The Police Line

May Fraser explores the tensions between love and power in dealing with the police.

The other side of the police line at the intersection of Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, two police officers dragged someone who had been sitting, by the arms, across the road; searched, questioned, arrested and drove the person away in a police van.

Several minutes later this side of the line someone took up the mic and started to sing a song, then said thank you to the police for ‘looking after us, making us feel safe, allowing us to be here’, spoke of being arrested at a previous protest, describing the time in the cell as ‘relaxing, I did some reading and meditating’, and said ‘we are lucky in this country as in other countries the police use violence’.

I am right next to the police line, and when this person had finished singing, I overhear one officer saying to another ‘Amazing, just amazing [sarcastic tone], now can we tear some tents down.’

So the thing is XR folks. I agree that it’s important to see police officers as human. I agree it’s not useful to demonise all police officers. I agree that deliberately getting up in the faces of police officers, and being aggressive and abusive towards them at a protest is not going to help achieve the goals you have set out.

I am also really concerned about the ‘love the police’ dogma that you are asserting, and I am completely bewildered by the thankfulness to the police that seems to be oozing out of people.

From where I am, right next to the police line, the police officers standing shoulder to shoulder have a very specific job to do, and that job is to wield power and control over people.

I invite the people involved with the XR movement to consider what we mean by ‘violence’. My working definition of violence is something like this: being dominating over someone, with or without physical force, with an effect of diminishing someone’s dignity. This is what police officers are employed to do. Police officers have more power, and use tactics of coercion and control over people as standard procedure.

From standing in a line at a protest, to the deaths in police custody or following police contact, such as Kevin Clarke who died in Lewisham last year after police restrained him whilst he was experiencing a mental health crisis. Policing is about power and control.

If it is part of the strategy of XR to build positive relationships with police officers in the hope for better outcomes at protests; or part of an intentional longer term process to invite police officers to connect in some way with the movement; or more broadly with a hope that ‘The Force’ will have more capacity to care for civilians that they routinely brutalise; if it is any of these, I don’t see how gushing gratitude fits.

When you rave about how great the police officers were during your arrest, when you say, as one person poured to me ‘I cannot fault them, they did not just do their job, they went beyond, they were very accommodating and really showed care’, you are doing two things:

1. You are making invisible the daily experiences of harm that people face from police officers, particularly poor folks and people of colour.
2. You are making invisible the violence that the system of policing perpetrates.

The police officers may well have gone beyond their role and been caring during your arrest and custody, but this is white middle/upper class privilege. And pointing out this privilege is not to discount the XR movement; it is an invitation to accountability, and anti-violence.

I invite XR folks to consider how we might foster practices of ‘accountability’ in our communities, the kind of communities that will be required if we are to create alternative structures and to survive climate change.

I agree that totalising people’s identities and punitive, ostracising responses are not useful. It would be hypocritical of me to believe in prison abolition and transformative justice whilst vilifying all police officers. In the society I want to live in, dignity for all is the constitution, and this includes those who have caused harm.

Love is not the only answer. Love is powerful, but it is not through just loving someone that they learn to be accountable to power and to redress harm they have caused. As a therapeutic practitioner it is my daily work to support people towards their preferred ways of being. Care and connection are crucial. Attention to power is also imperative. We can do this work with police officers, sure, but not while they are in a system that is designed to oppress.

Comments (24)

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  1. Joe Erasmus says:

    Fantastic article May. You make a very important point. The police in every context (fascist, communist, liberal) are always and in every case, the state police. They serve the interests of those who have appropriated the institutions of the state (interests that rarely coincide with those of ordinary people). I, like yourself, am an abolitionist, but I don’t just stop at the abolition of the penal system, I extend this to the police and to the punitive paternal state itself. The biggest myth going around is that ‘the police keep us safe’ and that they ‘prevent crime’. They do neither of these.

    For Bella readers who want to understand the arguments I recommend Alex S. Vitale’s book The End of Policing, published by Verso. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2426-the-end-of-policing

    It outlines the main points for those who have come to realise that the problem is policing itself.

    1. May Fraser says:

      Hey Joe, Thank you. Yes brilliant book, and for those who dont have the means to read the book, there is an interview with Alex Vitale here https://soundcloud.com/upstreampodcast/alex-vitale though his comments about responses to mental health crises in the UK are incorrect and problematic. I wasnt explicit, but my work on prison abolition absolutely extends to police and the whole criminal legal system. We wont deliver on social justice until these systems are dismantled.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Who is going to enforce any forthcoming ecocide law? I think Extinction Rebellion have a deeply researched and thought-out plan that involves shifting the opinions of a significant section of police officers about who is the ‘enemy’ in the country. Whether it will work, I do not know. I am still considering the world of Benjamin Zephania quoted in this article:
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/04/extinction-rebellion-race-climate-crisis-inequality
    Extinction Rebellion deliberately encourages those who will tend to be harmed least by the police to put themselves forward as “arrestables” to clog up the justice system until it decides to put its energies to more vital questions of injustice. I get that some anarchists etc would rather confront the police, but that is not the XR priority. It does seem that XR had to get better advice on dealing with arrest, and the occasional naivety of some of their activists may turn out to be of little or no protection; yet their refusal to conform to stereotypes of ‘offenders’ may start a process of cognitive dissonance to psychological conversion in the minds of officers. Basically, the idea will be to create a new stereotype of ‘offender’ in an expensive suit riding between plush offices and clubs in a limousine, while their corrupt business empire poisons the planet and chokes out the future of policeer-junior.

    If the quickest way to shut down the major climate polluters is to go through laws, courts and police, the XR approach may be better than most.

    1. May Fraser says:

      We have to think creatively and come up with alternatives to these punitive, oppressive systems which perpetrate violence. We have to think about what violence is, and what accountability means (as the criminal legal system doesnt do this at all). As I said, I dont see how gushing gratitude fits with shifting opinions of police officers. And as has been said by people far more articulate and knowledgeable than me, such as here http://gal-dem.com/extinction-rebellion-risk-trampling-climate-justice-movement/ we have to be led by indigenous peoples around the world. If we white people can just stop and listen.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @May Fraser, I am not sure how the XR approach could be seen as aiding police oppression of minorities. If the police are tied up in arresting activists, they surely have less time to devote to minority-oppression. You seem to be perhaps reading a little too much into some silly words uttered by a few XR activists, who may be newbies in police confrontation. XR activism is driven by a set of open guidelines for avowedly tactical reasons. Their protest banners and published statements should be considered to carry their essential messages.

        I personally would reject a sectarian hierarchy of response to the climate emergency, whether led by indigenous people or another section. We surely need to give appropriate place to global climate science, and ecological researchers around the world, whether they are ‘indigenous’ or not. One recent report on how nature-depleted the UK is should be a call to action to ‘indigenous’ UK people, as well as anyone else living here or elsewhere.

        Do you believe we are facing a climate emergency with perhaps a decade to make significant global changes to human societies and economies? Do you agree with the Benjamin Zephaniah quotes in the article I linked to:
        “Most of the black students and the Asian students are saying my priority is just to stay safe and get on, and get this grade, and kind of better my family, and move on,” he told the Guardian. “It frustrates me because I want to tell them that it’s all connected. What good is your grade if you’ve got no planet?”

        My impression of UK-based anarchism is that a lot of the movement dropped the ball on the environment, considering life “post-scarcity”. My current view, although I have some sympathy for anarchist analyses, is that global green authoritarianism is probably going to be necessary (if maybe not sufficient) to wrench the world back from ecological catastrophe. Certainly, this would consult with indigenous people and scientists and others.

        XR have published their plans, have accepted some criticism and admitted some mistakes. If you have any creative, alternative ideas, or have translations of indigenous thought-leadership, by all means publish them here and hopefully find a ready readership. But given the fractious infighting and extensive secret political police infiltration of UK radical movements, and their sometimes rather vague plans for a new order, I think you have to do better than snipe at XR from the sidelines (and I share some of your scepticism and concerns).

        1. Jo says:

          Very well put Sleeping Dog.

        2. May Fraser says:

          I had read that article and Benjamin Zephaniah’s quotes in it, and to me it spoke to what I know from my family, my friends, and communities I have lived and worked in for a long time, that when you are facing huge social injustice, state violence, structural racism, marginalisation, and you are just trying to survive under capitalism, just getting through the day is all you can focus on.

          This is why social justice, action on climate change, have to be addressed at the same time- it’s the same neo-liberal capitalist white supremest imperialist cis-heteropatriarchal states that are stealing, invading and occupying land, exploiting and killing people and destroying ecology. It is all connected, as Zephaniah says, and that’s why we have to come up with alternative liberative ways of being with each other. I have creative ideas, and I have learnt a lot and continue to learn a lot from Indigenous people and people of colour from around the world, I am practising these ideas daily in my community.

          I understand that for a lot of people it’s unfathomable to say policing is a violent system, because a lot of people believe that the criminal legal system is a just one. I have witnessed and experienced so many times that it is not.

          My definition of violence comes from years of working in the ‘domestic violence’ sector. If someone in an intimate relationship is controlling of a partner, for example restricting where they go, what they say, what they do; or if they coerce their partner, pressurising or threatening them, we would say this is violent behaviour.

          Finally, I just have to say that I was not sniping, far from it. I invited XR folks to think about harm and think about accountability. And I wasn’t on the sidelines anymore than anyone else who has volunteered, put in time and energy, and supported the actions. What I wrote is critique offered out of respect. If I didn’t have any respect for what they are trying to do I wouldn’t have bothered to say anything. I offer critique when I respect people enough and think they are interested in learning, which I believe to be so from my conversations with many folks in the XR movement.

  3. Jo says:

    “From where I am, right next to the police line, the police officers standing shoulder to shoulder have a very specific job to do, and that job is to wield power and control over people.”

    And?

    They have a basic job to do which is to maintain order. I don’t have a problem with that.

    XR clearly don’t wish to be seen as a violent group. I don’t have a problem with that either especially when so many young people are involved in the movement.

    You, May, seem to have a problem with the fact that police have authority over others. Why? They have a job to do yet you equate the authority that comes with the job as a form of violence. Why? If I’m breaking the law the police have the authority to arrest me. What’s wrong with that?

    Why is it so wrong for XR to show courtesy during their peaceful protests towards police? Why do you sound so disgusted about that?

    I’m bamboozled and really concerned by your attitude. I don’t think it’s healthy.

    I think it’s even worse to drag deaths in police custody into this. You clearly hate police May. That’s what I see in this piece. Your “working definition of violence” is bonkers. You’re labelling every police officer with statements like that. How can that be right?

    I believe that huge changes are needed in the way people in police custody are managed. I absolutely believe that we need change in the way cases of injury or death in custody are investigated. Scotland’s system is particularly bad and not one that inspires confidence. It is most unfortunate that there seems no appetite for change when it is clear that there’s so much wrong with the system. I recall one particular death in custody where it was weeks before the officers involved were even interviewed. Thus, plenty of time for people to get their stories straight. The whole thing stank! I think it’s still dragging on actually.

    So yes, many things need changed May but, please, don’t do this other stuff where you label all police as “violent”. We saw the funeral of a police officer just the other day in England who was murdered while doing his job. There are a lot of dangerous violent people out there. The vast majority aren’t in the police force.

    1. Joe Erasmus says:

      Jo, you have spectacularly missed the point of May’s article. She’s not saying all police are ‘bad’, or that we should not be ‘courteous’ to them, what she’s saying is that policing itself is highly problematic. It is problematic because the police exist to protect the interests of the very state and the very corporations that ER are protesting against. If you look at the many articles here on Bella relating to police violence, police corruption and most importantly the politically motivated harms done by undercover policing itself, you will get a more nuanced picture than the one you project when you say things like “you clearly hate the police May” and “I’m bamboozled and really concerned by your attitude. I don’t think it’s healthy”.
      Healthy?
      The police and the state of policing (the punitive paternalism that dis-proportionally harms minorities and those at the margins of social space) is perhaps the single most unhealthy aspect of any society on earth.

      1. Jo says:

        Joe

        I don’t think I’ve “spectacularly” missed anything. Why do some people respond, when another person disagrees, by suggesting they’re somehow misguided or haven’t understood what’s been said? It’s quite patronising.

        I commented solely on May’s article here and her criticism of the XR approach. I’ve expressed my views on that. They’re different from yours. Unless your status of “abolitionist” involves the abolition of free speech as well as all the other stuff you want to do away with, surely it’s fine to disagree?

    2. “XR clearly don’t wish to be seen as a violent group.” No, they practice non-violent direct action.

      “They have a basic job to do which is to maintain order. I don’t have a problem with that.” That’s a fair position Jo but do you have a threshold to that?
      Have you been watching the situation in Barcelona? The police are maintianing order there too. You okay with that?

      1. Jo says:

        “Have you been watching the situation in Barcelona? You okay with that?”

        What a very twisted response Mike.

        Of COURSE I’m watching the situation in Barcelona. It’s horrific. Worse than horrific. I’m not ok with it and I didn’t, anywhere in my post, suggest otherwise.

        You’re picking up some terrible habits from the MSM, Mike, by twisting what someone has said.

        Barcelona is not what May is writing about here. It’s not what I’ve written about in my post either and you’re being thoroughly dishonest by linking that situation with both this article and my response to it.

        May said this,

        “My working definition of violence is something like this: being dominating over someone, with or without physical force, with an effect of diminishing someone’s dignity. This is what police officers are employed to do. ”

        So, for May, simply to be a police officer is an act of violence. That, to me, is an absurd approach.

        I’ve also acknowledged in my post that the way investigations are carried out into deaths in custody is woefully inadequate. As an individual I’ve raised my own concerns about that with elected representatives. The set up in Scotland is beyond discredited. The subject merits far more than a few lines.

        This case, for example, was shocking and it remains shocking.

        https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/uk-scotland-46591551

        The officers in this case were “advised” by the Scottish Police Federation to refuse to answer questions for 32 days! That such an option is available at all is scandalous, moreso when a man is dead. In circumstances where someone has been injured or, worse, killed, investigations should begin at once…by a body that is independent. The body known as Pirc doesn’t meet requirements, that’s more than clear. The question is why the Scottish Government and the Parliament haven’t acted to make vital changes. Mr Bayou’s family are still fighting for answers. The rest of us are as well.

        There is no doubt that changes are needed. There is no doubt that there are police officers who abuse their position. We also know from the Bayou case that the SPF is able to stall an investigation by “advising” its members to refuse to cooperate for more than a month… even when a civilian has died. I’m concerned that the SPF can do that but I’m more concerned that the Scottish Parliament hasn’t done something about it. I’ve raised those concerns.

        Back to my original post tho’. I was responding to May’s take on XR’s decision to try to work amicably with police present at their protest. I think XR must function in the way that’s best for them and no one should criticise them by suggesting that by seeking an amicable approach they are somehow condoning or ignoring other events where police have employed deplorable tactics.

        That’s what I commented on, Mike. I didn’t claim the system is perfect. I’m clear it isn’t and I’ve expanded on that in this subsequent post. Your own response, to ask if I’m “okay with what’s happening in Barcelona”, was inappropriate and downright cheap.

        1. I’m not picking up any bad habits. Nor was I comparing the two very different situations.

          My point, which I thought was obvious, was to challenge your assertion that the police “have a basic job to do which is to maintain order. I don’t have a problem with that.”

          My point is to argue that this is deeply problematic if the order they are maintaining is corrupt, unjust, or based on an economy that is destroying us.

          1. Jo says:

            No, Mike, your “point” was to introduce Barcelona into the mix and ask if I was, “okay with that”. You took a quote from me and turned it into something I didn’t say. That IS a bad habit, particularly at the BBC. They do it all the time. I’m calling it what it is, it’s dishonest.

            I commented on the XR protests alone, not anything else. There was no police violence there to condemn. I also acknowledged that other serious issues in our system have been highlighted repeatedly yet, to date, the Scottish Parliament has failed utterly to address them. To bring Barcelona into it was just absurd and totally unnecessary.

          2. Jo says:

            Mike

            Fine. I was defending myself. That’s not pointless to me.

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          Jo,

          I agree with your initial posting and your subsequent dignified answers. For most of us in our day to day transactions, we accept the concept of ‘policing by consent’ – there is a general consensus that we agree that the police are empowered, within limits, to intervene when a crime is being committed or the peace is threatened.

          If we look, for example, at the Miners’ Strike during the 1980s (I was looking at some film about it recently and it is in my mind.) then, at places like Orgreave (the most egregious case) or around Ravenscraig, the police were clearly acting as agents of a powerful group against a group who were pursuing and industrial dispute. Having been on strike several times in my career, emotions can run high, but with sensitive policing which is also even-handed, then violence can be prevented, or minimised.

          Where I feel May’s article and Joe’s response fail is that they are conflating all aspects of policing and, because some is in the interests of a powerful group, they are generalising this to ALL aspects of policing.

          Well done, Jo.

          1. Jo says:

            Thank you Alasdair

            Like you, I remember the miners strike vividly and the role of police during it. Orgreave, of course, looms large and Ravenscraig especially because I live in Lanarkshire. These were terrible, terrible events I condemned at the time and still do. I remember TV news footage of the Yuill and Dodds trucks thundering into Ravenscraig, their drivers not caring whether they mowed down striking miners or not. My most vivid memory of that day is of an older Ravenscraig worker…standing watching in disbelief with tears running down his face. My own father cried as we watched.

            On this article, I respect XR and their determination to proceed in a peaceful manner. I believe that is essential and I’m happy they voiced their appreciation of how their actions were policed. It seemed to me that May’s deep disapproval of XR’s decision to make that statement contaminated the whole piece and heavily diluted any respect she might have for the group. Her subsequent responses on the thread have only served to reinforce that impression. That’s a shame. There are many individuals and groups doing good work. They’re to be encouraged. Sadly, sometimes, rather than focusing on their respective aims, some stop to tell others they’re doing it all wrong. That’s an even bigger shame. It holds everyone back and creates divisions which brings death to progress.

          2. Xeno Albannach says:

            “Not all police” sounds depressingly similar to #notallmen

    3. H Scott says:

      Yes Jo, that sentence jumped out at me – in an otherwise interesting article.

  4. DSED says:

    Thank you, May. This is a useful and powerful point of view. I hope XR takes it on board. Neutrality is a better stance.

    1. May Fraser says:

      Hm, I dont believe there is such a thing as neutrality. Inaction in the face of oppression is taking a position. I am for justice.

  5. Xeno Albannach says:

    Thank you for writing this.

    In addition to its blind classism and racism, I think XR’s biggest weakness is its naive, bourgeois arrogance, common to a certain type of activist who assumes good intentions on the part of opponents (meaning they think their opponents can be reasoned with, and will come round to their point of view). I’ve found the reality to be that unless you have something to threaten an official with (e.g. public embarrassment or career harm), nearly every meeting ends with, “Well, thanks for coming in. This has been very informative.” And nothing gets done.) I would argue that confrontation and divisiveness is often the moral, and healthy, response, and that “seeking common ground” is a luxury only a privileged faction can afford.

    1. May Fraser says:

      Yes that’s a really good point. This is something white middle class folks do a lot, and then get defensive and upset when you name the racist structures that uphold this privilege….
      You remind me of something said by a family member of someone who had died in police custody, and who has campaigned alongside many other families who have lost someone, that the police are always ‘learning’. After inquests and inquiries the police say they are ‘learning’ from it… Since 1990, over 1700 people have died in police custody or following police contact in the UK. That’s more than one person a week. My question is, what exactly are they learning?

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