In a recent report on British policing, Denis O’Connor criticized the growing use of paramilitary policing in the UK:
“British police risk losing the battle for the public’s consent if they win public order through tactics that appear to be unfair, aggressive and inconsistent,” he said. “This harms not just the reputation of the individual officers concerned but the police service as a whole.”
The UK has always had a very different view of the role of the police than both the US and Europe, based in part on the principles embodied by Sir Robert Peel‘s account of ethical policing, the most famous of which is:
“the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
I find these developments especially notable in the context of our perpetual failure in the US to reign in the paramilitarization of police forces. On the one hand, the existence and apparent efficacy of this report makes me wonder whether Peelian principles are only propaganda or whether their adoption can significantly alter the course of a state’s use of coercive force. On the other hand, these principles may simply have delayed the onset of this kind of paramilitary-style policing, and the O’Connor report may merely be the British version of NYC’s Mollen Commision.
I’m reminded of the recent arrests around G-20 protests in Pittsburgh, especially the arrest of Elliot Madison. Madison had been listening to a police scanner and ‘tweeting’ police movements to protesters. Madison was accused of helping protesters to avoid a lawful dispersal order, and my reading of the facts bears this out.
The basic distinction still seems to hold: ‘rightist radicals attack people, leftist radicals attack property.’ Some (an unpopular minority) of the G20 protesters went after local businesses and that kind of vandalism can get pretty bad if the protesters get control of an area. Police departments have a right to prevent and prosecute crimes, even vandalism. So knowingly helping vandals (along with mostly non-vandals) escape arrest would count as misdemeanor “hindering apprehension or prosecution.” As I understand it, however, Madison was targeted as much for his general radicalism as for anything he did specifically using Twitter and a police scanner on that day. The charges have since been dropped.
As the police grow increasingly sophisticated in undermining radical protests, protesters have developed increasing organization to deal with it. In general, the whole tactical element of radical protests really rubs me the wrong way: if you spend most of your time looking for an excuse to get in fights with the police, you’re not an activist, you’re a hooligan. “Capitalist exploitation” is just your excuse, not much different from “Eagles fans rule, Steelers fans drool.” If your goal is really to ameliorate capitalist exploitation, then spending six months planning and preparing for a two day protest at the G20 is the worst possible use of your time. Go to law school or get a degree in economics.
I’ve been on both sides of this: I’ve been a protester and I’ve worked with the police. But when I was a protester, the goal that folks like The Ruckus Society espoused was to protest in such a way as to provoke police action using non-violent means. That meant evading dispersal orders, using crowd-sourcing to find points of contestation, and forcing the police to drag us away or use other graphically offensive actions like tear gas. It was all about the images of violence, forcing the police into a position to choose between ceding the space or using physical coercion. Most of the activists I spent time with justified this using some combination of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Walter Benjamin’s On Violence, sometimes with some Baudrillard or Zizek thrown in. In other words, the idea was to confront the folks watching at home with the ideological basis for the state’s illegitimate monopoly on violence. Truncheon-wracked bodies and stopped traffic was just the scrim upon which we projected our counter-hegemonic narrative.
It was a point of pride to get tear gassed with those people, and a point of pride to be arrested, especially on film while using maximally non-compliant techniques to provoke the use of force. Ultimately, though the methods were non-violent, the goal was the same: to control the area and force the police to withdraw, as they did in Seattle ten years ago. There were fantasies of the Paris Commune forming willy-nilly or some kind of May ’68 style actions, but it was just that: a fantasy. It definitely had little to do with the ostensible goals of the organizations involved, things like reducing global poverty or preventing genocide. Eventually, I figured that out and got busy working on those issues in less exciting ways.
However, there’s been renewed interest in ‘policing theory’ in the US since Jacques Rancière published his 11 Theses on Politics whereby he ontologized policing as the suppression of dissent as such:
1. Politics is not the exercise of power. Politics must be defined by itself, as a specific way of acting put into practice by a particular kind of subject and deriving from a particular kind of rationality. It is the political relationship which makes it possible to conceive of the political subject, not the reverse.
2. What is peculiar to politics is the existence of a subject defined by its participation in opposites. Politics is a paradoxical type of action.
3. Politics is a specific rupture of the logic of the arkhe. For it does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises a power and the one who undergoes it, but also a rupture in the idea of dispositions that make people “suitable” for these positions.
4. Democracy is not a political regime. Insofar as it is a rupture of the logic of the arkhe, in other words, of the anticipation of rule in the disposition for it, it is the regime of politics as a form of relationship defining a specific subject.
5. The people which is the subject of democracy, and so the matricial subject of politics, is not the collection of members of the community or the labouring class of the population. It is the supplementary part in relation to any counting of the parts of the population which makes it possible to identify the count of the uncounted with the whole of the community.
6. The essence of politics is the action of supplementary subjects inscribed as surplus in relation to any count of the parts of a society.
7. If politics is the outline of a vanishing difference with the distribution of social parts and shares, then it follows that its existence is in no way necessary, but that it happens as an always provisional accident in the history of forms of domination. It follows from this also that the essential object of political litigation is the very existence of politics.
8. Politics is specifically opposed to the police. The police is a partition (partage) of the perceptible whose principle is the absence of void and of supplement.
9. The essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space. It is to get the world of its subjects and its operations to be seen. The essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus, as the presence of two worlds in a single one.
10. Inasmuch as it is characteristic of political philosophy to ground political action in a specific mode of being, so it is characteristic of political philosophy to efface the litigation which is constitutive of politics. It is in the very description of the world of politics that philosophy effects this effacement. Moreover, its effectiveness is perpetuated right down to non philosophical or anti-philosophical descriptions of this world.
11. The “end of politics” and the “return of politics” are two complementary ways of cancelling out politics in the simple relationship between a state of the social and a state of state apparatuses. Consensus is the vulgar name for this cancellation.
Rancière’s cynicism seems more world-wise, but what dissensus is suppressed by asking each citizen to identify with the goal of public order in exchange for legitimate reductions in the violent capacities of the thin blue line? Obviously, the image of public order itself is a kind of enforced consensus, and the truest form of community policing is the one in which community members police themselve not just for legal infractions but also for social and cultural infractions like refusals to accept traditional hierarchies or participate in the enforcement of in-group/out-group distinctions. But if there were a way to undermine the prejudice enforcement of the public without undermining the public’s role in safety, I’d think that would involve precisely this dual-recognition: we are the police, and the police are us.
It seems that the British ideal might well trump our American and European model in which protest must be increasingly organized and paramilitarized in order to confront an ever more bureaucratic and militaristic police force. That’s a conflict where the odds favor the police, unfortunately. In contrast, the pseudo-Hegelian goal of police recognizing themselves as the public and vice-versa strikes me as superior if only because it seems like ordinary folk stand a better chance in that recognition than in the violent disagreement that now seems to be the only alternative.