When Patsy Stevenson was arrested on the night of 13 March, at the vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, it was hard to believe what was happening: at the precise moment in which public faith in the police force most needed restoring, after the murder of Everard at the hands of a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, video footage showed a young woman in the dark being pushed forcibly to the ground by officers and handcuffed. The manner of Stevenson’s arrest was condemned by politicians across parties – with the home secretary, Priti Patel, setting up an inquiry. On social media, the commentary was toxically mixed: Stevenson received abuse and death threats at the same time as being praised for speaking up with dignity, courage and transparency.
When she appears on Zoom, she looks pale, composed and serious-minded beneath her eyecatching red hair (was it this that made the police mistake this ordinary 28-year-old woman for a firebrand?). She is in a London flat with her dog, Lexy, who pops up on screen supportively beside her. Reports of her arrest focused on Stevenson’s terror when the police pinned her down, but what was going through her mind? “I was thinking: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get kicked out of uni… I’ll never get a job.’” She is now repeating (“because of what happened”) a foundation year at Royal Holloway, University of London, studying physics. She goes on: “I’d never been in trouble with the police before. But my main thought was: this is what they’ve all been talking about. I used to think there was no smoke without fire.”
I suggest that before we talk about anything else, she needs to see off her Twitter critics. Why did she attend the gathering, given the Covid situation and given that Everard’s parents had advised people to stay away? Stevenson explains it was an intense time personally: “A lot of people say I shouldn’t bring it back to a man… but my uncle passed away a week before the vigil.” She had looked after him, in Brighton, during his last days. She gestures towards his ashes on a shelf in her flat, beside his “Women’s Rights” badge. He had been homeless and she loved him: “He had nothing to give but would help anyone in any way he could.”
Grief was the spur to “show support” of others. Many felt similarly and the vigil was lent extra respectability by the attendance of the Duchess of Cambridge. “A lot of women were angry at being told we couldn’t mourn the death of a woman.” The Covid rules were “sparse and broad”, she recalls before making her most important point: “Protesting is a human right.” For this reason, she is taking legal action against the Met. “When I’m able to tell it [her story is sub judice], people will be shocked. If they knew what really happened, Cressida Dick would be out in a heartbeat.” She laments Dick’s lack of accountability and Patel’s failure to follow through: “Priti Patel says she is starting an inquiry but nothing has happened.”
There has been a repellent postscript to Stevenson’s ordeal. She has been “liked” on Tinder by more than 50 policemen. She shows me, on her phone, an image of a uniformed police officer with the accompanying text: “Yes, I do have cuffs and a baton and no, they are not pink and fluffy.” She believes these advances on the dating site were “for intimidation purposes” and knows they are from bona fide officers (Tinder Gold gives access to this information). Since her arrest, she has had mixed treatment from the police. She appealed to them after a “particularly extreme” death threat. But when she read out the threat to a female police officer, including the line, “You hijacked the vigil and that’s why I am going to…” the officer said: “Well… did you hijack it?” She says “I didn’t – but even if I had, that doesn’t warrant a death threat.”
Stevenson had never planned to be arrested. She had never been an activist (before now). Nor is it her aim to indiscriminately damn the police. She was visited by a “very kind” male police officer who installed extra security. Her parents, who live in Southend where she grew up, “have supported me the whole time, bless them”.
Does she wish the arrest had not happened? “There have been times I’ve wanted to say: ‘I’m done.’” She has bad dreams. She admits her mental health has suffered. At times, it is hard not to feel like a victim. “But it’s lit a fire within me. I’ve met so many amazing people and human rights activists. I’m starting a podcast with another woman arrested at the vigil. I have a platform and I hope, if I can use it for good so that more women are heard, that will suffice.”