What once might have seemed like a radical situation, far removed from our everyday reality, aligned itself with our own experiences of living through a dangerous pandemic.
Content Warning: This article contains discussions of racism and anti-Black violence at the hands of the police.
The police watchdog Netpol yesterday released a damning report, exposing institutional racism in the policing of Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. The report evidences numerous accounts of excessive force by police against Black protesters, and exposes the motivation of this violence as the suppression of Black voices exercising their democratic rights. It is once again clear that the pigs exist neither to serve, nor to protect, but to viciously enforce the system of racial capitalism.
Following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on the 25th May 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the United States. These protests soon became international, and within a few days Black Lives Matter protests were underway in Britain, protesting racism within the police and across British society. As Netpol reports, these protests constituted the largest anti-racist street movement in British history.
These protests faced condemnation from the beginning. Home Secretary Priti Patel shamelessly employed anti-Black stereotypes of “thuggery” and criminality in an attempt to de-legitimise the movement, with many in the press mirroring the government’s messaging in claims that protesters were committing acts of violence against the police. Covid-19 was woven into this narrative, in order to portray attendants at these demonstrations as reckless and uncaring – despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of protestors wore masks and attempted social distancing, whilst no such condemnation was levelled at largely white and middle-class beach-goers in the weeks prior.
This backdrop of racist vitriol, combined with data demonstrating the racially discriminatory imposition of lockdown regulations, increased use of Section 60 Stop and Searches, and a history of institutional racism in the British police force, gave Netpol cause for concern that the policing of these demonstrations had been racist. They therefore commissioned a report, drawing on over 100 eyewitness testimonies, which sought to provide Black Lives Matter protesters with information which would help them defend their right to protest. The findings of the report are deeply disturbing.
Foremost, the report details numerous accounts of extreme violence and use of force by police. Amongst the testimonies include reports of baton charges, horse charges, use of pepper-spray and violent arrests. One testimony reports a protester being punched and kicked in the face and stomach by police, whilst trying to pull their sister, who had multiple chronic health conditions, from under a pile of seven police officers. The report demonstrated that such violence was disproportionately employed against Black protesters and non-Black people of colour. Legal Observers (LOs), independents who attend demonstrations to keep records of interactions between protestors and police, and keep people informed about their legal rights, were also met with violence, especially those who were Black, or non-Black people of colour. LOs wear brightly coloured high-visibility bibs and carry notebooks. They generally stand apart from any confrontations, impartially recording what’s going on. They cannot be confused with protesters.
A second key concern listed in the report is the repeated use of kettling tactics by police at the demonstrations. Kettling is the tactic of penning protestors into a tight area, and refusing to allow people to leave. At one demonstration protesters were held for 8 hours, between 6pm and 2am, whilst being denied access to food, water, and toilet facilities - with several protestors being forced to urinate in the street and subsequently being arrested for doing so. In such conditions, social distancing is of course impossible, highlighting the hypocrisy of claims that these protests were being policed so heavily due to the risks posed by Covid-19. Thankfully, masks were almost universally worn by protestors, which cannot be said for the pigs penning them in. The particular 8 hour kettle discussed in the report contained several members of Red Fightback, who additionally report that this kettle began as the crowd was dispersing at the end of a demonstration. Over the next 8 hours, the police snatched multiple protestors out of the kettle at random, and placed them under arrest: all were Black. The kettle was also used as an opportunity for massive state surveillance, with protestors frog-marched out one-by-one in front of a facial-recognition camera, some even having their masks forcibly (and illegally) removed for this purpose. Many were threatened with arrest unless they gave their details, before being banned from the Borough of Westminster for 24 hours.
Many of those caught in these kettles were under-18s, and recognised by LOs as “vulnerable persons”. The report highlights an additional concern relating to this: the police failing to fulfil their duty of care. This extended far beyond the kettling of young people, and one incident report notes that a young woman experiencing an epileptic seizure was laughed at and arrested by police, who refused to give her medical attention. Perhaps the most serious instances of this neglect intersect with the fourth key concern listed in the report: the under-policing of the far-right. Numerous accounts of racist counter-protestors being given free reign to hurl abuse, bottles, and fireworks at anti-racist protestors are included in the report; with the police looking on passively, or in many cases actively attacking those being targeted. Red Fightback have a policy of not reproducing graphic descriptions of violence, and to do so with many of the reports’ testimonies would border on gratuitous; suffice to say that one report details a teenage black boy asking an officer for medical assistance following a vicious armed assault at the hands of fascist counter-protestors. The officer refused to help. Instead, he stopped and searched the boy.
The conclusion drawn by Netpol is therefore incontrovertible. The policing of these demonstrations was institutionally racist. The use of kettles against BLM protestors, and non-policing of far-right counter protesters, smashes the lie that state opposition to these protests was out of concern for Covid-19 transmission. The police attempted to crush these protests, because they channelled the anger of majority working-class Black and non-Black people of colour, against the system of brutality which continues to oppress them. In doing so they were knowingly attempting to withdraw the democratic right to freedom of association and assembly enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights; as illustrated by the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, Ken Marsh’s comments, calling for Priti Patel to ban demonstrations on “public health grounds”.
As sickening as the findings of this report are to us, they come as no surprise. Netpol’s report contains an excellent historicisation of racism in the police force, and since the Macpherson Report in 1999, it has been uncontroversial even in many liberal circles to note that the Met is institutionally racist. But we must now ask, why is this? Why are the police racist? In calling their racism institutional, we’re already saying that this isn’t a case of a few bad apples - we’re saying the tree is rotten to the core. But is this a cultural problem within the force? Is this simple complacency, no one having bothered to implement the structures to have the police operate in the anti-racist fashion in which they should?
No. When they commit racist violence, when they brutalise Black people, and non-Black people of colour, and working class people, and disabled people, and trans people, and sex workers, and drug users, and women, and people with mental illnesses, and migrants, and gay people and homeless people; all whilst defending and excusing the fascists, the wealthy business owners, the politicians, the landlords, the rapists, the abusers – in a word, the powerful; when they behave like this, the pigs are functioning exactly as they are meant to. This is why:
We live in a social and economic system called racial capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system in which goods and services are produced as “commodities”. What this means is that they are produced with the primary purpose of being sold to make a profit. Under capitalism, society is divided into “classes”. Classes are not identity categories primarily; your class isn’t determined by what you wear, or how you speak, or the food you eat, or the TV programmes you watch. Your class is determined by what kinds of property you own. Under capitalism, there are two primary classes. In Marxist analysis these are referred to as the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie.
The proletariat are what we would commonly call the working class - they don’t own any property from which they can make profit, their only way of making a living is by selling their labour-power, by working for someone else for a wage. As they have no other means to survive, this is a coerced relationship: you work for someone else, or you starve.
The bourgeoisie – the business owners, the bosses, the capitalists – they own a particular kind of property called “means of production” - factories, machines, land etc. The means of production don’t produce any value in themselves, but human labour can be employed upon them to produce goods and services e.g. a business owner might own a hammer, some nails and some planks, but it takes a worker to turn those raw materials and means of production into a shelf. Thus the working class are the producers of all values, but because the means of production are privately owned by the bourgeoisie, they receive all the profits - paying the workers just enough to survive.
Private property, i.e. private ownership of the means of production, is therefore the cornerstone of capitalism. The means of production have not always been privately owned, and there is nothing inherent or natural about this system. In fact, the original conversion of land and materials that were owned by no one, but which were employed collectively, into the private property of the capitalist class, was accomplished by violent theft. Much of this wealth was stolen from the continent of Africa, both in the theft of natural resources, and the enslavement of Africans – the wealth from the transatlantic slave trade funded the industrial revolution in Britain, and the free labour of enslaved people built the United States.
From its inception, capitalism has been dependent on the formation of racial categories to designate particular groups as of lower moral worth, as being less entitled to property in the lands on which they were born, as being lower categories of human, or even entirely unhuman, so as to justify their exploitation for the production of wealth. A striking example of this is the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, which in response to rebellious alliances being formed between white and Black indentured servants, sought to prevent this kind of unity by legally enshrining white superiority; it was made illegal for whites to work for Black people, Black people were banned from owning arms, and whites where permitted to self-deputise in the capture and return of suspected runaway slaves. Similarly, it was the designation of indigenous Americans as “uncivilised” which legitimised their genocide and the theft of their land in the building of the US. Through the pseudo-scientific concept of race, certain groups were designated as “naturally” inferior; just as the pseudo-scientific concepts of sex and gender tell us that women are “naturally” more suited to domestic work; and in both of these instances this naturalisation legitimises a division of labour, which facilitates greater exploitation of those groups. It is for this reason that we call our current system racial capitalism – because we understand that capitalism inherently depends on racial and gender hierarchies.
Because these systems – race, gender and private property – are not truly “natural”, as capitalist ideology requires us to believe, they cannot simply be left to their own devices. The working class would not tolerate their own exploitation. Women would not allow their domestic labour to go unpaid. Black people and non-Black people of colour would not allow themselves to be brutalised and oppressed whilst the wealth they produce is stolen. The capitalist class who benefit from these systems of inequality, exploitation and oppression have to enforce them with violence. All class societies are enforced with violence from the dominant class. This violence is organised and institutionalised, in a collection of instruments called the State. The State includes the army, the court system, the government and its subsidiary institutions, the prison system and, of course, the police.
Following the massive educational efforts of Black Lives Matter campaigners, more and more people are becoming aware that the first policing organisations in the southern United States grew out of slave patrols, which after “emancipation” became formalised into modern police forces. Lesser known, is that the first modern police force in the world was the Peace Preservation Force, formed in 1814 in the British colony of Ireland. The techniques developed to maintain the power of British capital there, by violently suppressing anti-colonial resistance, were further developed by British occupying armies and police forces across the colonies, including in India, Hong Kong, and Kenya. These techniques were then turned on the working class in Britain, with the establishment of domestic police forces to quell strikes, protests, and other acts of working class resistance to attacks on working and living conditions. To this day, many of the techniques used by police across the world, from rubber bullets, to crowd control tactics, to restraint techniques, were developed in Britain’s colonies.
From this history, we can see that the function of the police has, from its origins, been the violent oppression of the working class, and in particular colonised people. They inflict acts of racial terror to keep colonised people “in line”. They carry out raids and deportations against undocumented migrants, to force them into vulnerable and precarious working situations in which they can be exploited. They enforce the violence of gentrification. They support evictions. They imprison people who steal to feed their families. They defend billionaires’ “right” to hoard wealth whilst millions starve. They surveil, attack and imprison union leaders, anti-racist campaigners, human rights activists and whistleblowers – anyone who might threaten the power structure. They exist not to protect us, but to protect the powerful from us.
This is the political context in which Netpol’s report must be read.
When the police “fail” in their supposed duty of care; when they “underpolice” far-right counter protestors; they are fulfilling their duties precisely. Netpol is correct to point to these behaviours as major concerns, but we must not be mistaken in thinking them to be errors or shortcomings. The pigs “duty of care” is to racial capitalism, to private property, to white supremacy. Far-right protesters are their ideological and material allies. We cannot look to the military arm of the white supremacist, capitalist state, to defend us from white supremacists, or to care for our wellbeing whilst we try to fight against their own racism. When the police brutalise Black people and non-Black people of colour, they are reinforcing the system of racial terror they were designed to institute. When they kettle us as we resist their violence, they are employing the tactics they were created to employ against colonised people in the service of British capital. Netpol’s report captures, with horrifying precision and detail, the police carrying out the precise function for which they exist.
This goes beyond any given government or party. It goes beyond “Fuck the government and fuck Boris!”. The Labour Party is part of that apparatus too. Keir Starmer, as Director of Public Prosecutions in 2011, responded to the riots following the police murder of Mark Duggan by setting up all-night courts in an effort to maximise prosecutions; none of the murderous pigs who executed Mark were prosecuted. Starmer likewise refused to prosecute the police officers who murdered Jean Charles de Menezes in cold blood on the tube in 2009. If you’re in any doubt, even under Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour party swore to increase the number of police on Britain’s streets, and to tighten Britain’s borders; both of these policies would have inflicted untold violence on migrants and people of colour. Labour is a party thoroughly on the side of the racial capitalist system, following a strategy of throwing crumbs at the feet of working and oppressed people, in the hope of pacifying their resistance.
With this view, we can see that the institutional racism the report exposes cannot be reformed away. Racism and oppressive violence are the foundations which bind the capitalist state to the earth. The whole thing must be uprooted. The police, the prison system, the legal system, the government – all must be abolished, smashed, burned to the ground. In their ashes we must erect a new society, based not on endless striving for profit, at any cost to humanity or the planet; but on the needs of working people, on sustainability, on real justice for all. We must establish a system of justice based on supporting communities, ensuring they have their material needs provided for, and ensuring perpetrators and victims of harmful behaviour are supported in their recovery. We need abolition and revolution.
We can be pacified no longer. The violence exposed in Netpol’s report cannot be allowed to continue. It is time we abolish this system of racial capitalism once and for all. It is time we fight back. We’ll leave you not with our own words, but with the words of the Black Panther and socialist revolutionary, Fred Hampton. Hampton was murdered in his sleep by the FBI, assassinated because of the threat his words and deeds posed to the system of racial capitalism. His words continue to inspire us as we fight against the fascist pigs, for the liberation of humanity:
We're gonna organise and dedicate ourselves to revolutionary political power and teach ourselves the specific needs of resisting the power structure, arm ourselves, and we're gonna fight reactionary pigs with international proletarian revolution! That's what it has to be. The people have to have the power: it belongs to the people.
– Fred Hampton, Power Anywhere Where There’s People