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What is the role of the police in capitalist society?


The police keep attacking demonstrations. The targets include the recent anti-fascist mobilisation in Bolton, last year’s protests against Israel’s war in Gaza and the demonstrations against the G20 in London.

The question is, why?

The police have a long history of violence against ordinary people.

Ian Tomlinson wasn’t even a protester against the G20, but he died of internal bleeding after he went near police lines and an officer hit him with a baton.

This happened 30 years almost to the day after the police killed anti-fascist protester Blair Peach. An officer hit him—probably with a lead-filled cosh—at a protest against the Nazis of the National Front in Southall, west London.

It’s not just on demonstrations that meeting the police can be fatal. According to the campaign group Inquest more than 400 people have died in police custody or after contact with police in the last decade.

Most of them were poor, and more than one in seven were black.

It is almost unheard of for police to be held responsible for such deaths. And defenders of the force argue that any problems are caused by a few “rotten apples”.

But police violence is a result of the role they play in society. The police force is an arm of the state used for oppressing the working class.

When Margaret Thatcher and the Tories launched class war against the miners in the 1980s, the police were deployed to smash resistance.

More than 10,000 striking miners were arrested.

At the height of the strike 10,000 miners picketed the Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984. But they were met with an equal number of police, who violently forced the scabs through.

The police attacked the anti‑poll tax demonstration in 1990 and demonstrations against the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994.

During the Visteon and Vestas factory occupations last year the police threatened to go in and smash the workers’ resistance, while the bosses who had sacked hundreds of people, suffered no consequences.

The state, far from being a neutral referee standing above the class struggle, exists to defend the interests of capitalism.

The origins of the police reflect this. London’s Metropolitan Police—generally considered the first modern police force—was set up in 1829, as the new working class gathered strength.

Unions had only been legalised five years before, under pressure from massive illegal strikes.

In 1848 the Chartists—the first mass working class movement in the world—organised a huge demonstration of some 150,000 workers on Kennington Common in south London.

They wanted to march to parliament to present their six million signature charter—but the government banned the march, fearing revolution.

They tried to march, but were stopped by the police, who had sworn in 100,000 special constables.

A common argument is that we need the police to protect us against crime.

But the police’s own figures show that the average officer “on the beat” only encounters a crime once every 14 years. They are more likely to spend their time stopping and searching black people or harassing working class communities.

When they do investigate crimes, they concentrate on those against property—thefts from businesses and the rich.

And even here some crimes are seen as more serious than others. Corporate criminals of the City steal billions every year—yet they rarely find themselves behind bars.

Can the police be changed?

Some individuals may join with good intentions, but they are soon either forced out or forced into line.

Some of them may be from working class backgrounds, but they are not workers—they are taught to hate workers.

New recruits are systematically trained to protect the capitalist state, they are given weapons to do it with. They are protected from accountability for their actions.

And they are paid far more than the average wage, to make sure that they do not identify with the poor and dispossessed.

In periods of relative social peace, police violence is limited and the illusion that they are above the class struggle can be maintained.

But in periods of crisis and heightened class conflict the real role of the police becomes clearer to millions of people.

The only solution is to abolish the police entirely—and the only way to do that is to fight for a socialist society.


Article information

News
Tue 30 Mar 2010, 18:50 BST
Issue No. 2195
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