August 14, 2019

Johnson government expands police powers: an assault on the working class

The solution is revolutionary opposition against the British capitalist state and its police, and to solve the problems that create crime in the first place: namely, the manufactured deprivation inherent to capitalism.

Johnson government expands police powers: an assault on the working class

As conditions for the working class worsen, the British state is militarising against its population. This past Sunday, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that stop and search powers would be extended to police forces so that reasonable suspicion was no longer needed as justification. This is in addition to Boris Johnson’s announcement that 10,000 additional prison spaces would be created to facilitate the anticipated increase in incarceration. 20,000 officers, endowed with these increased powers, will be recruited within weeks. This is a dangerous expansion of the repressive powers of the state, no doubt partly in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, and signals the wider tide of a Britain hurtling towards an ever-darkening path.

Increased policing must not be normalised, no matter how the ruling class tries to justify it. Even just in the announcement, Patel anecdotally references victims of knife crime and weaponises their trauma to build support for these measures. Militarising against the population is not legitimised because a family who have suffered from knife crime, itself a tragedy of class oppression, supports the policy. The answer to crime is not harsher sentencing and authoritarian policing which consistently fail to solve social issues; the state knows this, simply using crime as an excuse to further arm itself to keep its grip on the people. Likewise, the answer to police brutality is not to try and go back to an idealised model of “bobbies on the beat” and friendly police-community relations, such as the pathetic proposals of Labour, who want more police on the streets just as much as the Tories, or even more so, and are equally to blame for this development.

At the root of the issue lies the fact that the contemporary capitalist state is the institutionalised, formalised body of the capitalist class. What the capitalist, or bourgeois state does is in the interests of capitalism, because this state is itself an extension of the capitalist class. As Lenin shows in State and Revolution, the state is an instrument of class domination, born out of the contradictions between classes. Because we live in capitalist society, where the capitalist class stands at the top of the hierarchy, the capitalist state becomes “the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State).

This is easy enough to see through dozens of examples in our everyday lives. The laws the capitalist state passes protect and expand capital, and the police are there to enforce those laws as the armed hand of the state and the bodyguard of capital. If in doubt, question whether there is any chance that a CEO, a banker, or a politician will ever be the target of a stop and search, or arrested for the harm caused by their exploitative practices. The answer, of course, is no. Those responsible for the deaths caused by austerity and privatisation will never be prosecuted under this system; equally, the numerous victims of the Grenfell tragedy, caused by the ruthless profit-seeking practices of Rydon, are still seeking justice, two years on. On the other hand, police officers are always willing to help with evictions, take the lead in dispersing and harrassing the homeless, or violently suppress protests. Backed by a justice system intent on criminalising the working class, the state is happy to allow indescribable violence to be carried out daily against the poor and needy, while crimes of poverty and those caused by social degradation are heavily punished.

Indeed, the targets of policing and criminalisation are almost solely the working class, particularly its most oppressed elements. People of colour are disproportionately more likely to be the target of stop and search: Black people are stopped and searched 9 times more often than white people, while Asian people are stopped over twice as often. Police brutality, often considered in the British psyche to be an American phenomenon, is alive and well in British policing: over 1500 have been estimated to have died in custody since 1990, with over a third of these being people of colour. BAME people are heavily overrepresented in British prisons, with Black men 26% more likely to be remanded in custody. Transgender people face increased violence by being wrongly incarcerated with people of a different gender, and the police regularly engage in transphobic and homophobic practice without consequence.

The British state has a long and dark history of violent overpolicing within Black working class communities: in 1973, a White Paper on Police-Immigrant Relations was published, with a recommendation to defuse the potential for young Black people in Britain to radicalise and rise up. This led, among other measures, to the foundation of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) – now known as the Territorial Support Group (TSG). The SPG, who infamously caused the death of antifascist Blair Peach in 1979, stopped 14,000 people in Lewisham in 1977 and carried out 400 arrests. The creation of the SPG was also justified through the “mugging panic” of the 1960s and 1970s, which seems all too familiar as the government uses knife crime to justify this recent expansion of police powers.

The numerous uprisings against racist overpolicing, including the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riots, were an unsurprising response to this régime of abuse and violence that the police had instituted. Even in more recent history, the 2011 uprisings were built on opposition to police violence against people of colour including via stop and search, as well as more general working-class discontent. They represent proof that bubbling under a seemingly tranquil surface is a deep-seated and widespread sentiment of resistance to the police and their capitalist handlers. Earlier this year, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University Kehinde Andrews invoked Malcolm X’s warning of a “racial powder keg” in Britain’s deprived inner cities.

This régime is itself no accident: as a repressive state apparatus, the police also has the role of consolidating ideas of criminality and social hierarchy into the minds of the population, always reminding us of who is supposed to be marginalised, suspected, and feared by “good” citizens, and associating criminality with the (often racialised) working class. The prison system only extends this, creating a space where the victims of social degradation can be kept and exploited, maintaining the illusion that the poverty, alienation, and desperation we experience to varying degrees are just aberrations rather than the undeniable effects of a system that prioritises profit over human life and dignity, and that those who find themselves in prison are only there because of personal choices. In the words of Angela Davis:

The prison … functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers … It relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”

This is a structure that ultimately targets the entire working class. Significantly, the oppressive use of the SPG against Black and Asian communities in the 70s was, in fact, a prelude to a broader assault on the working class in the run up to the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–79, and ultimately to Thatcher’s brutal offensive against the trade unions. Black radical activist Colin Prescod prophetically recognised this at the time, when the SPG were used at the Grunwick film-processing plant dispute of 1976–78. The dispute was led by South Asian women, and supported by a massive solidarity movement involving tens of thousands of leftists and trade unionists.

With the possibility of a no-deal Brexit seriously exacerbating existing austerity conditions, which could potentially spark a broad anti-capitalist resistance, the present government’s racial authoritarian drive should be seen as a similar prelude to a sweeping assault on the working class. Here lies the meaning of these measures: the hardening of the state in order to ensure the domination of the capitalist class and its survival as a class.

The solution to crime is not more policing and an increase in measures such as stop and search. The solution is revolutionary opposition against the British capitalist state and its police, and to solve the problems that create crime in the first place: namely, the manufactured deprivation inherent to capitalism.

In these times of increasing reaction where many of us are made more vulnerable by these expansions of state power, we encourage alternatives to engaging with cops in any way. This can be from simply talking to people in your neighbourhood and developing genuine alternatives that make communities less reliant on the bourgeois state and less vulnerable to its abuses, to working with groups actively countering police violence and fostering alternative paths to justice and safety. Groups such as the London Campaign Against Police and State Violence have numerous resources, such as this stop and search guide. All are vital strategies to keep us alive and out of the grips of the state and its prison pipeline. Particularly at protests and demos, but wherever safe to do so, do not talk to cops, and watch out for those around you, especially those most likely to be targeted. Those of us who do not experience certain forms of oppression have a duty to put their bodies on the line to protect those who do.

Resist police violence and work tirelessly to build the revolution!