Though the November Day of Action in the UK may have passed without too much tumult, protesters worldwide have recently been faced with police brutality, or at the very least heavy-handedness, on an unprecedented scale. From the utterly indefensible incidents at the recent UC Davis and other Occupy protests to the 'kettling' and cavalry charge tactics against schoolchildren and disabled people during the 2010 anti-cuts protests in London, something seems to be amiss.
Why has police action been so severe that even Iran feels comfortable criticising the West for its maltreatment of protesters? In other words, why do police forces seem so unusually willing to go beyond the bounds of restraint when it comes to dealing with protests against the government? It appears that the principle of protecting the public has been allowed to take a back seat in the face of the over-zealous suppression of dissenters.
Historically speaking this is entirely understandable: the police force first emerged as very much an evolved form of the government army or local ruler's militia, designed to ensure that the interests and projects of the governing power could not be disrupted. The proactive enforcement of law, oriented towards the protection of the innocent and maintenance of public order, only came later. One would have hoped, however, that by now the new role of the police would have altogether eroded its previous purpose. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case.
What the past two years (and, if one looks closely, the past few decades) have proven to us is that despite the extremely valuable role the police now play in society, loyalty to the regime and its projects is still allowed to outstrip the day-to-day job of policing whenever the regime itself comes under threat. The very same policemen who protected citizens from rapists, thieves and murderers in the streets of Cairo found themselves savagely beating those same citizens in Tahrir Square. Likewise, in Seattle, policemen who would have surely rushed to the aid of 84 year old Dorli Rainey had she so much as stumbled in the street, instead found themselves attacking her with a police bike and pepper-spraying her in the face.
Why does this happen? Because police forces across the globe, be they in London, Oakland or Egypt, have been compelled by circumstance to function not merely as law-enforcers, but as an extension of the political will of the government. This isn't simply some kind of historical hang-over from centuries ago. Instead, there are specific institutional features of policing across the globe that routinely enforce and re-enforce a dependency relationship between police and government, which in itself precipitates an almost feudalistic system of fealty with its own destructive consequences.
If we take the example of the United Kingdom, we find that the government possesses power over police leadership appointments, job security, pay, pensions and dismissal. In return, British police are denied the right to strike. In other words, from constable to commissioner, police officers are made dependent upon the British government. Is it any surprise, then, that when the government calls for a "strong response", or "the full force of the law" to be deployed against protesters, that the Police proceed to do just that? And surely, in a period in which so many people are either losing their jobs, or facing incredibly bleak career prospects, doesn't such a request have all the more resonance?
Fortunately, this is a very simple problem, with an extremely easy solution: make the police responsible to a politically independent ethics board for issues of law enforcement, and a politically independent commission for issues of pensions, promotions and pay. It really is that simple. Why do you think we've not done it yet?
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