white woman, Sarah Everard,  yielded a week of nationwide protests and direct actions. While initial responses to Everard’s murder revolved around women’s safety and gendered violence, the news that her alleged killer was a London Met policeman, and viral photos of police violence against thousands of women who attended a vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham Commons last Saturday, has galvanized an abolitionist movement that indicts the police’s inherent violence.

This movement has convened an unlikely group of allies, placing abolitionist feminist groups alongside newly-politicized, largely white, liberal feminists. The emergence of a rallying cry of #KillTheBill, targeting a Bill facing parliament that proposes expanded police powers, has sparked a movement nationwide—offering lessons for abolitionist movement-building that resonate transnationally. 

Resisting white and liberal feminism

The first groups to call vigils in remembrance of Everard’s death were Reclaim the Streets, a new formation of largely middle-class white women who held many links to local government and institutional spaces. They chose to collaborate with the London Met—whose member was the alleged perpetrator—in planning these vigils, and ceded to police demands to call the vigils off. Abolitionist groups like Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action collective with many years of taking action against cuts to services to support survivors of domestic violence, rejected police silencing and stepped in to fill the gap.

Sisters Uncut and others clearly identified the police and the state as the agents of violence. When the police confirmed this analysis by brutalizing vigil attendees, Sisters Uncut was prepared to connect this violence to governmental structures that promise police violence with impunity.

Black and brown-led abolitionist feminist groups like BLM-UK, All Black Lives UK, and Abolitionist Futures were also ready to highlight the disproportionate rates of violence that women of color face from the police and others, and centered the names of Black women like Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry, and Blessing Olusegun alongside Everard. Trans women and queer people pushed back against trans-exclusive groups’ attempts to co-opt British feminism, and sex workers with groups like SWARM resisted the identification of only some women as deserving of protection. These groups, through centering those often marginalized in mainstream feminism, were those who mobilized day after day of direct actions and protests outside UK police headquarters and Parliament.

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Pivoting from women’s safety to liberation, state austerity, and the right to protest

These groups also linked Sarah Everard’s murder to the Police, Crimes, Sentencing, and Courts Bill facing the UK Parliament. This bill, rushed into the voting process by the ruling Conservative (Tory) party, proposes massively increased police powers, as well as the criminalization of protest and the surveillance of multiple racialized groups. Earlier efforts of civil liberties groups like Netpol, Women in Prison, and Liberty against the Bill had failed to gain wide traction. But by connecting police violence against Everard and vigil-goers to the Bill, groups like Sisters Uncut and others argued that the bill virtually guaranteed further police violence by criminalizing protest, turning a moment of brutal policing into a visible movement connecting gendered violence to the importance of #KillTheBill.

Choosing to reject nebulous demands for “women’s safety” that included tactics like undercover cops in nightclubs, in favor of a strategy that held sacred the right to protest and push back against expanded police and state powers, generated energy in the streets, brought the support of several members of Parliament, and showed a pathway forward for women’s liberation without state control. Thanks to the sustained actions outside of Parliament and across the UK, while the bill passed its “second reading,” it has now been stalled likely until mid-June. The effects of this organizing are clear: the sustained abolitionst feminist activism has stymied the Policing Bill and shaken the Conservatives.

Coalescing diverse allies

Abolitionist feminists have also galvanized diverse forces across the UK’s leftist and social justice movement ecosystem through #KillTheBill. The Bill’s targeting of wide swaths of the population has brought together members of the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) community, tenants rights groups like the London Renters Union, migrant justice groups fighting the hostile environment, and Black, South Asian, and Muslim groups with deep histories fighting the Islamophobic PREVENT laws and white fascist and police violence from the 1970s onwards. Even controversial white middle-class environmentalists and direct action groups like Extinction Rebellion have stepped up to join mobilizations and meetings against the Policing Bill. This represents a key moment of convening for unlikely allies, sparked by police violence against vigil-goers, the bill’s fast-tracking, and groups like Sisters Uncut stepping in to convene forces and hold a core narrative. 

Beyond the London bubble, the formation has yielded gatherings nationwide, including in more rural, more white, and less “leftist” communities who are now exploring local abolitionist solutions. These autonomous and decentralized activities have yielded a variety of tactics, including occupations of police stations and more militant tactics in cities like Bristol that challenge respectability politics. Holding these efforts together takes time and patience, but the emergence of such a coalition holds promise for a front that can disrupt Tory austerity and racist state violence.  

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Envisioning working-class and women of color-led abolitionist feminist alternatives

Groups are also thinking longer-term than #KillTheBill: they are articulating meaningful and specific abolitionist alternatives to prevent state and gender-based violence. New activists are hungry for political education. Groups like Sisters Uncut are filling that gap, providing analysis of guaranteed housing and income as preventers of gendered violence and highlighting how divesting from prisons and policing can yield solutions, like Women’s Building free from the Mayor’s Office for Police and Crime (MOPAC) on the former Holloway Women’s Prison site. Groups like CAPE (the Campaign Against Police Expansion) have emphasized a divest/invest framework that shows how shutting down mega-prison plans could prevent cases like Everard’s by funding community support systems, not prisons and police. Through the energy around Everard’s murder and #KilltheBill, dialogues about alternatives convened by groups like Abolitionist Futures are politicizing a whole new set of abolitionist feminists. Importantly, these alternatives draw on lessons from other countries with abolitionist movements, like the US, but lift up UK-specific history and practices, particularly from examples in working-class and Black and South Asian neighborhoods. By emphasizing these alternatives both in political education and in the media, this abolitionst feminist organizing is drawing in new supporters not just around what we don’t want, but also what we do. 

Sustaining the Movement

The past week of organizing offers lessons on how to pivot to systems-change narratives, radicalize new activists, and galvanize a nation-wide movement. It proves that limited, liberal responses, can be transformed into visions for systems-change. And it shows us how centering survivors, racialized groups, and other marginalized communities yield solutions that resonate across the UK. Following this summer’s Black uprisings, the energy around this current struggle to #KillTheBill heralds potential for transformative, not punitive, justice that might just change the UK as we know it.

Maya Bhardwaj (she/they) is an abolitionist community organizer and a researcher on queer South Asian diasporic activism, with 10 years of organising experience in the US, UK, India, Mexico, and more.

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