The Watchmen – State Violence in a Democracy

The role of the police in western society is beginning to be understood and challenged in ways that were inconceivable only a decade ago. The belief in ‘law and order’ and the infallibility of the police – or at least their role as a force for moral good in a system designed to uphold basic rights was deeply held. But the deluge of state violence now routinely witnessed and shared has fatally undermined that belief system and exposed as being based on a set of myths. ‘Policing by consensus’ – the idea that you can only police a society if a level of good relations is maintained is under threat and new radical notions of abolishing the police system as we understand it are emerging.

How did this happen?

Police forces in the US and Europe work in different social contexts, with different histories and different gun laws, but for many years now people have witnessed and shared police violence and gained an insight into how they operate. Context-free clips can act as clickbait and can be deceptive but the cumulative picture emerges of police acting with impunity, acting with overt and systemic racism, and acting with politicised violence has steadily eroded public faith.

Anyone who remembers the death of Blair Peach (1979) after he was hit on the head by a member of the Special Patrol Group, the handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder (1993), the shooting of Jean Charles de Menez (2005) or the death of Ian Tomlinson after he was struck from behind by a member of the Territorial Support Group, – the SPG’s successor organisation – (2009) – will not be surprised by any of this. Nor will anyone who witnessed the policing of Orgreave or the Battle of the Beanfield, but the collapse in public faith has accelerated and deepened.

To measure this it’s worth noting that the prosecution team in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused of murdering George Floyd, have called none other than the most senior member of that police department, Chief Medaria Arradondo. This is pivotal as a unanimous decision is needed to convict Chauvin on any of the three counts he faces, of second degree murder, third degree murder and manslaughter, making authoritative testimony alongside the plethora of video and medical evidence essential for the prosecution.

But if the Chauvin trial is yet another landmark moment for America, the interaction between social media and police violence can be traced back, not just across the timeline of Black Lives Matter and the gruesome litany of camera footage of contemporary lynching – but way back thirty years to the brutal beating of Rodney King by LA police officers in March 1991. There were no smartphones at the time, but a witness filmed the beating from his balcony and gave the footage to a local news station. It was one of the first pieces of footage to capture this form of abuse that is now been seen week in week out by millions of people across the globe. Its worth remembering too – as we await the Chauvin trial – that it was not the footage itself which prompted mass protest, it was a month later when a nearly all-white jury acquitted the policemen, that anger over racism and police violence in LA boiled over into uprising.

Snap forward to today and Britain faces extraordinary repressive new legislation empowering the police all in the wake of the Spycops Scandal.

As we witness the dramatic escalation of police violence and corruption we do so alongside the unveiling the Home Secretary’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

This isn’t a coincidence.

The most repressive authoritarian legislation in decades enjoyed a safe passage through the House of Commons with virtually no opposition.

In a statement, the Good Law Project – described the measures as “disproportionate”, adding that they risked “undermining the freedom of assembly and association protected under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.”

The not-for-profit group continued: “The bill as it stands would give sweeping new powers to the police to restrict peaceful protests – including by giving them the powers to set conditions on the duration of protests, set maximum noise levels, and put restrictions on where protests can take place.

“As it seems to us, the very purpose of the right to protest is to enable people to register their profound unhappiness or strength of feeling in a way which compels the state to respond. To legislate so that right cannot have any impact is to legislate it out of meaningful existence.”

We face a perfect storm of collapse in belief in law and order, real time witnessing of pre-meditated state violence and the introduction of new powers for the police to counter protests against this new legislation.

It’s difficult to keep up as the evidence against police conduct unspools before us to a general public long-ago disbelieving of the trope of “a few rotten apples”.

As the Bristol police chief says it was “regrettable” that they claimed that officers had broken bones and that they should have ‘corrected’ this statement much earlier. After the first protest against the government’s police, crime, sentencing and courts bill on 21 March outside Bridewell police station in the city centre, the force said 40 officers had been injured including two who suffered broken bones. Three days later it said that no bones had been broken.

If the police actions against people of colour is the driver of public perception, the treatment of women has not had the focus it deserves, from the astonishing abuse of women through Spycopys to the recent mishandling of the vigil for Sarah Everard to the recent stripping of a woman who was in Manchester city centre attending a protest opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (‘Outrage as woman ‘stripped’ and dragged away by police in her underwear at protest’).

None of this is new.

As Past tense writes (‘Reclaiming the Night – Police Attacks Are An old Tradition…’): “The murder of Sarah Everard in South London, the arrest of serving police officer Wayne Couzens for the killing, and the police attack on a vigil for Sarah, on Clapham Common on 13th March, have again thrown male violence against women into the front of public consciousness. At least until the mainstream media and male commentators forget the ‘issue’ and move on. For women, it is never out of their minds.

For many police, despite several decades of diversity training, women reporting male assault are still a nuisance. And organised protest against male violence, like much protest, is a challenge to their institutional control of the streets, to be squashed. old laws or new laws, Covid or not, a collective of angry women asserting their right to walk without fear have to be put back into fear. The only police response to anger about male violence is – more male violence. The attack and arrests at Clapham Common are not the first time angry women’s protest against abuse by men has been subjected to assault by the boys in blue. In October 1978, a Reclaim the Night demo in London was attacked by police in Soho.”

Now the Metropolitan Police is investigating allegations a serving officer raped two of his female colleagues, but was neither charged or suspended & only faces a misconduct hearing more than three years after the catalogue of allegations were reported.

The Met decided last month, a year after Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) findings, that the officer accused of rape would face a misconduct hearing. They have not yet set a date.

In a statement, the force said: “We take all allegations of domestic abuse extremely seriously and it is right and proper that the full circumstances of this case should be considered at a hearing. We continue to offer welfare support and assistance to the victims in this case.”

It gets worse.

Now it emerges that ‘W80’ the Met firearms officer who shot dead 28 year-old Jermaine Baker, in north London in December 2015, is now is posted to the SCO19 specialist firearms command as a national firearms instructor.

Next up we hear that an officer working for the Metropolitan Police force was a member of the prescribed neo-Nazi group National Action.

Mainstreaming Abolitionism

Of course policing protests is difficult and you get corrupt and dishonest and violent people in every walk of life. But the signs of systematic violence are all around us. The myths of Britain as a fair and tolerant society are shattered – even as the government tells you that institutional racism doesn’t exist and that the policing ay Clapham Common was “appropriate”. In a post-deferential society with the visibility of social media this myth-making and gaslighting isn’t remotely sustainable.

David Blunkett – no less – has said that: “Banning protest would make us more like Putin’s Russia than the UK. It would be a lasting and toxic legacy for Boris Johnson.”

The last few years has seen an explosion of evidence of the British Police forces being out of control, whether you measure that by the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry, the litany of abuses including Iain Tomlinson or the expose of people like Mark Kennedy. 

It is impossible to demarcate between security services and the police – as witnessed by the news that we now have a national police unit that uses undercover officers to spy on political groups which is currently monitoring almost 9,000 people it has deemed “domestic extremists”.

It would be very wrong to think that this is solely concentrated in the Met or that here in Scotland we are immune from such corruption (Ten Things We Now Know about Undercover Policing in Scotland).

But as the tide of public opinion shifts from belief to disbelief the resistance to the surveillance state also moves from ameliorative reform to plans to completely re-think the role of the police in society.

As Koshka Duff and Connor Woodman write (‘We Must Abolish the Police to Create a More Equal Society‘): “… the idea of abolishing the police – which may once have seemed preposterous – is gaining mainstream currency. It seems that many share the suspicion that there is something rotten about the police, not just as individuals, but as an institution. And not just as one isolated institution, but as the tip of a much larger iceberg of coercive institutions, all of which work to criminalise, subdue, and punish.

Policing, in this broader sense, includes the whole criminal punishment system of courts, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and electronic tagging. It includes the mechanisms of border enforcement such as detention centres, walls and barbed wire fences, and chartered deportation flights.

It creeps into the most intimate aspects of life in the form of mass and targeted surveillance, and it spreads beyond state boundaries in the form of colonial and neo-colonial ‘counter-insurgency’ operations, the ‘pacification’ of unruly populations, and the ‘extraordinary rendition’ of terror suspects.

While the forms of policing are various, they all make the same claim: we are here to keep the peace; you need us to keep you safe. Meanwhile, they enact some of the most elaborate and systematic, if not sadistic, forms of violence that humans have ever devised.”

Abolishing the Police edited by Koshka Duff with contributions by Guy Aitchison, Phe Amis, Melanie Brazzell, Eddie Bruce-Jones, Tanzil Chowdhury, Becka Hudson, Tom Kemp, Sarah Lamble, Daniel Loick, Chris Rossdale, Arianne Shahvisi, Vanessa E. Thompson & Connor Woodman, is available from Dog Section Press [feature review to follow].

As Travis Linnemann – author of Meth Wars: police, media, power (NYUP, 2016) writes:

“The demands continue, each day growing louder, more urgent. Reform is a dead end. If we are to live free of terror, the police must be re-imagined, replaced – abolished… the battle for a new future is now and the frontline is everywhere.”


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Comments (18)

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  1. Murray says:

    Using the police as boot boys and as a paramilitary hammer to quell the unruly masses ,was and is a Tory / unionist way of working. To conquer or quell by Fear and to bully has always been their way control. The problem society has ,it will not change under any unionists government. Thats why England will try every dirty underhanded trick in the book. and their brainwashed abusive colonial believing cheerleaders are masquerading as the “ we want you to stay” . When nothing could be farthermost from the truth ,it’s we are telling you that “ your NOT allowed to go “ as we need someone to kick ,abuse and bully. The empire has long gone but the deluded English only see the slow March of the Scots slaves as they disappear into the distance, as something to be resisted at all costs. Freedom to choose is a right ,freedom to speak is a right and freedom to protest encumbered by the government is a right.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Nothing like a dose of casual racism on this bright morning of the second day of Easter. The b*st*rd*n English, eh? Christ wept!

  2. James Mills says:

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ? Answer – The same Police !

  3. James Mills says:

    From personal experience I have had very few interaction with The ( Scottish ) Police – but on those rare occasions I have not come away with
    a perception of people who were in the ‘profession’ for the greater good .

    My experiences may not be indicative of the quality of the bulk of the Force , and were certainly coloured by the poor ‘customer relations ‘ exhibited on each occasion , but the evidence over the years of ”bad apples spoiling the barrel” is wearing thin .

    What Mike has not mentioned in his excellent piece is the scandalous number of ”death’s in custody” over the years in the UK ( and Scotland ) . There have been too many incidents of death while being restrained by the police , and too many high profile campaigns seeking justice for the dead to ignore this stain on policing in the UK .
    And how many cases resulted in individuals being prosecuted ? Very few .

    The Police hierarchy are quick to adopt a defensive position whenever ANY incident occurs which shows them in a bad light – that is true of almost all organisations – but their role in society is too sensitive for that to be their default position .

    The Police often claim that they are concerned about the morale of The Force when criticisms ( often fully justified ) are directed at them , but they need to show more empathy with those complaining . Without ”consent ” policing in this country would be extremely difficult – and it is this ”consent” that is being eroded every time the Police /Government are seen to dismiss criticisms or reject accusations ( well-founded in some cases ) of racism or the use of unnecessary force or illegal activity
    ( Spycops Scandal ) etc…
    It is the morale of the Public whom they serve which should be at the forefront of their thoughts whenever their actions are questioned .

  4. David B says:

    The bill “enjoyed a safe passage through the House of Commons with virtually no opposition.” This isn’t really true. All main opposition parties voted against it – though obviously FPTP means the Tories have a completely undemocratic majority so can push it through regardless.

  5. Axel P Kulit says:

    Before the Bow Street Runners came into being London was a deadly city. Murderers were almost never caught. Peel’s force and hos principles seem basically OK to me.

    However it seems to me that the career of a policemen would attract those with natural right wing tendencies and having to deal with the worst elements of society would only reinforce those tendencies.

    Police are tending to become supporters of the lawmakers not upholders of the law. The mass brawls where police control and inthe process injure demonstrators make them look like the biggest gang in town.

    The balance between the police as a force to protect us from ourselves and a force to protect the elites from the plebs is shifting the wrong way.

    But what would happen if the police vanished with no replacement? We need some reforms, and a greater distance between the security/intelligence agencies and the police for a start. If we had a separate public order force would that help the policemen on patrol?

    I have no answers at the moment, and I do not see anything that would increase public trust in the police or any action within the police to increase trust. The Blue Wall of Silence will persist and I do not see how to make it go away.

  6. Mark Bevis says:

    I’ve always distinguished between police officers and the Police Force as an institution. The latter is racist, mysogonist, anti-gun, pro-establishment (and hence pro-hunting), and historically was set up only to protect the interests and property of the landed gentry and has since inherited the role of protecting the interests and assets of other current day elites. Their overpolicing of the anti-fracking movement clearly demonstrated this.

    That has never changed. Never forget that the Police Force as an institution was set up merely for that role.

    Some of the most deplorably right wing people have joined the police force, I’ve known a couple in my time. One of them ruined a friend’s career in teaching with false accusations. And yet many individual police officers do join up and try to operate for the greater good. I’ve had good help from individuals when dealing with local crime. Their ability to render justice is as much a failing of the CPS’s own agendas and lack of resources than individual failings. Two-thirds of individual officer’s police work is social work, dealing with the fall out of poverty and self-intoxication, the obvious outcomes of odious neo-liberalism.

    And so, we now see the contradictions of of views and institutions coming into play. On the one hand the Police force as an institution has to defend neo-liberalism at all costs, because their paymasters say so – on the other hand the failings and casualties of neo-liberalism are becoming far too numerous to contain, bash, rape or hide. The police force, as an institution, better renamed the National Bullying Force, reacts in the only way it knows, with more violence, laps up any powers it is given, and refuses to admit to failings and protects it’s own. This is normal behaviour in the face of collapse, as institutions start breaking down due to ecological limits being overshot. As capitalism eats itself we will see more of these extreme events, more power grabs, more rules, more desperation by those in charge. The crunch will come when police officers are ordered to shoot lots of white English middle class protesters who have become no-longer-middle-class.

    Meanwhile individual police officers, no doubt, are suffering higher rates of mental health problems than other industries.

    I do find it laughable that a lot of Pathetic Patel’s angst in this bill is designed to shut down XR, as if shutting down debate about the collapse of global industrial civilisation and probable extinction is somehow going to make the problem go away. Protesting against what is a natural evolutionary event is a bit counter-intuitive anyway, but to attempt to shut down the conversation completely is even weirder, although a classic example of mass denial. Witness Boris last year ordering the ban of anti-capitalism teaching in schools. Basically the establishment know how bad things are, and are shitting themselves. But it’s okay, because flags. Or some other distraction, whatever they conjure next week.

    “Defund the police force” by all means, doesn’t mean you can’t have police officers to fight actual crime. Of course, if all of societies’ needs were met, actual crime would be pretty low, and nor would we need to have a politcal establishment that needed defending by an institurionalised National Bullying Force.

    Two steps, I imagine, that would immediately reduce their power would be to introduce a UBI, and decriminalise drugs. UBI in itself wouldn’t deal with the problem, but it would allow more people to become politically active for one, and thus in theory more people will step forward that would legislate to reduce police powers, or replace it completely ultimately. (Or the law of unintended consequences, in which more right wingers and racists become more politically active, and the police force becomes the SS)
    And with a UBI it means more of peoples’ needs are met, which will reduce crime rate, increase self-worth, and by default result in smaller police forces needed. Which then leaves less organised state militia that can be mobilised to bully demonstrations. Bit of a long game though, not sure organised civilisation has that much time left…..

  7. Pub Bore says:

    Aye, as workers, the ‘pigs’ get a raw deal from all sides. With such sh*tty pay and working conditions, is it any wonder that individual officers become jaded and cynical?

    It’s high time the policing of our communities was depoliticised, and the most effective way to do this would be to denationalise it and return it to local democratic control. Police Scotland is one of the more infamous works of nationalism.

      1. Pub Bore says:

        No, municipal police forces, overseen by local democratic councils. The City of Glasgow Police, founded by Act of Parliament in 1800, is sometimes described as the first modern-style municipal police force.

        1. Interesting. How do you ensure equality of use/service across the country and avoid – say – bad cops in your Postcode – good cops in mine?

          1. Pub Bore says:

            Each police chief would be accountable to the electorate through its representatives for the quality of policing in its municipality.

            How does the Scottish government currently ensure equality of use/service across its jurisdiction?

  8. florian albert says:

    Since Mike Small writes approvingly of the idea of abolishing the police, can he tell us what he thinks should happen after this has been achieved ? Would Scotland get along without a police force/service or would we replace the old unsatisfactory one with a new, better one ?

    With an election campaign going on just now, Mike Small could stand as a candidate promising to abolish the police. It would be a USP, a unique selling point.
    He would be guaranteed the votes of all ‘abolish the police’ supporters and he would get lots of publicity. I am not entirely convinced he would be elected.

    1. You should educate yourself on the topic before pontificating

    2. John Learmonth says:

      I look forward to the next Rangers/Celtic derby without a police ‘prescence’.

    3. Pub Bore says:

      Police abolition is a process, rather than a singular event. No one envisages a scenario where someone just flips a switch and – Voila! – there’s no longer any police. What abolitionists advocate and enact is a systematic questioning or critique of the specific roles that police currently undertake and the development of evidence-based alternatives so that we can rein back on our reliance on the current institution. It’s an academic research project in which several US universities are currently engaged, where the problems arising from government misuse of police powers are (arguably) greater and more vicious than they are here.

      But I agree with you to an extent: we need to police power to prevent its misuse in society (e.g. by the predatory over the vulnerable); that is, to maintain our personal security and our peaceful coexistence. However, that policing must itself be democratically overseen in order to prevent its power from being misused against us and thereby becoming itself a threat to our peace and security – as it has evidently become in many US cities.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        Ok, but try telling that to Rangers/Celtic fans.
        1. They’ll embrace each other in socialist brotherhood
        2. Kick the shit out of each other before lying waste to the City of Glasgow
        I know where my money is…….

        1. Pub Bore says:

          Try telling them what? That we need to police the conflict between them as rival powers, in order to contain and minimise the risk of that conflict spilling over into violence? Or that this policing needs to be democratically controlled as an exercise of power, in order to minimise the risk of that power being misused?

          I suspect most football fans already understand the need for both policing AND its democratic oversight.

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