Defund the Police: The Police Force Has No Place at Community Demonstrations

As the government prepares to provide the police with increased powers and crack down even harder on protests, Politics Editor Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin reflects on the role that the police force plays in imposing and conducting state-sanctioned violence on those who are most marginalised and exploited in society.

IMAGES Courtesy of Tori West

On Saturday 13 March, hundreds of women, non-binary people, femmes and their allies gathered at Clapham Common to mourn the murder of Sarah Everard. Led by Sisters Uncut, this vigil was held to honour Sarah’s remarkable life, taken far too soon, allegedly by a police officer of the Metropolitan Police Service. Yet, as the sun went down, officers of the same police force stormed the bandstand, manhandling and brutalising grieving women. According to reports across social media, officers dragged mourners, threw them backwards over benches and trampled the flowers left in tribute to Sarah. Now, as the government prepares to provide the police with increased powers and crack down even harder on protests as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we must reflect, once again, on the role that the police force plays in imposing and conducting state-sanctioned violence on those who are most marginalised and exploited in society.

Originally proposed by Reclaim These Streets, composed of local councillors and political party staffers, the vigil was promoted as one ‘for all women threatened on our streets’. However, due to a lack of support from the Metropolitan Police (Met police), who the organisers claim to have been “in discussions with since day one”, they publicly cancelled the event and suggested that potential attendants instead stay home and light a candle within the bounds of their doorstep – the irony of which has not gone unnoticed. The original organisers abandoned their own event, leaving Sisters Uncut to rally the troops and provide support to those who still showed up in protest of this oppressive ruling. Reclaim These Streets have since continued with media appearances and, upon the time of writing, have yet to commit to using any of the over £500,000 fundraised for an unspecified list of ‘women’s causes’ to pay the legal fees of the four individuals who were arrested at the vigil. This series of events begs two serious questions: why was a group claiming to be creating a safe space for people of marginalised genders, especially to mark the alleged murder of a woman by a police officer, working with the Metropolitan Police? And why, when the police, unsurprisingly, banned and aggressively dispersed this event, did they leave their community to fend for themselves?

Why was a group claiming to be creating a safe space for people of marginalised genders, especially to mark the alleged murder of a woman by a police officer, working with the Metropolitan Police? And why, when the police, unsurprisingly, banned and aggressively dispersed this event, did they leave their community to fend for themselves?

At a second vigil organised in response to the police violence at Clapham Common, held at 4pm on Sunday 14 March at New Scotland Yard, a speaker from Sisters Uncut said: “Three women a week are murdered in the UK. Gendered violence is not just a personal problem – it is structural. It happens in our homes, on the streets, at work. And the police, courts and estate don’t protect us or keep us safe: they are part of the problem.”

The police force has no place in a community demonstration. While the force employed by officers at the vigil has been shocking due to the context and the imagery that has emerged on social media, which shows white, middle class faces being tackled to the ground, it sits upon a deeply-ingrained pattern of violence, especially against BIPoC individuals and working class protesters. The police have proven time and time again that their only purpose is to protect the status quo and the powerful, not members of the public, and that they are willing to use physical intimidation in order to suppress anyone who challenges this. In fact, events from the vigil demonstrate that, more often than not, the only aspect that the police bring to a community gathering or protest is a dangerous display of power and violence. While the official statement from the Met police claims that officers on the ground were forced to intervene due to Covid-19 safety concerns, countless witnesses on social media relay a very different story – one where attendees of the vigil were spread out until kettling by the police forced them closer together. Kettling (containment or corralling), which involves the containment of a crowd within a limited area by large cordons of police officers, was also experienced by BLM protestors in the summer of 2020, many of whom were forced to remain in the streets until past curfew, with legal observers reporting that protestors had to provide police with their names in order to leave. Moreover, Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, reportedly told MPs only last week that there is little evidence that outdoor gatherings cause Covid-19 spikes. Within this context and with police officers employing containment tactics, it could be concluded that their claims to be opposing these demonstrations due to concerns around COVID-19 spread were falsehoods and their intervention was entirely based on a desire to wield power and silence the public.

From the Battle of Orgreave to the Hillsborough disaster, clashes with the police have cost countless lives – only last summer, police charged protestors at a Black Lives Matter march on horseback. For as long as the Met police have existed, there have been demonstrations in London in response to their inaction, negligence and brutality, including the 2011 riots in response to the murder of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham. With media attention on the BLM movement in the summer of 2020 leading to increased awareness of police brutality, not only in the United States but also in Europe, it’s more important than ever that we actively and collectively question whether the police force has a place in our drive towards a safer future for all.

While the force employed by officers at the vigil has been shocking due to the context and the imagery that has emerged on social media, which shows white, middle class faces being tackled to the ground, it sits upon a deeply-ingrained pattern of violence, especially against BIPoC individuals and working class protesters.

Unfortunately, the events of the evening of 13 March coincide with the UK government’s plans to increase police powers via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which claims to prevent violence, maintain public order and reduce disruption. However, with such insidious ties between police officers and violence against people from marginalised communities, we must question who this Bill will actually serve to protect. In response to the events at the vigil, Sisters Uncut have compiled a record of known women and non-binary people who have been murdered by the police and prison system in England and Wales since the 1970s. This record, titled 194 and Counting, lists individuals murdered by officers ‘off duty’, under arrest or during police contact, and on the prison estate (including deaths of Trans women in men’s prisons). While this damning figure of 194 (and counting) does not include women murdered by husbands or partners, data gathered by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), from 30 out of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, revealed 666 reports of domestic abuse-related incidents perpetrated by officers, police community support officers (PCSO) and other staff in the space of three years. Moreover, deep-rooted institutional racism has consistently emerged as existing within the police force through countless enquiries. Confronted by these damning statistics, there could be little doubt that increased police power and carceral solutions would merely lead to an increase in systemic violence against those whom the police and prison system have been shown to disproportionately and methodically target and discriminate against – people of marginalised genders, BIPoC individuals, people with disabilities and working class communities.

“More police on the streets means even more violence against women,” added a spokesperson from Sisters Uncut. “The government is also using the funding of more police to justify 500 new prison places for women. This decision directly goes against all evidence bases that show we should be locking fewer women up. It’s specialist community services, public resources and support that keep our communities safe.”

More police on the streets means even more violence against women.

Sisters Uncut

Buried within the 300 pages of this proposed Bill also currently sit a number of clauses that impose stricter conditions on protest. These draconian measures have been borne out of Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, fury at the BLM movement and the government’s attempts to contain climate advocacy protests, such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion, and are a serious threat to the basic human freedom to protest. Provisions include amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, including one that makes it an offence to cause “serious annoyance” or “inconvenience” – as protests are inherently disruptive, this could potentially allow police to criminalise any public non-violent protest. Amendments also include an increase in the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial from 3 months to 10 years – most likely in response to the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last June as part of the BLM protests – new police powers to target one-person protests, the assignment of the area around Parliament Square as a “controlled area” where police can shut down rallies, and powers that allow protesters to be prosecuted with the assumption that they ought to already know the restrictions.

With the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill scheduled for 2nd reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 March, it is clear that the actions of the Met police at the vigil organised by Sisters Uncut were merely a flavour of what is to come. Rather than meeting with the Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, so that the police can “begin to rebuild relations with women”, as Reclaim The Streets organisers have claimed to be doing via social media, we need to follow-through on the chants of “Abolish the police” that Sisters Uncut led at their #KillTheBill protest outside New Scotland Yard. It is simply not possible for a force that exists to enact systemic violence on marginalised individuals, and protect those with privilege and power, to build relations with those they continuously brutalise. The police force is institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic – it is beyond reform. We must not allow this Bill to pass; we must call for a defunding of the police force in the UK and for implementation of community-led support systems and mutual aid networks as local alternatives – and, perhaps most importantly of all, we must remember that at the heart of recent events and conversations lies a need to grieve for Sarah Everard; to grieve for the pain, oppression and lost lives of countless cis women, Trans people, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, and working-class individuals, at the hands of systemic violence, and to ensure that our communities can one day stop grieving.

It is simply not possible for a force that exists to enact systemic violence on marginalised individuals, and protect those with privilege and power, to build relations with those they continuously brutalise. The police force is institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic – it is beyond reform.

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If you would like to learn more about alternatives to policing and the prison system, below is a recommended reading list:

  • The End of Policing – by Alex S. Vitale
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? – by Angela Y. Davis
  • Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition – by Liat Ben-Moshe
  • Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms – by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law
  • If They Come in the Morning…: Voices of Resistance – by Angela Y. Davis
  • We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice – by Mariame Kaba
  • Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power – by Lola Olufemi

To oppose the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, sign NetPol’s petition or write to your local MP and request them to table amendments during Committee Stage.

If you would like to support the work of inclusive community organisations and charities, please donate to:

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