Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Police racism and brutality: it's the job

What does it say when a police officer strangles a black man, and racially abuses him in the context of a 'stop and search'?  What does it say when on the same evening, his partner batters a fifteen year old boy in the police station later that evening?  And what does it say when the CPS declines to pursue charges in both cases?  

Just this.  We know that the rank and file of the police are racist.  This is not a judgment on every single officer, and nor is it simply an institutional analysis.  It is a question of their social role.  They are bearers of authority and social power delegated to them by the centralised unity of the state, and just as the role of supervisors and managers in the workplace is to secure the subordination of workers in the production process, so the role of the police is to secure the general subordination of workers and subaltern forces, to identify and control 'problem' populations, and thus resolve problems in the reproduction of the system.  It is a global supervisory function, but one obviously permeated with the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.

We know that rank and file police officers routinely deploy violence not simply to resolve a bureaucratic impasse (non-cooperation, etc) but often to effect a symbolic reduction of the victim to a status befitting that assigned them in the dominant ideology.  This is part of the police's role in the moral regulation of society.  In carrying out this role, they exercise a relative autonomy, sufficient to define the situations in which they, as professional law enforcers, must harrass, restrain, beat and detain civilians.  And it isn't just their training, as some suggest, that inclines them to do this, to treat civilian populations as an enemy.  It is their actual experience of routine conflict in carrying out their mandate, which forms their habitus, that system of skills, dispositions and practices which constitutes the occupational culture of the police.  At any rate, this defining role allows them to formulate the information which is then fed back to superiors, the courts and prosecutors, media, politicians, law lords and the solicitor general, and which thus constructs social situations in the language of criminality, abnormality, crisis, etc.  As trained professionals, moreover, their word carries far more weight than that of any of their victims.

But there is more to it than that.  For this relative autonomy is not a relationship achieved by rank and file police officers through struggle.  The police chiefs will always try to rationalise the job, to achieve greater compliance form juniors, and to impose ideas and behaviours consistent with overarching policies.  And the state is, as I say, a centralised unity - the executive, or whatever apparatus is dominant at any given moment, can if it wills constrain the behaviour of rank and file officers in various ways.  It always does so, in fact.  But the limiting factor is that the state desires this relationship of relative autonomy.  It wants officers who are sufficiently empowered to act in ways that they see fit in order to effectively reproduce the social order.  The result is that there will be antagonisms - officers, for example, can resent having to suppress and contain the social turmoil produced by central state policies - but police chiefs and state executives will tend to protect the autonomy and authority of officers in conducting their role.  

Ultimately, moreover, because the police are so central to the state's routine 'intervention' into all aspects of social relations, they will tend to seek concord with officers and maintain their relative material privileges the better to cement their solidarity with the state and, as a corollary, their adversarial relationship with the majority of the population.  This is one reason why no police officer is jailed for beating or murdering civilians, and why the CPS would prefer not to charge officers found guilty of criminal conduct.  Importantly, when I refer to criminal conduct I am not just talking about repression that appears to go beyond their occupational role.  Corruption cases, such as that of Enfield crime squad officers up to their necks in criminal enterprise, disclose a similar pattern.  It is not that the police bosses are particularly happy with such corruption being routine, but rather that the premium on guarding the relative independence of officers in such circumstances, on allowing officers to define situations themselves, to act not above the law but in a space in which they themselves define legality, is more important than suppressing corruption.

And this structural relationship is crucial to explaining how and why the police continually 'get away with it', how and why change is so difficult to achieve.  Struggle can force the state to adapt its policy, to re-organise its modes of violence, and to lean more heavily on mediating forms (unions, social democracy, 'civil society' groups, and so on) to cope with social antagonisms.  But the sheer persistence of institutional brutality and racism in the police over a long period of time (actually, for as long as the police have existed) suggests that deaths in custody, severe beatings, the violent punishment of the mentally ill, the immigrant, the homeless, the poor and the vulnerable, are not supererogatory explosions of individual un-professionalism; rather they are part of what the police do, part of the professional vocation, the repertoire that makes policing what it is.

This is one of the reasons why I disagree with any position, such as that outlined by the activist Ellie Mae O'Hagan here, which argues for support for a Police Federation strike.  We know that the Tory cuts to the police budget, alongside the range of institutional reforms planned by the government, are unpopular with the rank and file.  Under both parties, the police have been used to generous budgets, higher than average pay and rising recruitment.  They have been culturally and politically safeguarded.  But the Tories are committed to the systematic down-sizing of the state, and are evidently convinced that the key repressive functions carried out by the police can be protected within a streamlined force.  As far as crime prevention goes, the Home Office has always known that more officers makes no difference to the rate of crime whatever.  So, there is tension.  The Police Federation are unhappy with the government's cuts, and particularly angry about the complacent way in which they have detonated social antagonisms and then simply shoved the blame onto the police when the conflagration duly occurred.  So yes, there is an antagonism.  It is even, dare we say it, a class antagonism: between the governing party of the ruling class and a force of middle class professionals who see their role as being downgraded.  Not that they always see it this way exactly: many officers will insist "we're public sector workers too".  Would it be too glib to reply that you rarely see an NHS worker or a teacher giving brain damage to a protester, punching children in the face, or charging at large groups of people on steeds while hurling baton blows?  

But even if the Police Federation were genuine in threatening to go on strike, and I beg leave to doubt it, the question is: what purpose would achieving their goals actually fulfil for striking workers, for protesting students, for women struggingly against rape and domestic violence, for black and Asian communities fighting oppression?  If the Police Federation did actually strike, did receive support from the Left, and did actually achieve pay increases, job protection and end to the cuts in the force, who would this serve?  It seems obvious to me that it would simply strengthen the police in their repressive role by protecting their numbers; that, far from strategically splitting the force, it would cement them behind the government by conserving their material privileges and morale; that it would strengthen their position within society as a whole by giving them unwarranted prestige in the left and labour movement; and that in the not-very-long-run it would redouble their ability to crush movements like Climate Camp, or like UK Uncut, to batter and prosecute protesters like Alfie Meadows, to corral striking workers within steel walls on the basis of 'total policing', to batter and murder young black men.  In a word, they would be empowered to disorganise the social forces now being organised with great difficulty to resist austerity.  I think this mistaken judgement, hoping to benefit strategically from a police strike, arises from supposing that the rank and file are just the hired muscle of the ruling class, rather than relatively autonomous bearers of social power in themselves.  It is not that one forecloses the concrete analysis of concrete situations, ruling any tactical manouevre in relation to the police a priori out of bounds.  One can imagine situations of such severity that there is the real prospect of splitting and disorganising the police force, and the careful handling of such situations might reap dividends.  But since such a situation remains incredibly remote, the strategic question of how the Left ought to relate to that doesn't even arise today.  Not only is it unlikely that there will be a strike, but the police aren't even asking for the support of the Left, much less bargaining over the conditions of such support.  There is the question of how we ought to relate to cuts in policing.  To this, some say that if we oppose cuts, then we oppose cuts, end of.  I say that's a complete misunderstanding.  Just as when pundits say, "surely you can't oppose every cut - even if they were to cut Trident, or arms spending, or even if they cut waste and inefficiency?"  The answer is that we oppose cuts in the aggregate; but we want the money to be spent better on things that benefit ordinary people.  Hospitals, schools, pensions and infrastructure, not more police and weapons.  And you can be damned sure that any increase in spending on police in these circumstances would come at the expense of one of the vital public services.  So, no, don't 'support' the Police Federation.  And don't think that brutality and racism are in some sense accidental or incidental to policing.  It's the job.