Police have long been a indispensable feature of popular entertainment. Cops and detectives pour through our cinemas and tv screens in a seemingly endless stream of films and tv cop dramas and police procedurals routinely take their viewer into dark, sleazy and dangerous places that other dramas cannot reach. The stories they tell are not pretty, and cop shows have got grimmer and bleaker because society has got grimmer and bleaker.
This tendency was already visible in the crime-obsessed 70s, when Dirty Harry Callaghan’s Magnum was the only thing defending ordinary decent folk like me from an endless army of degenerate hoodlums and the flaccid and morally corrupt liberals who wanted to ‘understand’ crime, when it was obvious that they only needed to be blown away.
What once seemed something of cultural novelty has now become a dramatic cliché. We have got used to seeing cops as antiheroes, even violent antiheroes, who must bend and sometimes break the law for the greater good, who work in lawless spaces that we don’t see, where no one is good or moral, and where those who enforce the law are often indistinguishable from those who break it.
The horrifying video footage of Eric Garner’s death and the barely-credible acquital of the man who choked him to death on a New York pavement in broad daylight belongs to a phenomenon of unrestrained and unaccountable police violence that rarely features in cop show entertainment, and which has become terrifyingly prevalent even in nominally democratic societies in recent years.
This phenomenon is both old and new. In the US in particular, white police have killed young black men and got away with it for years. But a weekly and sometimes daily stream of everyday police atrocities and acts of brutality suggests that police are now able to attack, brutalize and kill anybody, and a succession of acquitals and dubious verdicts makes it clear that when they do there is very little possibility that they will be charged or punished with any offence.
The failure to bring charges against the cop who killed Ian Tomlinson makes it clear that such behavior is not unique to the US, and that it is not necessarily a consequence of racist policing. Google ‘police shoot protester’ and you will soon find yourself traveling across the world, to Barcelona, South Africa, Genoa, Kiev or any number of places. Type in ‘police prosecuted for killing unarmed man’ or ‘police prosecuted for beating protester’ and the list rapidly diminishes.
This willingness to use excessive and often lethal force clearly isn’t due to a sudden influx of bullies, sadists and psychopaths into police forces across the world. What we are witnessing is a new kind of policing that has been unleashed in response to a new social and political situation in the crumbling edifice of early 21st century capitalism.
On the one hand there is the impact of the war on terror, which has strengthened and emboldened the repressive machinery of the state by giving policing a new national security and counterterrorist component that makes it possible to interpret a whole range of activities as potential security threats that require excessive force as a result.
These tendencies have been exacerbated by the conveyor belt of technology, practice and ideology between war and policing, which has increasingly led the police to regard protesters as ‘the enemy’, tooling themselves up with armoured cars and ‘non-lethal’ weaponry, which is then directed against ‘illegal immigrants’ and drug dealers in much the same way as the US Army once dealt with Iraqi ‘insurgents.’
In the name of counterterrorism, police in the UK can define protesters as potential security threats and photograph them, whatever the reason for the protest, but demonstrators who photograph police beating people up can expect to have the cameras confiscated or smashed, because the state can look at the public, but the public cannot look at the state.
Counterterrorism is itself a product of ‘risk averse’ governance, in which governments are continually braced for the worst possibility, and use these possibilities to terrify their populations into turning a blind eye to the brutality and thuggery of the police who supposedly serve and protect it.
These expectations make it possible for ‘counterterrorist’ police to shoot an unarmed Brazilian electrician seven times in the head without even asking him to surrender or put his hands up in the name of public safety. You might think that protecting the public means accepting a certain amount of risk, but in our never-ending emergency cops are now able to transfer all risk to the person they decide to shoot, and ask questions afterwards.
Risk aversion doesn’t only apply to terrorism. As decadent global elites abandon even the most vestigual commitment to social justice and equality, paring the ‘enabling state’ to its bare bones and pauperising their populations, the police have become an essential tool for managing the social consequences. In Ferguson and other US cities, mostly white police patrol black neighborhoods that have been allowed to fall through the social floor, and send in an army of cop-soldiers to repel and crush those who protest the inevitable abuses that follow.
The police thuggery during the Occupy protests in New York; the bullying violence and extra-legal ‘kettling’ of the 2010 student protests in the UK; the Spanish use of rubber bullets against peaceful protesters at anti-austerity protests – all these events are a logical consequence of the social order that is now under construction, in which the state is stripped back in everything except repression and its monopoly of violence.
In the UK a government intent on privatizing university education and turning universities into corporations does not want students sitting in in libraries that might become a movement. This is why even schoolkids were held in extra-legal ‘kettles’ for hours in 2010. It’s why the police attacked the Senate House occupation last year, and why they attacked students at Warwick university this week with tasers CS gas.
The police do this because they have been told to do it. Galvanised by their new importance and the impunity that goes with it, too many of them think they can get away with anything, and the evidence of the last few years suggests that they are right.
All this is not, to say the least, conducive to police accountability. That will only happen when the balance of democratic power shifts away from the police and the elites who have unleashed them to the public that they serve, and when justice is reestablished as a universal principle from which no one is immune or exempt.
Only then will men like Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, and Simon Harwood discover that their profession does not give them the right to beat and kill with impunity, and that whatever Dirty Harry might say, enforcing the law doesn’t give them the right to break it.