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?

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder