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.
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.