It was, at first sight, just an ordinary rush hour scene at Birmingham’s New Street station. Three cops from the British Transport Police ordering flat whites in a cafe, amid a short break on what must have been a busy shift.
One was armed with a pistol and kevlared-up, the others were wearing stab vests and bulky tactical clothing. All were equipped with earpieces, tasers, pepper sprays – and all were tense, scanning the busy street intently as they waited for their drinks.
Sadly, this level of kit, this intensity and militarisation of policing now looks so normal that few in the coffee bar gave them a second look. But the scenes of global unrest swirling across our social media timelines should make us think twice about the kind of police force we’ve created. Because, within living memory, this kind of policing was not normal.
The 1960s and early 70s were eras of heightened class struggle – yet there were no riot cops. It was only once the working class movement was defeated, and the neoliberal era began, that states began to intensively militarise their police forces and train them in offensive public order tactics.
The reason for this goes to the heart of what neoliberalism really is: the relentless and coercive imposition of market logic into the everyday lives of people by the state. Though there was very little resistance to the neoliberal counter-revolution, what there was had to be put down brutally. Mutual consent had to be replaced by mute acceptance, with the riot shield as the ultimate symbolic barrier between the powerful and the powerless.
In Britain, from the 1981 inner city riots, via the poll tax riots of 1990, the Welling demo in 1993, the anti-capitalist protests of the late 1990s – through to the student protests of 2010, and the urban riots of summer 2011, that’s what happened.
Today, all over the world, there is a presumption towards aggression and offense in riot policing: if you watch a montage of events this week in Ecuador, Hong Kong and Catalonia you will see the same basic impulse in action – to break up crowds with batons, to cause panic stampedes, to fill the air with tear gas, to beat people on the ground.
I’ve had the privilege to train as a journalist for public order situations alongside the Met, so I’ve seen how chaotic and scary even a play-acted riot can get for the average police officer behind a perspex visor. I’ve seen trainee commanding officers yell at their subordinates “Get back to normal policing!” when the latter looked too eager to do the abnormal stuff.
And I’ve seen how, from the police operational point of view, it makes sense to start clearing protesters using batons and shields, once you lose control of a situation. But from a political standpoint, by militarising their police forces to this extent, democratic states across the developed world are playing with fire.
If you think about the implicit reasons why there were no riot squads in the days of mass strikes and occupations, it was the assumption of “policing by consent”. There were unspoken limits beyond which neither the police, nor the workers on picket lines, would cross.
At the Warrington Messenger dispute in 1983, which erupted into a night-long riot, there was genuine shock among the printers and their working class supporters at the brutality of the police response – Land Rovers were driven at crowds in the dark, a union organising caravan smashed up and the officials inside it dragged out injured. This moment – on 30 November 1983 – has since been recognised by academics as a turning point in UK public order. I was there, and I can assure you that’s how it felt.
Minutes before the rioting, the two sides had been confronting each other in the “normal” way – a choreographed pushing match with linked arms, which was the norm. This culture ensured that, despite the 90 per cent male, manual, working-class demographic of both the cops and the pickets, very few punches were ever thrown. From the moment five separate regional riot squads were concentrated on that field in Warrington, everything changed.
We will only know the full story of how Margaret Thatcher militarised policing in the class battles of the 1980s once the sources are fully declassified, but we need to start a discussion about how to reverse the process, and urgently.
Because our democracies are in danger. Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Salvini and their like are trying to break a world order based on mutual interdependence and the rule of law. But if they are the worst we have to face I will be relieved – because as I’ve written here before, our democratic constitutions are proving fairly resilient against authoritarian conservatism.
But what if these institutions break? What if, after Trump comes somebody worse; what if Farage, Richard Tice and co. one day get their hands on the Home Office? What if the French riot police one day have to serve Marine Le Pen instead of Macron?
I understand that the ever-present threat of terrorism, together with the knife crime epidemic, means that all police officers have to be trained and equipped to deal with sudden violence – especially around large venues and government buildings. But the most worrying thing, as the Brexit situation has intensified, is the apparently selective way police are deciding to respond to protest. On Whitehall on 7 September, as members of the English Defence League and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance clashed with police, as they tried to break up two separate anti-Brexit demos, the Met seemed to follow a deliberate policy of under-resourcing. One officer admitted to me there were not enough police to deal forcefully with the threatening acts and words of small groups of fascists as they roamed around harassing MPs.
Fast forward to this week and – faced with Extinction Rebellion (XR) – we have the sudden imposition of a Section 14 order on the whole of London, and random ID checks on people crossing bridges by foot. While the Met’s handling of the XR protests has been generally restrained, I cannot currently discern any consistency or predictability in the policing of public order.
If we were ruled by committed democrats, you could put this down to the cock-up theory of history. But the Home Secretary is Priti Patel, and the PM is the man who wasted £300,000 on water cannon.
Given the terror threat, the scale of organised crime and the availability of knives and guns, even ordinary police officers are going to have to go about their business kitted up; and we will always need some trained to deal with public disorder. But we also need to inculcate, among police chiefs and their political masters, a preference for normal policing: for policing by consent, through human interactions, intelligence and capacity building.
There was no real debate about the militarisation of the police in the 1980s. It just happened, and the Blair/Brown government accepted it. Today as consent for democracy and our political institutions comes under strain, I think we need a discussion about the limits of police militarisation, and to ask: what are the circumstances where we could begin to reverse it?