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.
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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