Political Policing, or Business as Usual?
They persecute us. Yes, of course they do. We’re a threat to the system they represent. If we don’t want them to harass us, then we should just submit to their laws and integrate ourselves into their system. They won’t bother us if we do that.
– Buenaventura Durruti
Last week, I was stood alongside about 15 other people outside an Edinburgh police station for the second time in five days, waiting for the release of a UK Uncut activist. Unlike the two women arrested during Saturday’s action in BHS, this man was arrested at his home for breach of the peace, a chargeable offence in Scotland.
There are now four UK Uncut activists in Edinburgh preparing for court dates, along with the Fortnum and Mason 145, and dozens of people awaiting trials for violent disorder and other serious offences following the March for the Alternative on March 26th, and the student fees protests over the winter months. Criminal convictions could have a devastating effect on these people’s lives, and solidarity with those facing charges is crucial.
The behaviour of the police has been widely condemned by the left, some of whom accusing them of overstepping the mark with “political policing”. But we should not be surprised by the actions of the police. Examples of brutality and violence such as the hospitalisation of Alfie Meadows, the kettling and horse-charging of school children, and the systematic arrests of demonstrators should not be mistaken for illegitimate policing, or the actions of a few “bad apples”. The repression of political dissent is a central function of the police, but we rarely see them carrying out this role as there has been little in the way of effective organisation and struggle in the UK since the miners’ strike. The anti-cuts movement has become the biggest threat to the political status quo in years, and the militancy of the protests and occupations was bound to be met with violence and arrests from the police. During the miners’ strike, when it seemed like the miners could win, police were drafted in from across the country to break up pickets and escort scabs into the mines. During the student fees protests, when crowds gathered in Parliament Square and could have prevented the legislation about tuition fee rises being passed, police used brutal, violent means to contain the protesters and ensure business as usual inside Parliament.
Clearly the police perform some useful social functions, and if all the police did was beat up protesters and break up picket lines, it would be hard for the public to justify their existence. Arresting wife-beaters, breaking up pub fights, providing a crime reference number for your insurance claim after your house has been burgled, giving directions to lost tourists is all in a days work for most police. In periods where there is little in the way of organised political dissent, this is the friendly side of policing that many people see. Lots of people feel reassured by the presence of police on the streets, and more bobbies on the beat are often promised by hopeful politicians keen to present themselves as community-minded.
Not all sections of society hold such a rose-tinted view of the police, and the harassment and violence seen as extreme by the liberal left is terror as usual for migrants, sex workers, the homeless and other disenfranchised groups. Strained relations between the police and black and Asian communities has been well-documented, with the scandal of the 1980s sus laws, the targeting of Asian youth through anti-terror legislation, and legacy of the Steven Lawrence investigation and the institutional racism of the Met Police being some of the more high-profile issues. The recent death of Smiley Culture who suffered a fatal stab-wound while under arrest in March, has mobilised protests and campaigns from predominantly black communities. Smiley Culture has unfortunately become one of a long line of people to die in police custody, the majority of whom come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
For many of those arrested or beaten by the police on anti-cuts protests, shocked at the outing of PC Mark Kennedy and others infiltrating left-wing movements or the footage of Jody McIntyre being dragged from his wheelchair by riot police, this is their first experience of the oppressive nature of policing. Whilst all these things warrant our condemnation, we should not be shocked. The police often tell us their role is to facilitate peaceful protest, what they won’t tell us is that they will contain and suppress any actions that actually pose a threat to the political and economic order. The government are perfectly happy for people to hold rallies and marches, as this doesn’t impact on the workings of government, or hit them where it hurts – their pockets. The million-strong anti-war marches showed how much notice the government take when we exercise our democratic right to march. It is only when our actions begin to cause disruption and pose a real threat that the government may sit up and listen.
The student protests and occupations, the direct action during the March for the Alternative, workers and Trade Unions balloting for industrial action, disabled people protesting the benefits system, and the ongoing UK Uncut actions on high streets across the country all pose a threat to the government’s austerity measures. Not only do the actions themselves cause disruption and loss of profit, but they run the even greater risk of inspiring public support, and creating a culture of resistance encouraging others to join in too. With greater numbers and greater militancy the anti-cuts movement could easily win, but the government are unlikely to surrender without a fight. By now it is obvious that we are not “all in this together”, and that some people fair better than others under the austerity measures. What is good for big business and politicians is not good for us, and we can’t be surprised when big business and politicians call on the police to defend their interests. If the anti-cuts movement is going to win, we will have to anticipate repression from the police, that’s how we know we’re doing it right, how we know we’re posing a threat. An article by The Commune explained it like this,
the police defend the state unconditionally, the state defends capital unconditionally, and capital attacks us without remorse – or even a second thought.
The police are not on our side, and we cannot expect them to tolerate us.
Clearly, some police are more brutal than others, and it’s unlikely to hear a police officer say “I joined the police to defend the interests of capital”. There has even been talk of police marching against cuts to their own budget. But even if they did march, what are they marching for? The right to be paid well to escort bailiffs who will evict people from their homes when Housing Benefit cuts kick in, to keep their jobs and numbers so they can “effectively manage” further strikes and protests by whatever means necessary, to reward those who will infiltrate political organisations and sleep with young activists? The police who march against budget cuts are the same police who will arrest you for holding a banner in BHS, or crack skulls during the next school student walk-out. Calling this “political policing” suggests that the police’s actions are out of the ordinary, that they are anything other than political. The police who arrest and harass us are just doing their job, and doing it well.
Knowing that the police will do what they can to undermine our actions and intimidate people away from participation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge it. But instead of calling for more liberal policing, a polite jostle rather than a horse charge, or a telling off instead of an arrest, we should instead turn our efforts into educating ourselves and each other about police tactics and our rights under arrest, and offering practical support and solidarity to those singled out and victimised. They will attack us, arrest us and monitor us, and they will hope we all get sick of it and give up. They will make examples of us, send photos of those they can’t track to the press, and if we are not prepared for it they might win. It’s never pleasant to be on the receiving end of police attention, and the actions they take as part of their working day can ruin or even cost us our lives. We need to watch each other’s backs and be prepared for the police to do their worst, and we must stand in solidarity with those injured and arrested. I’m sure I will be outside or even inside that police station in Edinburgh again before the summer is through, but if we carry on organising within our workplaces, universities and communities, I’m sure we can win.
Ramona is a research student, part of the editorial collective at libcom.org and a member of Edinburgh Anarchist Federation.