Protestors at Reclaim the Night have expressed their anger after a police officer monitoring the march told a student protester she would be issued with a Public Order Offence if she did not put away a sign reading “Fuck Harassment”.
The event was organised by UEA SU and was intended to raise awareness of the fear felt by women following incidents of sexual harassment or assault in public spaces. Marchers walked from the Owl Sanctuary to Flaunt down Prince of Wales Road, where a police officer reportedly told a UEA student her details would be recorded and a possible offence logged. The student in question said: “It saddens me to know that the police are more concerned about a swear word on a placard than about sexual harassment, which was the point of the protest.”
An SU spokesperson called the incident “completely unacceptable”. They said: “It really is extraordinary that at a protest march against violence and harassment, a young woman was harassed by police for carrying a sign that they deem to be abusive.”
The spokesperson claimed that Norfolk Constabulary “have been involved in victim blaming and rape culture for years”, in suggestion to the 2015 campaign ‘Time to Stop’ which involved posters telling women to stay with friends and not drink too much on nights out. At the time UEA’s SU called this campaign “ineffective, offensive and deeply outdated.”
A spokesperson for the SU added the incident, which took place March 2, is “just another example of the culture of intimidation that we’re protesting against.”
Under the 1986 Public Order Act, an individual is guilty of an offence “if he a) uses threatening or abusive words or b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening” within hearing or visual distance “of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”
Norfolk Constabulary were unable to comment on the specific incident at Reclaim the Night, stating they could not identify the police officer in question and thus could not confirm their reasons for approaching the student.
However a police spokesperson commented: “Members of the public do have the right to peaceful protests in this county but, as with any public incident, regardless of whether it is a protest or not, if people are acting in a manner that others perceive to be threatening, cause alarm or distress, it would likely be dealt with under Section Five of the Public Order Act.”
Local activist Katy Jon Went wrote in a blog post following the march: “As the sign was anti-harassment, I fail to see how it could be harassing!” She added: “Apparently, ‘Fuck Harassment’ on a handmade sign is a public order offence but ‘Fuck the Patriarchy’ wasn’t.”