ACAB from Warwick to NYC

Whether it’s killing black people in America or London, or attacking peaceful student protesters at Warwick University with CS spray, cops worldwide are racist and violent. Rob Owen looks at why that is.


You have the emergence in human society
Of this thing that’s called the State
What is the State? The State is this organized bureaucracy
It is the police department, it is the Army, the Navy

It is the prison system, the courts and what have you
This is the State it is a repressive organization
But the State and gee, well, you know you’ve got to have
The police because if there were no police…

Dead Prez, Police State

The killing of Michael Brown has reignited open hostility to the police with radical protests across the world in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. The response in the USA, and the two thousand that took to the streets in London after the London Black Revolutionaries Facebook call, are signs of the deep-seated hostility to the police that exists among young people and the black community. It is only three years since police kettling and the death of Smiley Culture saw meetings of the equality movement attract up to a thousand with events like “who polices the police” in Brixton, and five years since protests against the police killing of Ian Tomlinson on his way home from work. Most horrifying, it is nine years since the police killings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – yet police racism and violence continue.

ACAB – all cops are bastards – has been shouted on the streets and across social media but was first used by prisoners in the UK at least as far back as the 1940s. If all cops are indeed bastards, the question has to be why.

You say ACAB, but what would you do if you got robbed?

Few people, except committed fans of ITV afternoon drama, believe the police are only here to help victims of crime. Yet for many people their only dealing with the police is registering a report and accessing services after being a victim of crime. It would be unthinkable for most not to turn to the police in the event of an armed robbery or assault, and it’s hard to imagine a society without the police to turn to. Yet for whole communities, and those involved in radical politics, the experience of the police is somewhat different.

The experience for anyone, anywhere in the world, who has been involved in a protest that seriously challenged (or particularly disturbed) the interests of the powerful has seen the police mobilised to defend the interests of those with power. Similarly anyone who is black, dresses in the “wrong” way, or comes from a “problem” community will have been stopped and harassed with a frequency that defies the laws of chance. Whatever the other roles of the police, this suggests that something more essential explains why police forces across the world take such a similar form and why they are mobilised as the front line in “keeping the peace”.

Surely you need some force to ensure a general sense of order?

Most societies would require some means of mediating between individuals and groups or responding to people who severely violate the freedoms of others. But even under capitalism many of these functions are provided by other bodies like local authorities or courts. The question of maintaining order begs a bigger question of what order and on whose behalf is it maintained.

The police, as a centrally organised institution, is a specifically capitalist institution which developed to deal with disorder among the working class in London in the early 19th century. The first modern police force, London’s Metropolitan Police, were created using lessons learnt from organising British rule in Ireland and the experience of police forces in Paris applied to the problems of controlling London’s vast industrial population. A more reliable force became necessary as the wealthy were forced to live, at least part of their lives, in close proximity to the working population of the city on whom they relied. Calling in the army to deal with severe social disturbances risked provoking yet greater unrest when the population expected certain political rights. The creation of a state-run domestic enforcement service met with opposition, being seen as the direct interference of the state in communities. As a result the police were created as an ostensibly civilian force with different colored uniforms from the army that aimed to normalise their role in working class life. Concessions to public hostility to a state-led force on the streets of London limited the weaponry the police could carry and introduced the identification numbers which police so often remove from their lapels on demonstrations today.

Despite nods to accountability the police were set up in a rigid hierarchy, mirroring the structures of the army, that ensured tighter control. Initially the tighter state regulation was justified in terms of increasing the professionalism of the service, but it mirrored existing structures in the army, and aimed at ensuring the obedience of the police to those in power in situations where groups came into conflict with the state, or where civil disobedience threatened the growth of the economy from which the state drew its funds.

But can’t democratic pressure force the police to act as a more neutral force?

Like all institutions the police can respond to pressure as a means of maintaining its smooth running. After the death of Stephen Lawrence the campaign run by the family, and backed by the trade unions, forced the Macpherson Report to address the issues of institutional racism in the police. Against the back drop of a mass social reaction, the police were forced to institute certain measures to adapt to the mainstreaming of anti-racist politics. The very term “institutional racism” being applied to the police by an official body was a victory for the anti-racist movement. However such victories could only go so far in dealing with racism within the police as the BBC’s secret Policeman documentary showed. The documentary showed officers joking that Lawrence deserved to die and dressing up as members of the KKK.

The police have a structure that mimics class society with a clear hierarchy where those at the top associate, work alongside and are largely drawn from the ruling class. Those at the base of the base of the force have little more control over their working conditions than most of us – but in exchange for signing away their labour rights, they are given betters terms of employment and pay than any other public sector workers. Yet it is their role in society that places them outside working class communities. If workers are defined by having no control over their own labour, then police officers can be defined not so much by their privileged employment conditions as by their control over the lives of others.

The police are structured in a semi-military way to try to ensure discipline in the face of social unrest, but their authority is based by their daily role in policing communities.  On a crude level their power is based on the material force of the state but as they are a minority they usually require a significant degree of consent. We have seen moments where this has fallen apart in recent years – particularly when police were bussed into London from across the country to deal with the riots in urban centres during 2011. Being a minority force trying to enforce social order on a larger population means they both reflect social prejudices but also cultivate them. If oppression is rooted in the reproduction of capitalist society and the police are required to enforce the order of that society as an external “other” they is constantly faced with material evidence for rightwing ideologies. Most radicals would see the crimes that police deal with as being caused, in large part, by poverty and that minority communities are often among the poorest and most excluded. The progressive solution is to deal with the causes of crime. But if racist prejudice views black communities as criminal, and police deployment is focused disproportionately in poor black communities, their activity will turn up evidence for that view which fosters racist attitudes inside the police.

But surely most of this could be solved by dealing with the rotten apples?

The police will always attract people who want to have petty authority over others. For those not drawn to the authority of the uniform there are a range of other socially useful jobs that do not involve exerting power over others as their raison d’être.  The numbers of BNP members working for the police throughout the 2000’s was a shocking indicator of its draw for open fascists. I would presume surveys will show the number of UKIP voters inside the police is higher than within most other professions today. Yet however many openly racist and fascist officers are rooted out, the climate of tolerating racist ideas and the activity of policing that reinforces them means the problem is rooted in the role of the police under capitalism.

A feature of having such power over others, and being encouraged to use it, encouraged officers to act on prejudiced “gut” reactions in their daily working lives through seeing difference as reason for suspicion. As the use of authority over others is the means by which the police operate; so even where there are efforts to deal with individuals (or the general culture) they are cutting against the overall pressure from police hierarchies to assert their role on the streets.

But would any officer have shot Michael Brown?

It’s impossible to know what could have panned out differently. It would be hard to deny the police in the USA are deeply stepped in the racism of that society. The fact that racism is a systematic prejudice means that even black and ethnic minority police are affected by the prejudices that underpin it.  Hopes of creating an anti-racist police in a racist system are utopian in the extreme. Racist prejudices combined with the psychology of being a “thin blue line” holding order against an external population creates the mindset where such killings will continue to happen as long as the social order that reproduces racist attitudes remains unchallenged.

What is the alternative?

A serious challenge to the social order to establish a truly equal and anti-racist society will by necessity require dismantling the police forces that exist to maintain the current order. It is impossible to say what an alternative to the police would look like in a democratic and equal society. We should say however that on principle they would be democratic, recallable, and less differentiated from the communities they served.


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