We need to talk about the police

These days, there is absolutely no doubt among many people where the police stand. They stand for the protection of elite-driven laws (whether or not they are just). They stand for privileging the rights and freedoms of a very select group of people (usually rich white men). They stand on the side of property. A friend of mine from the USA explained passionately about the growing police brutality and growing numbers of (predominantly black) deaths that occur at their hands. He said that for every person they protect and serve, there is another who they are brutalising – to protect one is to necessarily dehumanise the other, and vice versa.

This is all absolutely correct and the growing distrust towards the police in much of the Anglophone world can only be a positive thing. The police as an institution originated as an army of private thugs for hire to the highest bidder, protecting the rich and powerful against the transgressions and resistances of the majority. At the same time, for a while now I’ve been increasingly realising that we, as anarchists, need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the police in relation to the future world we want to create. Now I know what this sounds like, but don’t sharpen your knives just yet…

One of the most recurring points that people (even other radicals) make about anarchists and our attitudes towards the police is that we only see the bad stuff. So the argument goes, they do a lot of good work and are just nice people trying to make life better, even if their good intentions can end up fuelling negative dynamics. This is of course a very one-dimensional understanding of the police that reduces their political impact to an individual scale of care, ethics and civic responsibility; a convenient smokescreen for overlooking their active role in fostering division, imposing coercive state violence, and ‘outsourcing’ social solidarity to a group of undemocratic specialists with axes to grind.

However, we cannot deny that it also has an element of truth in it. One of the most powerful developments in policing in the late 20th Century was to blur the lines between ‘attack dog of the state’ and ‘friend of the community’. The police force is not just about committing a range of spectacular and ‘ordinary’ violences against transgressive groups and individuals (ethnic minorities, radicals, working class communities), it also performs other roles that are actually socially useful, e.g.

  • Managing large events
  • Disaster relief
  • Emergency support (e.g. car crashes, collapsed buildings)
  • Regulating / diverting the flow of people or traffic in crowded areas
  • Addressing conflicts and disagreements
  • Acting as figureheads of civic duty and responsibility

What anarchists often seem reluctant or afraid to articulate to a broader public is that all of these things, and more, will be necessary in any post-revolutionary society in which the monopoly of violence held by the state (and exercised by the police) no longer exists. Since general, if critical, support for (or acceptance of) the police in many circles is so hegemonic, it is easy for us to always see the police as always doing bad stuff – it is our responsibility to expose the injustices that they commit and are complicit in. But sometimes, outside of their core role as the protectors of state and capital, they are socially useful, and some of the specialist skills and techniques that they have developed can be applied to society in ways that stretch beyond their violent underpinnings.

What is needed is a rearticulation of the police that continues to push back against their violence but also recognises that in any society there is a need for a group of specially trained people to deal with public situations related to circulations, conflicts and emergencies in a future anarchist world. Examples of community self-management and forms of what we might call ‘popular security’ are plentiful, but it’s all too rare that anarchists link these examples to people’s fears about a world without the ‘protection’ of the police. Presenting this message in relation to anarchist principles of self-management, participatory forms of democracy, accountability and solidarity is therefore an important step to take.

[PS. I wrote this a while ago – a few days before the Hillsborough inquiry’s findings came out. In hindsight, it probably isn’t the best timing to make this kind of call so please don’t read this as some kind of ‘provocation’ against the absolutely correct and throughly deserved rage against the lying, cheating, smearing scum of the South Yorkshire Police!]

Advertisements
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: