Last Thursday, up to 400,000 public sector workers staged a day of strikes in protest of the UK government’s austerity programme. What was unusual was that 20,000 off-duty police officers also marched in the capital that day, albeit in a separate demonstration. Organized by the Police Federation of England & Wales, the representative body for police officers, the purpose of the march was to register discontent with proposed jobs losses and changes to pension arrangements. As the march navigated through the streets of London, it encountered striking public sector workers, one of whom angrily exclaimed: “Remember what you lot did to the miners!”.
The incident the worker was referring to was the miners’ strike of 1984-85, when miners across the UK walked off the job in protest of the Thatcher government’s proposed closures of coal mines. While striking to protect their jobs, incomes and the livelihood of their families, miners were met with brazen police intimidation, aggression and over 11,000 arrests. As the worker’s remarks above clearly demonstrate, the violence perpetrated by the police more than 25 years ago continues to be felt by striking workers today.
But any critique of the police is often met with the common retort that these incidents of police brutality are exceptional cases, carried out by rogue elements that are not representative of the entire police force. By and large, the police, we are told, serve and protect the public. But a more calibrated interrogation of the police and its history reveals that its bedfellow is not the public, as we’d like to believe, but capitalism.
One of the early precursors to the modern police was the slave patrols of the 1700s in the Southern colonies of British America. As African slaves began outnumbering whites in some colonies, the fear of insurrections and riots led to the establishment of organized groups of vigilantes to keep them under control. Every night, armed patrols searched slave residences and disrupted any slave gatherings. Indeed, it was these patrols – the historical predecessors to today’s police – that enforced the legal apparatus upholding the institution of slavery, thereby protecting the economic interests of the landed plantation owners.
As the process of capitalist industrialization advanced, economic inequality and class stratification became more disturbingly pronounced. Rioting became an essential political strategy of an underclass and a working class suffering from this increasing economic deprivation, and the modern system of policing evolved to control this riotous situation.
And the police’s historical functions and alliances continue uninterrupted to this day. In December, Occupy London organizers discovered a document which the City of London Police had sent to businesses. The document stated that police had “received a number of hostile reconnaissance reports concerning individuals who would fit the anti-capitalist profile”, and asked big businesses, affectionately described as their “trusted partners”, to be vigilant for further signs of occupation activity.
In fact, a more immediate link between the police, big business, and the state is personified by Kit Malthouse. Malthouse founded Alpha Strategic FLC, a hedge fund advising investors on how to amass more wealth, and currently sits as chairman of the investment bank County Finance Group. In his spare time, this financier also served as Deputy Mayor for Policing in London from 2008-2012, a role which gave him direct command of the Metropolitan Police during a time when student protesters and London Occupiers began affronting capital accumulation. If anything, what Malthouse’s personal profile should make strikingly clear is that the business of policing is, in truth, policing for business.
Indeed, the intimacy enjoyed between the police, the state and finance capitalism remains intact across the Atlantic. In New York, the current Commissioner of the NYPD, Raymond Kelly, is the former director of global security of the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns. And Kelly’s superior, in turn, is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the notorious former investment banker and Wall Street mogul who has referred to the NYPD as his own personal army.
In light of their role throughout history, police aggression against striking workers, student protesters, and the disenfranchised youth of the London riots should be read, not as tangential acts, but as manifestations of their constitutive function. Through exercising a monopoly on violence, the police have unwaveringly protected and served capitalist interests – and for this reason, I refuse to extend my solidarity to them.