Cops Against Cuts (or not)

12 January 2011


A small Twitter storm has been brewing today about the potential for demonstrations by the police against job cuts, and whether the left anti-cuts movement should join in.

There seems to be some confusion going on, and some outright naivety. Any number of people can refer to police strikes of 1918-19 (interesting article by Owen Jones), or state that revolutionaries need to win over cops (probably true). But this is not a revolutionary situation, or even close. It’s not a case of police beginning to join in with a serious class struggle, who need to be won over to our cause to stop them from shooting us. It’s not even a serious attempt at self-organisation into union-like structures by police.

We might want to win some of them over anyway, of course, but it’s important to think about what that means in the situation we’re in. Being a copper is in direct conflict with being a socialist. The police form part of the armed wing of the state. Their reason for existence is to keep public order. We’re going to need to pretty much destroy public order to even begin to challenge capitalism (I mean, really, the bosses aren’t just going to handover the means of production with a ‘with compliments’ slip, yeah?). This much should be abundantly obvious to anyone who took part in the student protests last year. For us, winning over individual police is a case of persuading them not to be police any more.

Marching alongside them in their attempt to stop job cuts is hardly going to achieve this. Joining in such a demo explicitly suggests you don’t want a cut in police numbers. Kind of hard to then have individual arguments with coppers about not being coppers. Particularly when they’re marching for their right to be coppers.

Of course, some are making the argument that all cuts should be fought (who says the police even think this, and don’t want to sacrifice libraries, universities and healthcare to the crucial task of preventing anarchy?!) and, worse, that police cuts should be specifically opposed because crime hits working-class communities hardest.

Now, I’m not an anarchist (hi comrades!), and I don’t actually know anyone, anarchist or not, who calls for the immediate abolition of the police. It’s clear they play a (very) limited protective role, and that working-class areas suffer the highest crime rates, and report the highest levels of fear of crime. But to jump from recognising this to supporting the maintenance of police numbers is extremely dodgy ground. Why not call for more police and have done with it?

It’s also worth excavating what this says about your attitude to what crime is, and where it comes from. The Howard League for Penal Reform reports that 78% of all people sentenced to custody were convicted of non-violent crime. It’s a pretty much undisputed fact that the vast majority of crime is acquisitive – stealing stuff to make money, often in order to fund a drug addiction. Or, in the case of many women, crimes like shoplifting to support families – 54% of women in prison in 2000 cited their lack of money as a reason, 38% the need to support children and 33% having no job (Home Office PDF here).

Of course it’s shitty to be robbed, particularly when you haven’t got much yourself. That should absolutely be taken into consideration in any discussion of the effects of crime on working-class communities. So there it is. But it doesn’t mean sliding into rhetoric that occludes the underlying structural reasons for much crime – poverty, lack of opportunity, drugs, shit low-paid work, you name it – from a socialist analysis.

Worse, our chums at the Third Estate go on to complain about anti-social behaviour:

The day to day business of the police isn’t kettling protesters but protecting working class communities from anti-social scumbags

Some of what these ‘scumbags’ (ouch) do is pretty scary. I live on a pretty quiet estate, but I’m still intimidated by the kids hanging round the bus stop at 9pm and occasionally smashing bits of it. It’s much worse elsewhere. But this kind of statement fits uncomfortably in a debate about the police. Firstly, it misdirects the police’s primary function (sure they do more day-to-day on ASB than on political protest, but hey, it’s not the revolution yet, and watch priorities switch when it is…). But worse is what it implies, again, about what anti-social behaviour is and how to deal with it. Do we really want to maintain (or increase) police numbers as an antidote to low-level anti-social ‘crime’, with it’s myriad of underlying structural reasons (see above, add the destruction of working-class communities, youth clubs, housing issues, demonisation of the poor etc)? Sure, it can be annoying and frequently genuinely upsetting and life-affecting, but the solution isn’t calling for the big, shiny black jackboot of the law to stamp down on it. And then presumably send those involved to prison, or give them ASBOs (have they gone yet?) or something. Well, not if you’re a socialist anyway.

Even if the kids involved are just ‘scumbags’ (watch people get upset when you call the cops that…), without having any truck with any arguments about the social production of crime, would you want the police – the baton-wielding, state-upholding, frequently-deadly police – to ‘crack down’ on them, in this society, with all its cards stacked against these kids even before they see the inside of a court room? We’re not talking individual offenses here; the Third Estate tweets suggest the real structural problem is one of scummy working-class people versus nice working-class people (Alarm Clock Britain maybe?), as arbitrated by the police.

Never mind how the police routinely harass and intimidate people themselves, of course, producing their own chunk of fear in working-class communities. And I’m not even going to get into police priorities and procedures affecting crime stats, and showing just who gets pinched for what depends so strongly on class. Go read some Stuart Hall. Just stop hiding pretty unpleasant anti-working class sentiments behind the rhetoric of concern for the very same people. And don’t march to protect the police.