31 January 2011

Police violence is now police policy

In Britain the policing of demonstrations is increasingly about the punishment of protest. The latest step: CS gas spray.

In medieval times the penalty for anyone who protested against the existing way of things was death.

In Britain in 2011 the police don’t kill peaceful protesters – or at least they don’t do so on purpose. But an old understanding has now gone. It was once thought that if protesters weren’t violent, the police would not cause personal injury to protesters. Now punishing protest has become the purpose of much public order policing. The latest tool is the misuse of CS gas sprays.

In public utterances British police pride themselves in not following the practice of their continental cousins and firing canisters of CS gas into groups of demonstrators. Yet in January 2011, a police officer saw fit to spray CS gas into the eyes of several people passively blocking the entrance to a store in Oxford Street belonging to the tax-avoiding Boots Pharmacy chain. Anyone waiting for this officer to be charged with a serious assault should not hold his or her breath.

The CS gas incident comes against a background of a recent upswing in punishing policing. Most notable has been the use of so-called hyper-kettling involving mass street arrest. Demonstrators are incarcerated in street holding pens for hours in often in sardine-can like conditions without food, water, shelter or medical attention. Those trapped at the edge of the kettle often suffer random beatings from batons and police shields as well as kicks and punches.

The purpose of this policing is the punishment of protesters.

Police everywhere and always identify with the established order and attempt to increase their powers and remit unless checked by political and judicial authorities. The default position of both New Labour and now the Coalition has been near unconditional support for punishment policing. That British politicians and much of the public have failed to oppose this police attack on personal and civil liberties is an outrage that needs addressing.


The Guardian film of the incident brings more details to light. The demonstrators were noisy, but entirely peaceful. A woman pushed a leaflet between the locked doors of Boots and was arrested for criminal damage. Amid the booing and pushing arising from this illegitimate arrest, a male police officer sprayed CS gas at a group of demonstrators. Why he did so is not clear. I tend to suspect he felt threatened, not by the demonstrators, but his own embarrassment at the illegitimate arrest of the woman. A bull whose pride is hurt is a dangerous animal.

The political point remains. Will the police draw back from this escalation of police violence against peaceful protesters? Or will they de facto allow CS gas to become an available tool of punishment, which is what will happen if they fail to prosecute the officer.


1. In matters of police violence, it is important to distinguish between the behaviour of individual police officers and police policy. The police contain a higher proportion of sadists than the general population, and these men and women will take every opportunity to hurt and humiliate. Though the degree of control by superiors may vary from event to event and from time to time, violence of this kind remains fairly constant.

2. The “understanding” of non-violent protest requiring police not to injure protesters has indeed often been honoured in the breach, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s. Yet, I believe that Kingsnorth, and more so the G20 demonstrations, revealed a police policy to use violence against public protest as a means of punishing and deterring it. That in my view is a qualitative change.

21 January 2011

Stalinism: its meaning and role

It is unhelpful to use the term “Stalinism” to discuss contemporary British politics.

In nearly every case, it is much better to use: authoritarian, illiberal, intolerant, bureaucratic, arbitrary, etc., depending on the exact meaning one wants to convey. Comprehension is always aided by choosing precise language to represent social phenomena. But what is Stalinism? And when is it correct to use the term?

I think it is possible to distinguish two valid uses of Stalinism. In a narrow usage, we can talk about the politics of Stalin in the Soviet Union, and by extension in the world communist movement, from the late 1920s through to Stalin’s death in 1953. In discussions of British politics that usage is only relevant for reflecting on the history of the British Labour movement.

In a broader sense, however, we can use Stalinism to refer to Stalin and his henchmen’s poisonous bequest to the worker’s movement across the world. Stalinism has the following characteristics:

- The party is committed in name to realising the interests of the working class and bringing about social progress.
- A hierarchical top-down managed party is desired in which members are required to obey the leadership.
- Party policy has the form of a directive which is binding on all members; dissent amounts to treason.
- Intellectual and cultural matters are subordinate to party policy and thinking.
- All other organisations should be brought into line with party policy.
- Maintaining the leading role of the party is the first priority of all activity and trumps all moral and other political principles.

When parties of this kind come into power the whole of society is organised around these principles. These ideas formed the backbone of communist rule in Eastern Europe 1948-89; though often in practice some of these principles were compromised.

In the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Stalinism cast its dark shadow, not just within communist parties, but also as a pathology which came to plague many people on the wider left. Let me give one extreme example to indicate the pathology.

Artur London, a Czech communist, suffered the show trials of the early fifties, and despite his wife calling for the severest penalties to be inflicted on her husband, he was merely sentenced to life imprisonment. On rehabilitation in the early sixties, he was asked whether his confession had resulted from torture. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘but had I insisted upon my own innocence, some people would have believed me and that would have undermined people’s faith in the Party.’

The Artur London syndrome, namely total personal identification with a political movement, functioned effectively because it drew on two sources. One was to summon up a subconscious desire for religion and submission to a God, though in this case a secular one, the Party. The other was the practical idea (but in my view a false one) that a monolithic body of people acting always in unison could achieve the Promised Land whereas an assembly of free individuals never could.

Today, the influence of Stalinism in Britain remains in two locations, both quite marginal. One is the tiny groups of people who run political parties, which resemble sects or political museums. The other is a generation of older New Labour politicians who were themselves once members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, e.g. John Reid, Kim Howells, who carry their Stalinist political baggage like a prisoner with a ball and chain.

14 January 2011

The media and information

Among the Left there is little doubt that the mass-access media functions for the most part to reinforce the capitalist order.

The analyses of how that is precisely brought about are well known and I won’t rehearse the arguments here. What I would like to do in this post is to introduce a distinction, which also throws up a contradiction in the present age.

On the one hand, we have the ability with the aid of the new electronic media (embracing blogs, internet forums, etc) to access hitherto unprecedented amounts of information in the form of raw material relating to social and political matters. By actively seeking out such information, I am better informed today than ever before. And if further proof of this point is needed, people need only look at the Wikileaks exposures, the wider Assange case or the more recent infiltration of environmental groups by police spies to see that key facts (or alleged facts)can be exchanged directly between citizens.

When socialists talk about media bias what they are referring to is how information is synthesised in newsprint, on radio and on TV. The creation of digestible meaning out of the raw material of information by news organisations involves selection, omission, choice of terminology and comparison, etc. In fact any attempt to provide information to others involves synthesis. For example in a recent post I juxtaposed the Woollard and Tomlinson cases in a single contribution to produce a particular meaning: I did not introduce any information which was new to most readers.

The complaint is that the media corporation synthesise information in a particular way to convey pro-capitalist and conservative meanings. The vast majority of ordinary people never get beyond the reception of this pre-packed synthesised information in the mass media, all of which has been put together by commercial and state bodies.

13 January 2011

Edward Woollard: the meaning of his harsh sentence

Britain treats illegal violence against the state very differently from illegal violence committed by state officials.

In January 2011 Edward Woollard (18), who threw a fire extinguisher from the roof of Tory HQ at lines of police, was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail for violent disorder. Apparently, the harsh sentence handed out to the youngster was intended to send a message to the British people. But what is the message?

Woollard is undoubtedly a stupid youth who almost certainly didn't intend to hurt anyone in his irresponsible act, and he didn't. Yet, every institution of the state has been quickly lined up to punish him and make an example of him.

It is interesting, then, to compare Woollard’s case with that of PC Simon Harwood, the police officer who fatally assaulted the newspaper vendor, Ian Tomlinson, during the G20 demonstrations in April 2009. Harwood, a trained police office, certainly did intend to hurt and injure Ian Tomlinson by tuncheoning him and hurling him to the ground; but in his case every institution of the state was lined up to prevent him from being held to account for his actions.

These two examples taken together show the real message sent by the British state to the people. Violence by people against the state is given exemplary punishment; illegal violence by police against the people is brushed under the carpet.

12 January 2011

Is the undercover cop, Mark Kennedy, guilty of rape?

In Britain an undercover police officer, Mark Kennedy, infiltrated the environmental movement and became a leading "activist" from 2003 to 2010. His job involved information gathering and acting as an agent provocateur.

During that time he had sexual relations with several women in the environmental movement. Whether his prime motivation was to have sex or to gain information, it is clear that his relationships must have provided him with information for his police handlers.

It’s an interesting point that if a woman is used to carry out a honey trap against a male the issue would rightly surround whether using a honey traps was justified in the circumstances. If the aim were merely to gather information about protest groups, it would not be.

I cannot imagine the male arguing that he was subject to non-consensual sex because he did not know the woman was a police agent.

I understand that the women is rightly angry, and if the woman met Kennedy again she might be forgiven for spitting in his face. But is is guilty or rape - or even a sexual assault - definitely not.

The Kennedy case reveals, I believe, criminal behaviour on the part of the police, but talk of rape and non-consensual sex is an irrelevant diversion.

10 January 2011

Police spies, agent provocateurs and rape in Britain

British police have infiltrated civic organisations with agents, who operate undercover for years as spies and agent provocateurs.

The police infiltration of environmental organisations in Britain is an attack on the civic right of freedom of assembly in a country which is supposed to be a liberal democracy. It undermines the very fabric of civil society when at any public protest meeting what you say is fed by spies into police records and any protest you suggest, however legal, is interfered with by police agent provocateurs.

British environmental groups either act within the law or engage in non-violent direct action (NVDA), which in practice means that they eschew acts of violence and engage from time to time in minor or symbolic acts of vandalism. Lawbreaking is no more of feature of their activities than it is of any average business in Britain. In that context, the infiltration of police agents, costing some quarter of a million pounds per head, is not only disproportionate and inappropriate, but a squander of resources driven by police and government paranoia.

But there is another aspect to this. Long term spies, in the case of Mark Kennedy working undercover for seven years, violate the personal rights of all those whose lives are interfered with by these agents. The worst violation is obviously against the women, and perhaps some men, who were wooed into bed by the agents. But wrong was also done to all the activists who befriended the police spies, trusted them and shared their personal lives with them. Every single environmental activist affected in this way has a legitimate claim against this disproportionate stasi-style form of policing.

The case against this kind of repressive, disproportionate and manipulative policing is so strong that it would be a pity to deflect the argument, as some insist on doing, into one about whether the male agents committed rape. They did not; the fact that the women did not know the backgrounds of the men with whom they freely consented to sex does not mean that there was no consent to the act of penetrative sex.

These women, and maybe some men, were, nonetheless, violated by the state, which set out to entrap them, and they deserve an apology and compensation. The police officers, both the agents themselves but more particularly their commanders, deserve prosecution, although we know that will never happen. The claim of rape, however, will just deflect the argument away from its true strength.


1. Some say we shouldn’t be surprised that the state infiltrates civic organisations. I agree; I am not so naïve as to be surprised. Yet, it still remains the case that according to the norms of liberal democracy much of what the police have done is wrong. Socialists are on the strongest ground, not when they decry the limitations of liberal democracy, but when they point out that the existing state is far from liberal and far from democratic.

2. Some are surprised that the environmental movement was specifically targeted for infiltration. (Strictly speaking we don’t know, as any number of other organisations may be infiltrated and we don’t know about it). I am less surprised, though. By the mid-2000s, save for the ephemeral anti-Iraq demonstrations, all progressive opposition to Blair’s status quo had withered away, except the anti-globalisation/environmental protesters. New Labour was an authoritarian totalising project, so it is no surprise that these political activists should be re-branded ‘domestic extremists’ and subject to infiltration, surveillance and repression.

9 January 2011

David Chaytor, guilty yes, but a fall guy

Every time a chink of light falls on the British establishment, be it Iraq or parliamentarians expenses, mendacity and corruption are revealed.

We can debate whether imprisoning David Chaytor at great public expense is necessary. Learning about his humiliation in Wandsworth prison as his anus is searched for contraband can indeed gratify the revenge lust, but much better would be to have him do several years of community service, so he would contribute something to society rather than becoming a further drain on it.

That said, it is clear to me that the man is a fall guy. He, and perhaps later a couple of others, are to be thrown to the lions in an attempt to prove that wrong-doing is being taken seriously when overall it is not.

We should be careful to avoid the situation in which savouring the humiliation of Chaytor, the petty cheat, serves to divert public attention away from those who have done far worse.