In the coming months all of us, demonstrations, strikers, anti-capitalist activists need to discuss what we can do to push back the power of the police. We need demands which “deal” with the reality of police brutality...
It’s two o’clock in the morning. Over one hundred political activists, congregated in a small community centre, have laid their plans, made preparations and are attempting to get some rest for the day ahead. But things don’t go as expected.
The police have arrived, local roads are blocked, neighbours woken and more than eighty arrested. They have no weapons, intend no harm to human life. They just want their voices heard and have planned a “peaceful action” to make them heard. Eighty of them are arrested in one swoop and carted off to the local police cells.
This is not a scene from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or any similarly despotic regime. This sequence of events unfolded on the morning of Easter Monday, 13 April 2009, in central Nottingham. The arrested environmental activists were not planning the mass destruction of property, had not threatened anybody’s life. No bomb threats had been made. The police arrested them anyway.
News of the arrests made national headlines in the wake of an unfolding sequence of incidents where heavy-handed policing has caused death, injury and harassment. Policing at the G20 protests resulted in the death — murder, even — of one bystander. A woman is beaten with a police baton and another man seriously assaulted. Everyday more complaints are being made, more mobile phone videos and pictures are being sent to the press, of police thumping, beating, bashing and barging with riot shields.
In north London, workers occupying their factory to defend jobs are threatened with arrest. Further afield, a group of Glasgow parents fighting for the survival of their children’s school are harried and hampered by a police operation intent on ending their occupation.
This relatively intense period of police brutality and intimidation is just the thin end of a long historical wedge — a wedge as long as the history of the modern capitalist state and those who oppose it.
2009 marks a number of anniversaries – some of them landmarks in working class history — where the police played an repressive role. In April 1979, schoolteacher and anti-fascist Blair Peach was knocked unconscious — clubbed with a rubberised walkie-talkie — by a member of the “Special Patrol Group’ during a demonstration against the National Front. He died the next day.
Twenty five years ago, the state deployed mass police operations against striking miners in an effort to terrorise trade unionists and their communities into submission. Twenty years ago, close to one hundred football fans perished at the Hillborough Stadium. Questions remain over how police handled the movements of the massive crowd. Ten years ago, the MacPherson report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence concluded that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist”. The list could go on.
Most people rarely encounter the police. When we encounter them as individuals, it’s often at the end of a breathalyser or when we need an incident number for our insurance policy. Most of these encounters, especially if you’re white and middle-class, are not unpleasant. Just as we cannot judge the whole of the police force on the basis of minimal interactions such as these, we should not reduce our analysis to the “misdemeanours” of individual “bad cops”. When we encounter the police en masse, at a protest say, and when we look at the role of the police in its entirety, things are much clearer.
The death of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor and protest bystander clubbed by a member of the “Territorial Support Group” (TSG), causing such trauma to his body he collapsed and died, is very illustrative.
The cop who attacked Ian didn’t care that he was on his way home from work, did not care that he had nothing to do with the demonstration. Ian could well have been any one of the thousands protesting against capitalist greed and corruption. The member of the TSG who attacked Ian was amongst the ranks who covered their identification numbers, suited up in protective clothing, drew their batons and attacked.
The TSG didn’t just attack, they used force to “contain” demonstrators. The tactic of “kettling” demonstrators has been widely used for years — it was used for instance during the Grunwick strike of 1976. The idea is to secure the complete containment of large groups of people — most often people on demonstrations — using the bodies of police officers and the threat of violence. Anyone attempting to leave the containment area is, if lucky, warned and then beaten back by police. Those who’ve been “kettled” — the young, old, elderly, disabled, pregnant, ill — are kept captive at the whim of senior police officers. These examples of brutality and brutalising behaviours, unacceptable though they are, are just the tip of efforts to undermine and quell dissent.
Take the case of the Nottingham raid. Those arrested have been accused of a conspiracy to enact criminal damage. For the police to come to this conclusion they must be deeply penetrated into the environmental protest movement — deep enough to collect or manufacture evidence. We can be sure that police and other intelligence officers operate in many of our campaigns and organisations.
Another example, again from the Tomlinson case, is that of the coroners and the courts. It took two post-mortems to establish that Ian did not die of natural causes but through injuries sustained during a beating. Was this simply a case of incompetence on the part of the first pathologist? Maybe. Maybe not. What we can be sure of is that the pathologists, the coroners, the courts and police “ombudsmen” are not neutral actors. They, too, are part of the criminal justice system, part of the state’s apparatus.
The police and the legal system that supports them cannot be separated from the state as a whole. There are two interconnected ways of looking at the police and their recent actions.
The first: the police are to the state what paravanes are to minesweepers. A paravane is a torpedo shaped object towed far, far behind a minesweeper. “They are there, way out in the open, as the first contact with potentially explosive social material. If a cop is killed, or merely attacked, the state power makes a big hue and cry, and can draw a long breath of relief. It can use the incident for arousing public opinion against dissenters; it can use it for escalating repression; it can use it for deepening reaction; and in exchange, all it pays is a pension to the cop’s widow, if that. But not a hair on its own head is hurt.” (‘Cops, Dirty Harry, And Junious Poole’, Hal Draper).
The second: the police are the axe to the axeman of the state. The state wields the axe to finally quell opposition, to shut it down, finish it off.
The policing of the G20 demonstrations can be viewed as a mass provocation. The state knew full-well that they had near total control of the situation: capitalism, though in crisis, was not on the gurney; significant sections of the economy and finance had not be taken under workers’ control. The G20 demonstrations came nowhere close to threatening state power. They presented a problem and an opportunity: a problem in that the normal functioning of the City of London was under threat of disruption and an opportunity to win support for the state against those who oppose it.
But we should also understand that “going through the motions” of repressive police tactics on such a demonstration is good practice for the forces of the state. We can be sure that as the economic crisis generalises into all areas of society, as the fight to save jobs grows, as those organising against the fascist British National Party grow in number and confidence and as we seek and articulate our own political solutions to the crisis; that the police will present an obstacle.
Ian Tomlinson — an ordinary man on his way home from work — was the first, unwitting casualty of the police in what promises to be a long season of protest. The first thing for us to acknowledge and remember is this: it was a small group of activists present on the G20 demonstration, not the national media, not the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who first asked the question that needed to be asked: “What really happened to Ian Tomlinson?” Actiivists who organised public vigils and demonstrations that drew attention to his death.
In the coming months all of us, demonstrations, strikers, anti-capitalist activists need to discuss what we can do to push back the power of the police. We need demands which “deal” with the reality of police brutality.
As a first step we should demand an end to “kettling” and that the TSG be disbanded.
We need the workers’ movement to investigate the the policing of our demonstrations and strikes — to be prepared to monitor and challenge police actions in future.
As socialists, we have a special responsibility to expose the role of the police and to argue against those who would conciliate with the police or vacillate over the rights and wrongs of those protesting. There is no such thing as the one “bad apple”, the one “bad cop”. Our enemies are the state, its courts and the entire system of policing.