It is possible to have no antipathy to the police: if you grow up as white, relatively privileged, and away from sites of urban conflict, it is even possible to have little enough contact with them as to retain the image of the friendly local bobby as your primary image of police work. When recently politicised young people from that background come up against the police in indiscriminate repressive mode, there tends to follow a series of surprised reactions, and numerous scales fall from various eyes. Even then, certain bien-pensant liberals write poorly thought-through defences of the police (on which, this.)
And even then, the ingrained instinct to believe the police – even in cases of rank corruption, even in cases of blatant violence, even when the evidence of one’s own eyes would seem unignorable – remains. Anyone who has watched police lie in witness stands, or followed the long struggles for justice in the most scandalous cases of brutality, knows that it remains virtually impossible to get a jury to convict an officer. In cases of violence in public order ‘situations’, the moderate will stroke his chin and ask: ‘are you not exaggerating?’ or ‘but surely, there was a reason?’ or ‘did you roll your wheelchair toward them in a threatening way?’
It’s therefore good to see the preliminary answers (full) from the UN rapporteur on right to protest and assemble in the UK. These things are not for us: nothing in them will come as a surprise for anyone who has been on a demonstration or picket line recently. They will, however, prove immensely useful when arguing with liberals who insist complaint against the police is always chippy, self-interested, dishonest; that above all we bring it on ourselves.
There is a long way to go in this argument: not only challenging the notion that the police are indispensable in solving crime (solution rates, while hard to track, seem astonishingly low in cases which have no immediately observable perpetrator), that police misconduct is a matter of a ‘a few bad apples’, and that the police are the ‘thin blue line’ between order and chaos, and must be armed in order to preserve the balance. If the sudden discovery of the police’s propensity for violence leads to complaints about ‘political policing’, then the subsequent leap ought to be to think about the political structure of policing itself (rather than posing a small section of the work as ‘political’), and, especially, its connection to race and poverty.
The few semi-sophisticated defences of the police mounted in the face of such evidence tend to involve praising their ‘armed’ social work. One might respond to this: social work with a baton seems pretty obviously to create more problems than it could ever solve. If the police ever serve a useful function (let’s say, in road traffic accidents), what prevents these functions from being disentangled from the primary, disciplinary and inescapably violent function of the police? That disciplinary function was explicitly enshrined in their foundation, and has remained the foundation of police work since the days of Peel. The political imagination that sees these functions as inextricable also possesses a particular world-picture: in which the lower orders are feckless scum, creatures of instinct and libido and denuded of reason, heavily racialised, ready to overwhelm the (overwhelmingly white and wealthy) small bastions of order and civilisation at any moment. Such a world-picture is deeply imbued in the society of the last few centuries; that is no reason not to challenge it.