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.

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