Last Wednesday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of London to show their opposition to the removal of maintenance grants and the increasing neoliberalization of Higher Education. These protests emerge as part of a wave of increasing opposition to the Conservative government’s measures that widen the gap between the rich and the masses, whilst plunging increasing numbers into poverty. As the slogans of the day suggested, the protests should be viewed as part of a broader movement against austerity as ‘students and workers unite’.
Protesters were met with what the organizers have described as the ‘most violent and repressive [policing] we have seen in years’ resulting in a number of ‘horrific attacks on protesters’. As increasing numbers of the population signal their opposition to the government’s agenda of austerity, we must begin to question whether the police serve the people, or have become the militarized enforcers of punitive Conservative agendas. Is the role of the police now simply to silence oppositional voices?
At its inception in 1829, the Metropolitan Police Service was founded upon nine principles. Following decades of oppressive practices, these principles sought to give the police a degree of legitimacy. Our experiences at the student protests, amidst an omnipresence of broader police iniquities, highlight how far the Metropolitan Police have moved from these principles.
As student protesters walked along the route, they were met by approximately 2,000 Metropolitan Police Officers, regimentally lined along London’s streets. The oppressive and intimidating presence of the police created a tense atmosphere that was heightened as police goaded protesters. Approaching the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, taunts and incitement from the police worsened, resulting in clashes between the police and protestors. Arriving in military-like formation, a seemingly never-ending brigade of police proceeded to kettle protesters. As Aaron Bastani reported for Novara Media, and contrary to Peelian principles, units designed to deal with public order situations, operate to create public order situations. With the imminent threat of further cuts in policing, perhaps the creation of crime and disorder serves as a way of justifying police existence.
As one officer attempted to knock us to the ground and another followed closely behind with an unprovoked shove, the Peelian dependence on public approval seemed to be distant and empty rhetoric. The brutal force used by Metropolitan Police officers against protesters serves to undermine localised efforts to secure the public’s cooperation through community-led policing initiatives. As officers quickly crowded round in an attempt to incite confrontation and to obscure the officers’ collar numbers, notions that ‘the police are the public and that the public are the police’ seemed laughable.
Rather than offering an alternative to repressive ‘military force’, as Peel intended, the Metropolitan Police provided antagonistic and violent policing of the protests. The heavy-handed approach was not only felt by the protesters, ‘disgusting police behaviour’ also angered members of the public. One older woman and her grandchild were almost knocked over by police; she described police as showing ‘no regard for young children’.
The behaviour of the Metropolitan Police at the protests should not come as a surprise. The incidents at the student protests represent only one example of a longstanding disregard for Peelian notions of policing by consent.
Indeed, in the wake of the Police Federation voting in favour of arming frontline police with tasers, the retired police superintendent Leroy Logan reemphasised the Peelian principle of proportionality, suggesting that ‘it’s important that police use force that is appropriate to the risk a violent person poses to the public or officers themselves’. But time and time again we see that this fails to be the case. From the racially disproportionate stop and searches and tasering, to the deaths in police custody and the harassment of the homeless, the police do not act appropriately, particularly where Black and Brown people are concerned. In the aftermath of the ‘lawful killing’ verdict of her son’s murder, Pam Duggan stated, ‘the jury found that he had no gun in his hand and yet he was gunned down. For us that’s an unlawful killing’. Along with countless other cases, the murder of Duggan by a Metropolitan police officer contradicts Peel’s assertion that ‘only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary’ should be used.
Whilst all of this should be cause for alarm, we need to move beyond viewing incidents as isolated examples of inhumane policing and instead, recognise authoritarianism and abuses of power as fundamental to the way the police operate as an institution. The sacking of a police sergeant this week for kicking a handcuffed man in the face highlights the individual inhumanity and violence that continues to pervade the police force. More worryingly, however, the complicity of the officers who held down the victim, exemplifies a problem that is endemic. In light of the persistent evidence of police brutality and corruption, it is difficult not to be persuaded by the adage that the police constitute the biggest gang in Britain.
Whilst the Peelian principles espouse the ‘offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public’, the victimization of protesters, the brutalization of Black communities, and the commitment to maintenance of the status quo, suggest that the police increasingly serve the elite whilst oppressing and silencing the masses.
Laura Connelly is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds with broad interests in criminal justice. Follow her on twitter @laura_connelly5