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?

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left