Recently, a video interview with a former Met police officer, where he condemns Theresa May’s government as having ‘blood on their hands’ for underfunding police forces in the wake of a series of fatal knife crimes on New Year’s Eve, has been circulating and shared vigorously by those on the left to expose the ruptures wrought by austerity.
This requires careful handling – the distressing subject matter reminds us that the administration of politics is quite simply a direct matter of life and death, especially for vulnerable and marginalized people. The bereavement and emotional turmoil experienced by the loved ones and families of the victims of these horrific attacks should be actively empathised with – and certainly not abstracted from politics as the right often prescribe – especially regarding a need for a sense of security and protection (we should remember that most of the public do conceptualize the police as a public service, and navigate accordingly). Theresa May does indeed have ‘blood on her hands’ – but this raises more fundamental questions of whether the police actually prevent, curtail or indeed exacerbate violence in society.
It strikes me the left more broadly, particularly within the Labour Party, needs to deliberate much more rigorously on this issue: especially when narratives from former police officers and the Police Federation like this circulate in the wake of public tragedy (terrorism being similar in its dimensions here) and the left often knee-jerk lapses into ‘we need more cops on the streets’. This is an understandable response to an extreme sense of threat or vulnerability – but the frames of reference of ‘law and order’ are not politically neutral, and the incitement and weaponization of fear over social chaos has been both a historical technique through which brutal state control and repression has been justified and has also assumed a specific role within contemporary politics around Brexit, migration, terrorism, etc to legitimize draconian practices of securitization and militarization and rally the far-right. The insidiousness gone unspoken here is that parts of this interview are not dissimilar in content, tone and rhetoric to interviews in 2011 condemning the ‘criminality’ of rioters in the wake of Mark Duggan’s murder by police.
There are obviously varied positions on the role of the police on the left – (now much less common) anarchist strains that argue for total abolition, social democratic tendencies that deem the police a public service like any other, and a newer tendency to try and straddle the line between the two and react to some of the more juvenile or ‘ultra-left’ tendencies in the abolitionist strain whilst not acceding to entirely positive social democratic framings of police functions (the latter increasingly frustrates me almost as much as the first, often through its straw-manning of the abolitionist drive and its disillusionment with this drive lapsing frequently into the very recuperations anarchists warn against – a tiresome cycle). Thus broader fault lines and questions in the left around not just the police but the state itself are exposed in an attempt to figure a coherent position on this, overshadowed largely by an impulse to mark out a clear territory of defence wherein no cuts are ever acceptable (an impulse I think useful, anchoring and important to Labour’s electoral success, but itself inheriting an instinct towards purely reactive politics that have constrained the left’s horizons and imaginations over the past few decades). Simply repudiating cuts, we know, is not a sufficient strategy for a sustainable left – the failings of the powerful anti-cuts movement sparked in the wake of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition is but one testament to this. An assertion of the redistributive potentialities of the state, both as an alternative to a contemporary left politics of marginality and withdrawal and as a riposte to its brutal evisceration under neo-liberalism, should not divert our attention from its injustices and internal logics of power.
It perhaps does not do us much good – as some of the abolitionist tendencies sometimes lapse into – to describe the police as totally and absolutely bad (a nihilism that I think sabotages conversations around the subject before they start). I do, of course, think the police are indeed structurally bad (the nuances are, I think, important here), that their historical social function is not protection of the public but the violent defence of private property, control of marginalized and dissenting populations, and repressive maintenance of an oppressive status quo – this is acutely apparent to anyone who has ever been on the other end of a police baton, whether in the context of a protest or because of being in the ‘wrong’ (read: black, poor) neighbourhood. In the interview the former police officer is himself quite explicit about the police’s function – ‘the control of public space’. Indeed, while it might be wrong-headed to say that all of Labour’s membership, drawn largely from the more social-movement-like tradition (the divisions are of course becoming more blurred, if they were ever entirely clear in the first place), hate the police, it would also be misguided to say that not only for the purposes of justice but also those who Labour is grounded in and needs to appeal to – those who participated in the student protests, the riots (some still languishing in police cells under draconian sentences), those involved in militant struggle for class and social power, those who fought at Orgreave, those fighting for justice for the Hillsborough 96, BME communities spied upon, harassed, brutalized by cops – do feel some legitimate discontent towards the police. It goes without saying that questions of electoral ‘pragmatism’ are always wracked by messy political contentions, as much as the collapsing centrist tendency might still like to assert otherwise.
Instead, critiques of the police are warded off and diffused, I think in quite a Blairite tendency that suggests this will be unpopular with the electorate (and perhaps an idea that cuts to police might invite more brutality, privatisation and militarization of forces, etc, which there is truth to). Not only did Labour’s recent electoral success discount this impulse for the myth that it is (the left only has meaning, robustness and actual fibre when it inspires, imagines, and transforms, rather than ceding ground and triangulating to cynically score points; we must pose a different, more just, more emancipatory, more unified vision of the world, provoking people to question and explore and relate to one another differently, without it we are nothing) – but where the left is willing to cede ground is I think telling (borders, police, prisons) because we’ve always been reluctant to upset the status quo over racism and issues which disproportionately affect BME communities, and we need to urgently challenge and overcome that tendency. It’s a very real, very significant hangover and problem still. The Labour Party should be understood as a historically imperialist institution and the left’s enduring capitulations around racism and weakness over questions of state violence interrogated.
This is not to deny entirely that the police engage in some socially useful functions. But there seems to be an even fairly cautious liberal critique of the police that is not being engaged with – that there are serious endemic problems, abuses and corruption within policing, even such that Police Commissioners themselves and High Courts have branded police forces institutionally racist. That is to say – even in acknowledging that the police may indeed curb some violent crime (though egregiously poor crime resolution rates and prejudices in policing patterns are important here) – one can question, for example, the criminalization of sex work and the violent threat to marginalized women and trans people this poses, the criminalization of homelessness, the criminalization of mental health and the abuses therein, the war on drugs and how this has fractured a generation of poor black communities, the specialist units set up to infiltrate and intimately monitor dissent (FITs, National Domestic Extremism units, etc) and how this undercover policing has, for example, deeply traumatized women activists who cops engaged in intimate relationships with under false pretexts to glean information from (one can only imagine the devastation – it was described as like being ‘raped by the state’ by one woman), the civil-liberties-infringing and Islamophobic operations of counter-terrorism units, the brutal excesses of riot police, the utter obscenity of accountability structures like the IPCC, deaths in custody for which no cop has ever been held to account, abuse (from humiliations of trans people, to racist aggression, all the way to sexual assault) in police custody – etc.
Indeed, following these critiques through to their logical conclusions, one might start imagining there’s a pattern of control and violence here that alludes to structural problems of police forces themselves – and I don’t simply mean technical problems, that can be rectified through reorientation of police operations, more diverse representation, or rooting out the ‘bad apples’ (the whole orchard is rotten to its roots) but that are fundamental to the police as an institution and integral to its repressive role in society.
That’s why the claim of the Government engaging in ‘institutional racism’ at the end of the interview stings a little – not because it isn’t true, of course the state at all levels is racist to its core – but because the hypocrisy is stark. The implicit assertion that, if only the police had more funding, more would be done to protect black and vulnerable communities, is just a patently absurd claim (especially because these communities are already violently over-policed – the interviewee’s call for more funding for stop-and-searches is particularly pernicious). It strategically and conveniently deflects attention from the history of institutional neglect, brutality and violence inflicted upon BME communities by the police (Bijan Ebrahimi’s tragic murder, and the accompanying official imputations of institutional racism in Avon and Somerset police and Bristol City Council, being a harrowing reminder of this).
Indeed, whilst interviews like this from (historically very reactionary and with significant influence in the Labour party) Police Federation officers portray an understandably tragic image of a society rent by internal social crises (austerity and neo-liberalism has indeed fractured communities), these narratives are actually fundamental to the police justifying (and abusing) their powers throughout history – the ‘thin blue line’ between order and chaos guarded assiduously by a noble police, to restrain the destructive passions of the naturally dissolute masses who only because of centralized control and fear of punishment do not tear themselves and society apart. This narrative was absolutely fundamental to the abhorrent repression of the 2011 riots, displacing all acknowledgement of legitimate political discontent and levelling all political contention into a vilification of rioters as maleficent ‘thugs’ and enemies of society (just as the miners were branded as ‘enemies within’, Occupy as vandals and troublemakers, the examples could multiply endlessly) – uprisings as ‘disorder’, to be stabilized by the mystifying ‘order’ of repressive, racist state violence and organized police deception.
We should thus be wary of how these narratives are framed and deployed – recognizing the difficult truth that crime is in large part an expression of social problems and economic dispossession which thrive under capitalism and other systems of oppression. This is especially true in a climate of austerity – cuts to youth centres, schools, community institutions are all significant here, and it’s little wonder shoplifting, for example, has risen with a programme of cruel benefit sanctions, wage repression and soaring rents, entrenching poverty and homelessness. Responding to social problems with a more well-funded apparatus of violence and control designed to maintain those very systems is ultimately counter-productive, providing us a psychological concession of ostensible ‘security’ in phalanxes of cops as a trade-off for a deeply violent set of social relations upheld by the police. ‘Security’ should not look like this – it is a fearful, conservative vision which only acts as a substitute for tackling social problems at their root, opting instead for inflammation of these very problems by violently punishing those already victim to systemic violence. Care must be taken here that an assertion of political and social fractures inflicted by neo-liberalism are not redirected into reactionary, ‘shock’ narratives purely demanding ‘control’, displacing blame from the economic to the cultural, to be redressed through the application of statist force.
We need a vision of hope, compassion, solidarity, community, not this – we must recognize what is at stake here, for this is about so much more than just the police. It is about challenging the logic of control, discipline and repression that is so virulently (and sometimes invisibly) fundamental to our current political settlement. ‘Law and order’ is the natural terrain of the right, in the tradition of manipulating fear around crisis to force through authoritarian policies which reinforce a strong-arming state and reassert stringent authority as the answer to exploitation and disempowerment. We cannot be made safe through raised walls, more armed officers on our streets, more violent control of public space. Fear cannot be our primary rallying cry. Theresa May does indeed have blood on her hands – and so do police forces everywhere. The names need not be repeated – or perhaps, more than ever, they need to be.