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Would you march with the police?

Relations between the anti-cuts movement and the police are bad. That’s an understatement: they are atrocious.

The left has long been suspicious of the police, and not for reasons that can be dismissed as unreconstructed dogma. Far from being neutral arbiters at times of conflict between citizens and state, they have frequently acted in a ruthlessly partisan fashion.

The 1984/5 Miners’ Strike is perhaps the classic modern example. I have spoken to miners who recall being woken up at 5am every morning by police officers banging their shields together in unison: a deliberate tactic of intimidation. One veteran of the infamous Battle of Orgreave recalled peaceful miners’ pickets being charged by police on horseback – like the force were reenacting a medieval battle scene. Several miners were arrested, but they were vindicated when their trials collapsed and they were paid hundreds of thousands in compensation.

Or take their civic policing role. Just over a decade ago, the police were found to be institutionally racist. It was a damning indictment of a public body that is supposed to serve society and protect civilians without prejudice.

More recently, the police have enthusiastically made use of New Labour’s authoritarian laws (now, thankfully, renounced by Ed Miliband). Large numbers of protesters found themselves detained under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act – even though there was no question of them being terrorists. And then, of course, there was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, followed by compelling evidence of a police cover-up.

And who can forget the police repression of the G20 protests in 2009. I doubt that the family of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson – killed after being attacked by an officer without provocation – have.

It’s not just the left that have suffered, either. Back in 2002, Countryside Alliance demonstrators were on the receiving end of police aggression. Left-wing activists were wrong not to speak out about it then, not just on moral grounds, but because it helped set a precedent.

Against this context, it’s hardly surprising that even before the student protests began, activists had deep reservations about those whose job it was, supposedly, to help facilitate peaceful protest. And then we had the detention of thousands of protesters (including school kids) in freezing temperatures for hours; horse charges; indiscriminate batoning (which nearly led to the death of Alfie Meadows); a disabled protester being dragged from his wheelchair; and a near-Hillsborough style crush on Westminster Bridge.

Sure, there was the odd protestor spoiling for a fight. I saw them (and spoke to some of them): they were a small minority of working-class kids from estates in places like Peckham who felt their futures were being taken away from them. As soon as people began justifying tactics used by the state’s representatives by comparing them to the lashing out of marginalised kids from inner-city London, they had lost the argument.

So now that the police are threatening to emulate the students and hold their own protests against Government attacks on their jobs and wages, I doubt that many anti-cuts activists are going to be sticking ‘#solidarity’ in their tweets. The police are, like other public sector workers, understandably angry: 4 in 10 of them face pay cuts of up to £4,000, and perhaps 28,000 jobs are at risk.

It couldn’t help remind me of the subject of my undergraduate thesis back in 2004: the police revolt of 1918/19. (Apologies as ever for shameless self-plug).

If you don’t want to wade through my clunky undergrad prose, this is the gist of what happened. After years of deteriorating pay and conditions – many policemen were paid less than an unskilled labourer – the police had had enough. In the midst of growing labour unrest, a revolutionary wave sweeping through Europe, and the still-ongoing World War I, the Metropolitan Police downed truncheons and went on strike.

Radical elements were, understandably, very excited. “Spirit of Petrograd! The London police on strike!” was Sylvia Pankhurst’s ecstatic response. “After that, anything may happen. Not the army, but the police force is the power which quells political and industrial uprisings and maintains the established fabric of British society.” The powers-that-be, on the other hand, were less than amused. The then-Prime Minister Lloyd George told Conservative leader Bonar Law: “Unless this mutiny of the Guardians of Order is quelled, the whole fabric of law may disappear. The Prime Minister is prepared to support any steps you make take, however grave, to establish the authority of social order.”

For about a year, there was a clash between the state and the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO). NUPPO affiliated to both the Labour Party and the TUC, and pledged never again to be used to attack other workers. “The days when the Government can use the police forces as a tool against any other section of the nation is past,” said the union’s President.

But not all trade unionists were overly keen on suddenly rushing to the defence of the police. When London dockers were asked to stand by them, a typical response was: ”How can you stick up for the coppers? They batoned us down in the Dock Strike in 1912.”

Clearly the state had no intention of handing control of the police to the labour movement. Police trade unionism was banned, and in its place the Government imposed the Police Federation – a sort of company union – which remains today. From then on, the state would learn from its mistake and make sure that the police were paid properly.

I think Labour and trade unionists were right to stand by the police officers’ struggle at the time, despite the past injustices inflicted upon them by the force. And I think that it would be the right thing for anti-cuts activists to do today, too.

Firstly, it would be a propaganda coup for wronged student and anti-cuts activists to support the police protests. They would be, after all, marching – like us – for their rights: a point we could make forcefully.

But secondly – and most importantly – winning over the police rank-and-file would be helpful in the months and years ahead. We can expect a wave of strikes and protests as the cuts hit. By winning the sympathy of police officers, we can stop those actions being violently broken up by kettles, batons and horse charges.

If the police really do take to the streets, let’s join them with a simple message: We stand by you. Will you stand by us?


  1. Duncan says:

    Back in 2002, Countryside Alliance demonstrators were on the receiving end of police aggression. Left-wing activists were wrong not to speak out about it then, not just on moral grounds, but because it helped set a precedent.

    Hmm, do you think police violence against protestors began then? I don’t see how these events were a ‘precedent’ given that tactics of kettling, pre-emptive arrests and building databases of protestors were already established by this time.

  2. Mick Hall says:

    The working class has a collective memory or it is nothing. The police are not some independent body which simply protects the public without question, it is one of the blunt weapons this state uses when we demand our rights. We over look that fact at our peril. In the distant past the police may well have gone out in defence of there wages, but when push comes to shove they always side with the system and who ever runs it. The best example of this were the French flics who with ease flipped over to serving Vichy and the Nazis in 1940.

    Besides, the coalition know this better than most and the Police Fed is simply rattling their cage with a gentle reminder, a deal will be done and they will once more be cracking protesters heads. This is wind and piss and we need to be clear of the blowback.

  3. Sheepish says:

    In my younger days before I grew up, I was in endless battles with the police – running with a particularly violent faction of a football club. When I got into my 20’s I grew up, realised that my actions as a youngster were uncalled for and benile and signed myself up to become a police officer. I realise not all of your conributors ever get to this stage of adulthood and for them there is forever a battle with authority. This does not excuse them from forming opinion on the small minority of officers, and of what they perceive these officers have to deal with day to day. Until you have tried it, don’t give your opinion. I have, and its a bloody hard job

  4. james says:

    I’ve marched with the police before – only they were enabling the march to go ahead, rather than being involved as such! The last encounter I had with the police was when a PCSO spoke to fellow activists on an anti-cuts stall – he was worried about losing his job.

    Mick, your comment “when push comes to shove they always side with the system and who ever runs it” could apply to the workforce of most organisations – being dependent on the income they earn from their work, there’s a constraint on what people can do independently given that they lack of influence over managerial and investment decisions.

  5. Steve says:

    I organised a march recently in a small rural market town. The local police could not have been more helpful in ensuring that the event took place safely, even down to an assurance from the senior police officer present that he fully supported our anti-cuts cause.

    I don’t think the whole of the police force should be judged on the basis of how the Met conduct themselves, in the same way that all protesters should not be judged by the actions of a few hot heads.

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