What does abolition mean in modern Britain?

The Black Lives Matter movement has sown seeds of hope worldwide for the abolition of police. But policing goes far beyond the bodies of armed men in uniform. Abolitionist struggle must resist all forms of policing, from immigration control to Prevent.

A squad of riot police march past the National Gallery in London.
Photo by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash

From mounted charges on protestors, brutal encounters caught on film, and the mass stop & search of black men under lockdown – it seems nobody has done more this summer to shatter the illusion of Britain’s police being ‘different’ than Britain’s police themselves.

While much of the analysis and news coverage on campaigns against prisons and policing has been focused on the US context, policing in the UK has its very own history of struggle to be contended with. There have been 1758 known deaths in custody in the UK since 1990 to date, and yet no one has been held accountable for these murders. It is activists who have grappled with the sharp edge of British policing who have been pushing for police and prison abolition here.

But in talking about Britain’s own history with the police, it’s also important to reframe how we understand police and policing itself. Significantly, much of Britain’s policing has historically been exported elsewhere. ‘British policing’ meant policing the Empire, through social control in the colonies, before importing the tactics practised there right back here to bear on the British working classes. This boomerang continued even after the British empire was broken up – Britain’s gift to much of the world has been policing and violence.

Along with this context, any conversation on policing, and abolition, in Britain is incomplete without understanding the three pillars of policing today – ‘ordinary’ police forces, immigration control and ‘counter-terror’ policing – as well as the particular contexts they arose in here, and the many forms that these take.

Three pillars of modern policing

It is all too easy to fragment conversations about policing, evaluating each sphere of surveillance and enforcement as a separate ‘issue’, but the way that ‘counter-terrorism’ and immigration control are implemented gives us a chilling look into the future of policing in Britain.

Through innovations in these areas, policing is simultaneously tightened up and made more diffuse – the growth of ‘counter-terrorism’, for example, has ushered in a historically unprecedented apparatus of surveillance, while simultaneously deputising the work of countering terrorism to ordinary citizens through programmes like Prevent, which oblige workers in many fields to monitor supposed signs of ‘radicalisation’ in those they provide services to or have contact with. So too in the case of immigration control: our borders have become more militarised, while Hostile Environment policies have spread the work of policing migrants across society. This feeds into every area of our lives, from the process of being selected for a job or a house (required to showcase our passports for a mini-immigration check), to doctors, cleaners, social workers and teachers being asked (through Prevent) to decide if the people they provide their services to are inclined to commit an act of terrorism. Policing is ingrained as a general duty. In turn, our society goes from one where we trust and support each other to one where we are tracking and monitoring each other.

In time, these systems bleed into a policing of society and of political activity more broadly. In recent years for example, the targets of Prevent have widened: alongside Muslim communities and far-right activists there have been increasing moves to target environmental justice groups like Extinction Rebellion and sections of the left – particularly the anti-war left. Decades of anti-migrant policies have ratcheted up the risk of organising for those with insecure, undocumented or dual citizenship, placing them at the mercy of the deportation regime. A very clear case of this arose in 2009, when SOAS workers campaigning for the London living wage were detained by immigration enforcement and later deported.

Whether it be the ‘Hostile Environment’ anti-migrant policies such as those that make it difficult to access housing, or the mass political policing enabled by ‘counter-terrorism’, or ‘ordinary’ law-and-order policing, these forces collectively amount to a system that works to keep us in line, that makes life for certain segments of the population more insecure, and draws other segments into the work of policing one another. It is vital that the British left engage with and embrace campaigns towards the abolition and defunding of all of Britain’s various police apparatuses – which are, in the final instance, an obstacle to any left project.

For this reason, campaigning for a world without police cannot focus merely on the form of policing – that is to say, just focusing on the figure of the police officer or force. It must also focus on policing as a set of relations that are designed to uphold capitalist notions of law and order, to defend private property and subordinate the exploited masses of people.

But even beyond a theoretical position on it, the issue of policing is already a very visceral reality for many people in Britain – especially young black, brown and working-class people. For many young people here, their first encounter with the police is being intimidated by them during a stop-and-search. In my case, it was witnessing this happen, and the deep feeling of helplessness and anger that accompanied it, that made me initially start to distrust the police. My estate in East London has had a long history of the police not turning up when you need them, and turning up in massive numbers when you don’t. It is these seeds of discontent and distrust of authority that the left must nurture into a structural analysis of power, and develop into campaigns for broad social change.

Abolitionist praxis

Defunding the police is about reducing the scope of the police. Abolition aims towards a society that does not need the police or prisons. To put it simply, defund is the tactic, abolition is the horizon – it’s important that we articulate a very social and political vision for the type of society we want through abolition, rather than just operating on a budgetary logic.

We can bring the abolitionist horizon into many aspects of our regular social and political praxis. Everyday examples of this could include providing food and direct material support for the local homeless community rather than reporting them for begging; being an active bystander when you see abuse taking place – if you feel able to do so – rather than relying on police; and intervening in stop-and-searches to challenge officers’ abuses of power. The last few months have also seen the rise of mutual aid and a strengthening of local communities, which can also be a means through which we can take responsibility for each other without relying on punitive responses by the state to the consequences of poverty and poor healthcare. In this way, abolitionist organising can provide a coherent framework and ‘glue’ to bind together campaigns against inequality, while injecting a solid politics within them.

Alongside these everyday approaches that help to circumvent and rein in the logic of policing, it is vital that we undertake very direct abolitionist work to reduce the police state. For instance, this can mean getting involved with, or initiating, a relevant campaign to get rid of police officers in your local secondary school or college, or carrying out anti-Prevent workshops and ‘know your rights’ training. Campaigns are ongoing to stop the construction of prisons, close down current prisons, and stop the use of tasers.

While abolition should be a very logical progression for leftists politically, we find ourselves pushing back against deeply-rooted ‘common sense’ notions of the value and necessity of policing. Crime is often seen as caused fundamentally by bad people rather than being understood as the product of a broken society. Policing and punishment takes the place of meaningful attempts at rebuilding society, maintains the system of inequality and creates a vicious cycle of dependency on police to solve our issues – rather than allowing us to formulate wide-ranging, collective solutions to society’s problems.

Along with our history of policing, we have our own tradition of resistance to draw upon. 2020 marks 50 years since the arrest of the Mangrove 9 – nine Black activists harassed by the police as part of their escalating war against Britain’s then-growing Black Power movement. It was the conclusion of their trial which saw the very first acknowledgement of racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police, nearly three decades before the Lawrence Inquiry’s seminal verdict of ‘institutional racism’. Then there are our very own uprisings sparked by police violence, including the historic flashpoints in 1981, 1985 and 2011. And that’s without mentioning the long history of defence and justice campaigns against police brutality and negligence – from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to the United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC).

Abolition politics in the UK, therefore, need not be seen as a ‘foreign import’ – but rather as rooted in a long history of struggle here that we can learn from and build upon.

Police with riot shields at the Poll tax riot in May 1990.

More information:

The spread of the police and their powers is wide reaching. There are many campaigns doing vital work at a local level. Activists recently produced UK-relevant resources to consider some demands we should have to move towards an abolitionist world.

Please attend UFFC’s annual rally taking place online on 31st October.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here