13 January 2011

South Wales Police can pick the other side

So now the jackboot is on the other foot. We hear recently that 1600 police officers may be cut in South Wales, including 688 in South Wales Police alone.

We in the student movement have had increasingly poor experiences with the police, particularly with their eagerness to target victims both here and in London. In Cardiff and in London, we chanted "it's your jobs next" and now that we've been proven right, police are preparing their own actions in defense of jobs. Many on the left respond with bitter, hollow laughter — and indeed today's announcement comes shortly after we hear that the police spent quite a lot of time and money infiltrating Tom Fowler's sewing circle.

The plight of the police is an opportunity for the left. Diffident layers and the pseudo-left are already saying we should all line up behind the police in unconditional solidarity; these are people who always felt deep down that the police, the government, ultimately the whole capitalist state as it stands are good things that just need a little, "responsible" push once in a while (and heaven forbid such an impetus should come from the untrained masses!). Meanwhile, the ultra-left argue as usual that the police can only be "crushed" (and that for some reason the Labour Party will defend us from them). But where do socialists stand?

Lenin notes frequently that socialists and the proletariat must from time to time work within reactionary organizations of the working class. Certainly in the police (as in the POA) we find just such an organization, and while police trade unions are currently illegal de facto organizations will emerge as an elementary matter of course as police cuts are brought in. Marx, at the same time, remarks from experience that while the police are clearly an instrument of the bourgeois state, they don't, as happened under the Paris Commune, have to be:

Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration.[...]Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
(The Civil War in France, chapter 5)

The police in Paris were not "smashed", not replaced, but seized and renewed. Lenin's commentary on this subject could not be more clear: destroying the state machine of the police means liberating the working-class majority from their ruling-class, even frequently-aristocratic bosses.

Nobody is beyond redemption; when part of the working class reaches out to the broader movement, we should reach back. Unlike Jesus, though, our love must be conditional. Any engagement of the left with a workers' movement within the police (a de facto union or shop stewards' network) must accomplish three confluent goals: help free the police rank-and-file from the bosses; ease the seizure of the police by the workers in the long run; and mitigate the harm that police action does to the public good immediately. I propose the following program which a police union could reasonably put forward as demands to the benefit of both the police force's membership and the working class as a whole:

1. Defense of people, not property All else will follow from this. From Tonypandy to Tunisia it is always revealed that when police resources are used to their capacity, they will be used to defend the property of the rich over the lives of the people. This defies every instinct of human decency; no illusion in any part of the state is more deeply ingrained. Being such a thin fiction, let the paper on which it is written be burnt: the task of the police, if they will exist at all, must be chosen, by the police, to be the protection of the broader community of which the police are members.

2. Right to unionize This goes without saying. Collective production, especially when as in the police force the employer has a monopoly on the commodity produced (the use of force to maintain the state internally), makes a union a necessary tool for defending the rights of the workers. That anyone is denied the right to unionize — in this case a government-proposed protection against a working-class takeover of the police — is a violation of human rights.

3. Local operation; no scab forces The police love to over-police, just to show strength (and in these days of cutbacks, to show the budget-setters how much they need the police); last Saturday a demonstration in Cardiff of fewer than 20 people had eight uniformed officers surrounding it. For big events, it's fairly common for police to be called outside their local area by the thousands. This over-policing presents a huge opportunity for state terror: imported police cannot be held accountable by the community in any meaningful way. Indeed, imported police were used against the Tonypandy miners and went home safe and sound. If the function of police is to defend the people, then it follows naturally that this can be best assured by the police being themselves moderated, formally or informally, by the community. Such an approach also demands that the police monopoly on force must remain, as far as the owning class are concerned, a monopoly; private security or the Army cannot be tolerated as substitute police forces, whether by the police force or by the community at large.

4. Local forces under local control Police forces are run in regions essentially detached from local councils, funded centrally from London. This separation of police from local government is deliberate, and dates from a period where socialist takeovers of parts of England and Wales through the ballot box were very real threats to the order of things; heaven forbid, after all, that the raging socialists should be handed one of the "gangs of armed men" just because a majority of people said they should be. Removal of a link between local government and police control has opened the door for more centralization, unpopular with everyone in a position to be affected. The best solution for everyone is to put police forces back in the hands of local government and to put local government in the hands of the people it represents. Obviously such a program must include the breaking up of the London Met. It should finally be noted that the "Independent Police Complains Commission" is anything but independent; its commissioners are selected centrally, not locally, as political appointees who are just more careerist bureaucrats of the state.

5. Elected leadership on workers' wages In any profession, the person best suited to a job is the one with talent, skill and experience. This is as self-evident a statement as there can be on this Earth; it is a testament to the blinkeredness with which we are all raised that we will demand our public officials be elected and yet assume that our managers at work must be appointed by other managers. In a para-military organization like the police, where the whole structure assumes the highest ranks from the ruling class and the lowest from the working class, we starkly encounter the class structure in one of the state's most visible organs. Let the police choose part of their own hierarchy, let the public as a whole choose the rest (the United States already does this in most places and it doesn't cause a revolution there), keep them all under the same financial circumstances as the people they're meant to be protecting, and we go a long way toward taking power away from the top of society and moving it toward the bottom.

6. Open books The London Met is a multi-billion pound operation. South Wales Police claim the cost of policing the June EDL demonstration was a quarter of a million pounds, an accounting of which still hasn't been revealed. At at time when "efficiency savings" universally mean job losses and pay cuts, and when every penny of funding for most of public services are under scrutiny, why tolerate carte blanche for a black budget?

7. Disband the Forward Intelligence Team and riot squads. Equal training for all officers. When talk of police marches began to circulate in Britain, the most common joke was: who kettles the kettlers? If a police force has an ultra-loyal elite within itself, this will be used against the rank-and-file police when they take action; furthermore it is in the economic interest of the rank-and-file that their average level of skills be raised and that mobility be increased within their force. If specialized tools like the FIT and riot squads, with their inherent clique culture, go, and officers continually rotate among branches, learning every specialty, not only is the whole force more flexible with each member prepared for any situation, but the police can no longer be used against themselves. The felicitousness of such a rearrangement for the activist community goes without saying.

8. Posse comitatus One bit of liberalism which the United Kingdom still misses out on is the notion that civilian authority is supreme. The British government has never had qualms about using the army against its own subjects, without particular regard for life; when soldiers take the lead in policing then they will act like an occupying force, and find just as much success in that role at home as abroad. It also follows from above that if local police should not be undercut by imported police, they must not be undercut by the army. As socialists we can say unashamedly that this demand is a short-term tactical one; in a revolutionary situation, the rule of civilian authority over military will crumble just as surely as the myth of liberalism itself.

9. A police officer is a person with a badge Terry Pratchett wrote that a witch is a woman wearing a pointy hat; and that in the popular perception, a woman not wearing a pointy hat cannot possibly be a witch. If police officers assert the premise of an organized, working-class police force then the demands they make must follow their duties to their class, and the conclusion they must accept follows as a tautology: if a police officer is no more than a member of the working class who has been given a legal monopoly on the use of force, then a police officer is no more than a member of the working class who has been given a legal monopoly on the use of force. Where does this authority come from? Until the end of private property, it is granted by the state. Between their class obligation (to defend the public) and the terms of their employment (to defend the class system as written) there is the ultimate social contradiction. Let the following resolve it: organized police must recognize, as their forebears the town watchmen knew, that if they will have any legitimacy at all, it comes from the consensus support of the vast majority of the people of their community. Such support implies responsibility for actions, actions which may well be life-or-death decisions in moments of urgency.

So police officers wear badges: totems of authority which say, "I am a police officer, I have power, and I have responsibility."

Except when they don't. Police habitually cover their badge numbers up to avoid responsibility for their actions, hiding even from retribution through legal channels. Police hide among crowds,and police bosses hide the presence of officers — even from Parliament. Police under cover infiltrate, insinuate and rape, for no purpose other than to spread fear and uncertainty; and this is, by any reasonable definition, terrorism. Any working-class police group which wishes their class to stand alongside them must repudiate these tactics, which are only used, and only serve, to attack the majority of society in the interests of the ruling minority.

As a corollary to this the organized police must admit the following: that if a policeman is a person with a badge, a person without a badge is not a policeman. A police officer in a crowd who conceals their badge number (or otherwise forbids its recording) cannot be a servant of the public; therefore they are a public enemy. A police officer in plain clothes spying on a crowd cannot be a preserver of public order; therefore they are a provocateur. A police officer infiltrating a political group, that is a group engaged in the class war, a police officer deflecting that group's struggle and molesting its membership, cannot possibly be an agent of social progress; therefore they are a wrecker.

All these will be treated, just as urgently as the police themselves are licensed to act, with a swift and steely justice derived from the highest authority: the popular will.

That is to say, they will as necessary be peacefully and respectfully removed from the scene with a minimum of force, for their own safety and for the preservation of public order.

[Note: In the time between when I started writing this piece and when I finished, police in Tunisia demanded the establishment of their own union and have proclaimed themselves to be defending the public, not the right to property. I have incorporated this material as appropriate; the parallel between what is going on in Britain slowly and what is going on in Tunisia very fast is striking indeed.]

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