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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.