The heavies of the state: Laurie Penny takes on police equipment

It's hard to see someone's humanity through a riot visor.

When Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police in 1829, he insisted on a gentle approach to the growing unrest among the urban poor. Almost two centuries later, more and more British people are convinced that the police's role is to impose the government's austerity programme, by force if necessary. How did this happen?

At the height of the industrial revolution, Adam Smith advocated strict policing as a way to protect "wealth and abundance". Those of us from relatively well-off backgrounds can find this hard to grasp. As a well-spoken, middle-class white girl, I took 22 years to learn to fear the police in the streets. But, in November last year, everything changed. In the Whitehall kettle, as I watched armoured officers brutalise thousands of young protesters, the realisation that the police are there to protect the rich from the rabble hit home like a baton to the back of the neck.

There seems to be a direct correlation between public confidence in the police and public confidence in the economy. Now that the boom is over and the rage has resurged, so has the popular conviction that taking on the government puts innocent people at the pointy end of police brutality.

Consider the case of Smiley Culture, the reggae singer whose 1984 single "Police Officer" was a darkly comic take on routine harassment of young black men. On 15 March, Culture, born David Emmanuel, died from a single stab wound to the heart after a police raid on his home. An official investigation will no doubt return a verdict of no wrongdoing. So did the initial investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson, even with viral video evidence of the newspaper seller being shoved to the ground by police.

Whatever the facts are in Smiley's death, there will be many who suspect that it was not suicide. Even the right-wing Metro newspaper, reporting the case, put the words "stabs himself" in inverted commas, the textual equivalent of raising one eyebrow suspiciously. The violent, premature death of a father of three is a tragedy. It is doubly tragic, however, that we now live in a state where, when a black artist dies during a police raid, some simply shrug and assume that the cops killed him.

Critical mass

Across the country, anti-cuts activists are making armour out of bits of cardboard. Trade unionists are learning to withstand baton blows because they expect to be beaten at the demonstration on 26 March. Anyone prepared to fight for justice in these difficult times has come to anticipate police violence and surveillance. Meanwhile, the sense that the cops do not stand with the people is discouraging many from supporting the upcoming police strikes.

This change has not come from the police. It has come from us. The police still provide a wall of bodies between the elite and the forces of civil unrest but the number of us on the wrong side of the riot lines is approaching a critical mass. Riot visors put a wall of smoked glass between the state and the people but individual constables always have a choice about where to stand.

At the recent mass demonstrations in Wisconsin, local police put down their weapons and joined the protests. When the people rise up, every police officer must decide whom he or she is protecting.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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