The End of Political Policing: why riots, the far-Right and shoplifting shouldn’t be policed


When is it justified for the state to surveil, infiltrate and repress political movements? This is a question which should (although it’s unclear if it will) be at the forefront of the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry, and, although neglected, is a question which cuts to the heart of political struggle.

It is also a question which crops up in Alex Vitale’s excellent new book, The End of Policing. Although he takes an overwhelmingly abolitionist perspective on police activity in most spheres of life – from gangs, sex work and homelessness, to drugs and borders – he is curiously moderate in his chapter on political policing. Taking up Alex’s invitation to continue the debate on the legitimacy of political policing, this essay argues for just such an abolitionist perspective. Through this, I argue that by allowing the police and the law to delimit social struggle, we are setting the left up for defeat.

Riots, criminality, civil disobedience and the Left

Left critiques of policing have often focused on the explicitly political arms of the police – sometimes called ‘High Policing’. Yet, as The End of Policing makes clear, ‘the police have always been political.’ From the origin of the professional police in the U.S. South’s slave patrols, to the early testing of Sir Robert Peel’s police model in colonial Ireland, policing’s central function has always been about ‘managing inequality’ and ‘the production of whiteness’. From the start, policing has been directed at the colonised, the downwardly racialized, the working classes.

Throughout Alex’s book, attempts to solve social, economic and political problems by recourse to the police are lacerated in plain, empirical prose:

More than anything, what we really need is to rethink the role of police in society. The origins and function of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class. The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of black and brown lives have always been at the centre of policing … We must stop looking to procedural reforms and critically evaluate the substantive outcomes of policing.

But during the final chapter, on political policing, the insights about the inevitable failures of relying on police solutions fall away:

Police have no legitimate role to play in monitoring, much less actively subverting social movements not actively engaged in violence and property destruction. Widespread surveillance, intelligence gathering, and the use of paid informants and undercover officers should be forbidden unless there is specific evidence of serious criminal activity.

Political struggles ‘actively engaged in violence and property destruction’, then, are fair game for police ‘monitoring’ or even ‘active subversion’; and ‘widespread surveillance, intelligence gathering, and the use of paid informants and undercover officers’ might be justified when there is evidence of ‘serious criminal activity’.

This corollary – that legitimate political activity must not stray into ‘violence’, ‘property damage’ and ‘serious criminal activity’, lest it find itself open to massive state repression – risks shutting down a range of working-class and sub-proletarian movements. From riots to urban guerrillas, movements for justice and equality have often engaged in massively illegal acts. The enslaved people of Haiti, who smashed every law of the French colonial regime and slaughtered the white planter class in their successful bid for freedom, would be condemned by the book’s framework. The working class men who seized hold of the horrific Strangeways Prison near Manchester in 1990 would be similarly abandoned to the whims of prison guards. The End of Policing, as it stands, effectively prevents solidarity with these movements. Requiring legitimate political activity to eschew ‘serious criminality’ fails to recognise that serious criminality may be necessary for the achievement of justice and equality in an unjust and unequal world. If the law is set up to allow only moderate reforms – and to protect the rule of a tiny minority – then allowing your repertoire of contention to be defined by this law is a recipe for failure.

Here, the book falls into the liberal contradiction recently dissected by Koshka Duff: recognising the injustice and illegitimacy of the present regime, whilst continuing to label militant or illegal resistance with the derogatory term ‘criminal’. If the prevailing order is illegitimate because it continues to repress movements for freedom and equality – which Alex agrees it does – then one is hard-pushed to coherently condemn resistance to the prevailing order’s laws.

One way out of this conundrum is to make a distinction between ‘serious criminality’ and ‘civil disobedience’. As the book puts it, ‘Since civil disobedience actions have become a mainstay of social movement activity, almost all social movements participate in some form of technically illegal activity’: and clearly, Alex does not think such activity should be routinely monitored. But, as Duff explains, even this term is imbued with a respect for the law in general: it is limited, reserved, channelled into transgressing particular unjust laws. Liberals can be comfortable with civil disobedience precisely because it is marked by a respectful belief in the fundamental reformability of the current regime.

Civil disobedience exhibits the classic features of ‘respectability politics’, on display vividly at the end of George Monbiot’s recent book:

Campaigners would turn up at the public town hall events … spread through the room and politely but trenchantly press the request that she or he support the amendment, with a series of focused and carefully phrased questions developed in advance ... This must be done peacefully and calmly, and the process should stop after a few such questions are asked. The meeting must not be hijacked ... In this spirit, the campaigners appear at other public events … parades, ribbon-cuttings and the rest – and raise the issue politely, visibly, but briefly, in front of the press and voters.

What Lorna Finlayson calls ‘deep dissent’, or dissent that challenges the order of property and the whole legal structure that sustains it, is abandoned by this account. As one writer puts it, ‘this kind of respectability politics might do half the police’s work for them’ by immediately discounting any action deemed outside of the norms of respectability. Resistance is limited to the polite, often middle-working or liberal-bourgeois classes who monopolise legitimate struggle.

But the mass riot has been a vital tool in the armoury of the most disenfranchised and repressed throughout history. In the UK, from Captain Swing to the 1990 Poll Tax riots, the downtrodden have often expressed their rage through the medium of ‘serious criminality’. When the entire social structure is set up to exploit, marginalise and exhaust you, mass disruption can play a major role in repudiating the right of police officers, school masters and politicians to keep you down.

This is, after all, what originally motivated the idea of the strike and mass demonstration. The state has been desperate to regulate, delimit and defang these tools, rendering them mere symbolic expressions of discontent – more akin to the collective exercise of free speech than real power. Riots, by nature, cannot be controlled and regulated within a legal framework – they can only be swiftly repressed.

The British police have long recognised this. The apparatus of national intelligence gathering which plagues dissident and marginalised communities today is, in large part, a product of police responses to the riots in Brixton and elsewhere in the early 1980s. As one note from the Association of Chief Police Officers put it in 1987, ‘Riot is distinct from other crime, representing open and sustained hostility to law enforcement and can be said to be the ultimate test of policing’. Police have largely learnt how to deal with mass demonstrations; but the spontaneity and unpredictability of a riot out-manoeuvres their command structure and undermines their attempts to control it.

A case in point here is the riots of 2011. A few months after the riots, researchers from the LSE and Guardian interviewed 270 participants, finding that ‘anger and frustration at people’s every day treatment at the hands of police’ was their overwhelming motivation: 85% of rioters said that policing was an ‘important’ or ‘very important’ factor in the riots. Racist stop and search powers, police murders and economic inequality were all interwoven in the rioters’ narratives.

As one young Black rioter put it in an interview broadcast on the BBC:

I was happy, for some reason, I just wanted to be there. I actually wanted to burn the cars, and just see it burn as well. Because the police, from what I’ve been through my whole life, police have caused hell for me […] I wasn’t there for the robbing. I was there for the revenge. I will always remember the day that we had the police and the government scared … for once they felt like we felt, they felt threatened by us. That was the best three days of my life.

For the working class people – Black and White – attacking police officers, looting stores and burning buildings, the riots were a moment of collective liberation. Those involved or near-by often described a carnival-like atmosphere, where you would talk to and collaborate with the very people in your local community who you might have ignored or been hostile to the day before. As the LSE study puts it, ‘The mayhem saw rioters take control back, in their own minds, from the clutches of the police’. Organised gangs called city-wide truces, unifying as a class in violent opposition to the most visceral enforcer of oppression and injustice in their lives: the police.

One 16-year old rioter in Birmingham explained:

There weren’t no gangs. I didn’t know no one there, but we all got together that day, the Asians, the blacks, the whites. It felt like we were like one big gang. We took over Birmingham. Normally we don’t get along. [But] we weren’t fighting each other, we were fighting the police … Normally the police control us. But the law was obeying us, you know what I mean?

The state response to the riots betrayed its awareness of their subversive power. Rioters were given sentences far higher than those usually handed down for similar offenses – one person getting six months for stealing a bottle of water – in courts running through the night. Sentencing guidelines were formally abandoned. As one academy study put it, ‘In ordinary circumstances, it is unlikely that any of those sentenced in relation to the disorder would have been arrested, never mind charged, for example for the theft of doughnuts, or accepting a stolen pair of shorts’. These sentences were, in the words of Judge Gilbart, the Recorder of Manchester, about sending a ‘clear and unambiguous message’ from the state.  

Compare the words of the rioter above, celebrating how the police and the government ‘felt like we felt, they felt threatened by us’, with the words of the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North-West regarding the post-riot judicial process:

Justice, when it’s swift, is most effective; it’s about ensuring that they see the shock and awe of the criminal justice system. Because we represent society, we want to ensure that society is reflected in our courtrooms and we want them to experience what they made us experience.

Both sides recognised the riots, and the subsequent prosecutions, as part of the class war – only for the ruling class their side was framed as that of ‘society’ against the criminal element. This is precisely how the term ‘criminality’ works. It casts the one labelled as criminal from society, and in doing so it serves to delegitimise their acts and expunge them of their political content.

As Kevin Van Meter makes clear, the enslaved, the peasantry and the modern proletariat have all engaged, on an individual and collective level, in mass pilfering, subtle sabotage, and other every-day acts of illegal resistance to the class structure of society. These acts are the antithesis of the exploitation, dispossession, absurd subsidies, fraud and massive violence from above which generate the stratospheric inequalities riddling the globe.

These inequalities are essentially protected by the present legal regime. The law tends to permit – and even regulates – the most harmful and vicious acts of state and business, whilst prohibiting legitimate resistance to these acts. To a sizable extent, what is constructed as criminal within the law is only criminalised because within it germinates a threat to the status quo. This is obvious when looking at the Pig Laws in the post-Civil War United States, for example, where the claiming of livestock – to which African Americans were entitled in the post-War settlement – became a felony. In this setting, the minutia of Black life – from walking beside a railroad to selling agricultural produce after dark – became crimes. The law and its ancillaries (police, courts and prisons) were tools for reimposing racial order on a newly-freed Black population.

What is stark to the eye of history can be cloudy to contemporary conceptions. A supermarket worker taking goods from Tesco is stealing – but it can also be a legitimate act of reappropriating wealth made off the back of her labour. A person of colour burning down a police station is criminal damage – but it can also be an act of self-defence against a force that has harassed and subdued them for decades.

The Left can acknowledge that this is ‘criminality’, given that a ‘crime’ is nothing more than an act constructed as such in law. None of this is to say that all forms of criminality are legitimate – or that criminality is the only legitimate mode of politics – but we should unashamedly argue that significant, sustained and mass criminality can be a legitimate mode of resistance.

The End of Policing? Or, What about the Far-Right?

As became clear during our exchange on Novara Media, Alex does not intend for his book to legitimise the policing of those movements. When writing this section, it was the far-right that he had in mind: violent Neo-Nazis and the KKK. Community responses to those organisations would be insufficient and costly, he argued – we have to rely on some kind of state response to constrain and even destroy them.

Clearly, the Left cannot ignore the very real threat of fascist movements – after all, the KKK is one of the most successful social movements in U.S. history. But why does the book rely on the criterion of ‘serious criminality’, rather than pointing at its intended target?

Perhaps this is due to the book’s reliance on the instrument of the law to contain the far-Right. The law is – formally – politically neutral. Whilst Alex would no doubt like to say that these operations can only be used against the Right, such a principle cannot be codified in the law as we know it. Rather, the law relies on reference to universally applicable principles like rights. To find any legal justification for state operations against the far-Right, one has to find a general criterion for what makes a movement subject to those operations, abstracted from the political content of any given movement. Thus, the book is forced into a hazy criterion of ‘serious criminality’, which would end up criminalising a whole swathe of liberatory dissent.

But even if we could imagine a legal criterion for legitimate policing of far-Right groups which excludes the use of that apparatus against the Left – a criterion which references the anti-democratic and genocidal aims of fascism, for example – should we call for the policing of the far-Right?

There are two level at which one can analyse this question: the ideal and the actual. The former asks whether any legitimate policing of far-Right threats could take place under a future, idealised socialist society. The latter asks whether, given the existence of the police as an actual, historically-constituted institution enforcing a particular set of social relations, we should call for the police to be the guardians against the far-Right.

The End of Policing is overwhelmingly focused on the second question. Indeed, its argumentation often relies on it: we cannot rely on state or federal prosecution of trigger-happy cops in the U.S., for example, because the current institutional structure is set up to systematically minimise the possibility of successful convictions.

The same argument applies here. We cannot rely on the police to effectively combat the far-Right when that same institution has been historically intertwined with the far-Right. The two share fundamental interests and approaches: in the U.S., the book notes, local ‘Red Squads’ worked in the 1940s and 1950s to crush left-wing community groups and trade unions, and often had close ties with ‘far right politics, private business interests, and corruption’. In recent years, the FBI has repeatedly investigated far-Right infiltration of law enforcement agencies. Closer to home, police refused to label British Fascisti ‘subversive’ in the 1930s, and more recently refused to include the EDL in its ‘domestic extremist’ list. In the 1990s, a police officer who helped botch the investigation into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence was later found to be protecting the family of one of the killers. Is this really the institution which we trust to contain the far-Right? Calling for the police, as it is currently constituted, to repress the far-Right is essentially an invitation to collusion.

As the book recognises, the police has ‘always focused on detecting and disrupting movements that threaten the economic and political status quo, regardless of the presence of criminality’, and has ‘overwhelmingly focused on the left’. Opening the door for such an apparatus of political policing will inevitably see it levelled at the Left.

Indeed, the problem with the far-Right is not that they are criminals. In fact, they have a somewhat ambiguous relation with the law, simultaneously complaining that the police protect the liberal elite and migrants whilst framing much of their rhetoric through the lens of criminality and (dis)order. An anti-fascist strategy which itself relies on the language of criminality is likely to merely reinforce the terrain on which the state and the hard-Right thrive.

This leaves open the first, ideal question. Under a revolutionary situation, for example, extraordinary coercive measures may be necessary to repress counter-revolutionary activity by the classes that are having their prestige and assets stripped from them, or to stop nascent fascist movements taking advantage of the instability. But that question, it seems to me, cannot be pre-judged in our current, relatively quiescent, political moment. Any theorisation of it in a deeply non-revolutionary period will be half-baked and, if a mass upheaval occurs, rapidly overtaken by events. We ought to analyse our current position and the institutions currently facing us, and make a strategic judgement regarding how to move forward in our particular political-historic context.

The End of Policing has much going for it, and deserves to be widely read. It is a relentlessly empirical critique of efforts to reform the police out of its brutality, and provides a compelling historical analysis of why reform efforts are doomed to fail. It adds a police dimension to the growing abolitionist literature examining other sites of criminal justice, and proves modern policing’s racial structuration beyond doubt. I only hope that the second edition calls for the genuine end of the policing of social struggles.

Connor Woodman is the Amiel and Melburn Trust’s 2017-18 Research Fellow.