A Post Police World

You might remember my last article where I went through the history of policing. Today, I’m going to do something a little different than usual for ourselves at the ACU and discuss something hypothetical- what a post-police world could look like. 

Before this however I think it’s only fair that I put my biases on the table and admit- at the risk of losing my leftie credentials- I don’t hate polis. 

At least not individual ones. I do believe that the police service is something that has outlived its usefulness to communities across the world some time ago, that better systems already exist and that- sometimes by design and sometimes by accident- policing has upheld systems of abuse and oppression. I do not, however, as a rule hate polis. I am sure there are individuals that join the police service looking to exercise some authoritarian power fantasy because of an antisocial tendency that they never grew out of; but I also know polis that are good people, that want to help their community and for these people, for better or worse, if you really want to help your community police work can be, if not the only, certainly the most obvious game in town. I can’t bring myself to hate individual people who want to make the world better but don’t have the radicalisation or the education to imagine other, more effective ways of going about it. 

I do, however, firmly believe that for a better world to exist, police need to not. 

If we’re going to imagine a world without police, we need to first understand their job, and then look at what bits we would want to keep and what parts are better left to the dustbin of history. Police Scotland define their role as “improving the safety and wellbeing of people, places and communities in Scotland” which sounds rather nice. Those are, after all, principles I do like and that I think are important. However, police do serve specific roles, like upholding the law and serving the community interest, which are two purposes that can be at odds with each other. 

Before lockdown went into place I had a nice chat with a police officer. We were talking about body cameras, a practice that some reformers are calling for the expansion of, where an officer will be required to have a camera that’s on 24/7, recording everything they say and do. Naturally, I was very much in favour of this proposal and said as much to the officer, that accountability in any role is important, doubly so in a role where you exercise a lot of power. This officer, however, said something that stuck with me: “How many people in the west of Scotland would still have a license if instead of letting people off with a warning, I had to write them up when they did something a bit daft on the road? How many kids would be spending time in juvy if instead of giving them a telling off when I caught them stealing something or vandalising something, I had to make sure that they were persecuted to the full extent of the law? If the camera is on 24/7, I don’t get to decide what’s worth taking seriously, and I don’t want to take every daftie to prison ‘cause then streets would be empty”. I still think police accountability is a good and a vitally necessary thing, although what she had said really hammered home the (perhaps unintentional) point that the community interest and the exact letter of the law is not always one and the same. 

Until the introduction in 2011 of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act there were a number of so-called “cold cases” like the famous incident involving Angus Sinclair; historic cases that had new evidence emerge as a result of modern DNA analysis techniques, that were nevertheless not able to be taken to court as the law at the time stated you could not be tried again for a crime you were already found innocent off, even if new evidence emerged. Angus was arrested in 2004 for the World’s End murders in 1977 and then acquitted; it wasn’t until 2014 and the passing of this new law that he was finally able to be taken to trial and found guilty of the crime he long ago been proven to have committed. Stepping aside the complex issue of the use and morality of prison as a punishment and instead focusing on the issue of upholding the law, we can see here that keeping to the law does not always mean keeping the community safe, it sometimes means letting a known murderer walk free for years. 

Another, less savoury role police serve in modern society is using violence in order to maintain the state’s internal monopoly on violence. Essentially, the only way a modern state can exist is if it is the only organisation that is legally allowed to use force to maintain itself and its property, and it does this via the use of police. 

That’s a word salad, so what do I mean by this? Basically, if you do something the Government doesn’t like they can send the folk in blue to batter you and take you away, you however, canny rock up to a polis station and arrest the polis. This makes sense, it would be bedlam otherwise and most people would agree that if you are a murderer or a violent criminal it’s good when the polis stop your rampage. The Government, however, has a longer list of do’s and don’t’s than just “don’t murder people” and in the past police have been happy to oblige Government directives to cracks down on union strikes, and have turned up in full riot gear to peaceful protests, often leaving protestors bruised, and sometimes dead. The same police force that keeps our communities safe also turned up to gay bars to do mass arrests, fed information to employers about trade unionists for industry black lists  and conducted spying on minority groups that amounted to targetted harassment

What’s the alternative though? If the Government doesn’t have a monopoly on violence, does that mean anyone could be violent? Surely that chaos is worse than any oppressive order imposed on us? We tried might makes right in the past and collectively agreed it was not a very nice time for most people. What if instead of there being a select group of people permitted to dish out violence on the Government’s behalf and to uphold the Government’s laws, police were instead directly accountable to the people they serve and protect? 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume, dear reader, that you, like myself are a fan of democracy. If we agree that democracy is good, we can employ it as a solution here. Instead of being representatives of the Government we could introduce a model where every police officer is elected by the community. This sounds strange, until you consider that the people that decide our laws are already elected- why not, then, the people that actually carry out those laws? This would mean that the police aren’t just faceless men and women that act as agents of the state but instead people with names, faces, promises and accountability. The police are not apolitical, each and everyone will have some political inclination even if it’s not shown during work hours and they remain completely professional throughout their career. Would you not rather know if the person walking about your town, upholding the law in your community is ideologically opposed to you? The Police and Crime Commissioner is already an elected role in England and Wales, so why not officers on the ground?

Now that’s a pretty radical idea, and not jumping at joy at the idea of bringing political division into police work is an understandable response. What if you don’t like the government, and think the MPs people vote for are all idiots already, that Westminster and Holyrood are without a single honest person. You agree we need some form of police, but you don’t like the mercenary idea of just hiring people to do it, and don’t trust the type of people that would stand for election just to put on a uniform. There already exists in our legal system a method of selection that avoids the issues that both methods raise: Jury duty. What if the police officer walking through the town was from the town and picked out by lot. No favouritism, no politics, just a lottery, and two weeks out of their life a year, everyone gets a shot and no one gets the be polis for too long. The idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might first think, it’s an old idea. Lenin discussed something similar to this that he thought could have been brought about in Petrograd while he was still in Germany, and Ancient Athens put a lot of democratic trust into the idea of selection by lot. After all, we already have jury duty as part of our justice system, if twelve strangers chosen by chance are a fair way to send someone to the jail, maybe it’s a fair way of bringing them to court in the first place.

What we have discussed so far still falls under the umbrella of reformism, even as dramatic as my proposals so far have been. Let’s say you aren’t satisfied with what I’ve offered up so far. When you say you want police abolition, you don’t want to just fix recruitment and have a better police force. You’re saying exactly what you mean: you want the abolishment of the police. What would we be left with? 

More than you might first think, actually. Detectives, the people that investigate serious crimes are already separate to the day to day officers and CID. They don’t carry out many of the roles that could fall under the term population control and support the court system by providing evidence. What about community policing? Well, we have experimented in Scotland in the past with community wardens; without a police budget to support we would have more money to invest in the warden scheme that suffered more from a lack of resources than anything else. Police, as part of their role, don’t just respond to crimes but also mental health crises- without police who would turn up to prevent suicides? What about social workers or medical staff properly trained and focused on providing the care and support needed in such extreme situations? 

A post police world is possible, and it wouldn’t even take a radical change in society to make it a reality. All we would have to do is expand what already exists to make sure the parts of policing that we need in place still gets carried out.

These are just my own ideas, there are better educated and smarter people you should listen to first but I hope this has maybe opened you up to the idea of what a post-police world could look like, and that it doesn’t necessarily look that different from the world we already live in. The ideas I have presented today have been hamstrung in this discussion because the scope of this article was to discuss the post-police world, but any suggestions that do not confront the prison industry, the mental health system, poverty, legalism, capitalism and statism are ultimately limited to be reforms rather than revolutionary changes in human history. If I got into all of that, this would have turned into a very long and very boring book. Instead, what I wanted to do was write about ideas that are not just possible within today’s system, but could be put into action tomorrow. We already have the tools necessary to build a better tomorrow. We just need to be willing to imagine a better world and make it real.

The Scottish Utopia Myth

As protests start to be organised across the UK in support of the Black Lives Matter movement it has been troubling to see the criticism that has been used against them. A lot of people in the UK like to look to America and criticise the failings of its systems but put the blinders on when it comes to being a bit more introspective and taking a look at the country we live in. This phenomenon is even more prevalent in Scotland. There is a tendency to think of Scotland as the “best wee country in the world”; a place where the majority of us reject Tory rule and are proud of an international reputation for friendliness and good humour. Many only think of the wars of independence and our countries involvement in the world wars when they think of the history of Scotland. While being important parts of the history of the Scottish people they are not the only parts. Ignoring Scotland’s role in the British Empire and involvement and benefit from the Atlantic slave trade, as well as ongoing issues with racism and tribalism invalidates the experiences of people of other ethnicities and makes it less likely that these issues will be meaningfully dealt with.

To be clear, this article is not here to proclaim that Scotland is a racist nation and all Scottish people should be ashamed of themselves (although some definitely should be!) It is simply a candid look at the issues, both historically and currently, that contribute to inequality. There absolutely is reason to take racism seriously in this country and the people marching for Black Lives Matter have every right.

THE PAST

As part of the British Empire, Scotland had an incredibly involved role in all its aspects. From military to plantation ownership and even as settlers the people of Scotland were involved all over the world. North America, the Caribbean, Australasia, South Africa, India as well as colonies in South-East Asia and Africa all saw involvement from the Scots.

One mainstay of Scottish history is the wealthy elites of Scotland jumping on any opportunity to make more money and grab more power. It was true in the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England which, after the failure of the Darien venture, gave the wealthy in Scotland access to all of England’s colonies as well as to the East India Trading Company. This meant that Scotland became heavily involved in the colonies in India and the Caribbean very quickly with many plantations in both areas. And with plantations came involvement in the slave trade.

Glasgow is most notorious for its involvement in the trade, especially with the so called “tobacco lords”. Men that made so much money through dodgy dealings and the slave trade that they were said to live as well as aristocrats, these men were well respected in their times. Glasgow was seen as the second city in the Empire and reaped a lot of benefit due to the slave trade. Many streets in the city are still named in honour of these men, something that has recently come into the conversation again. Over 16,000 people have signed a petition to have the names changed and one activist has attached alternative street signs such as ‘Fred Hampton Street’ and ‘Rosa Parks Street’.

Moving on from the 18th and 19th centuries, let us look at the 20th century. You may have heard of the “Battle of George Square” in 1919, the day that between 30,000 to 60,000 peaceful protestors in Glasgow were violently put down by the police for asking for the 40-hour work week, amongst other basic workers’ rights. This was the famous event in which Winston Churchill was so afraid that it would turn in to a revolution that he had Scottish soldiers contained in the Maryhill barracks and ordered tanks into the city. A moment of pride to many in the struggle for workers rights, however the labour movement at the time was also implicit in racism. Just a few days before the Battle of George Square one of the ugliest events in Glasgow’s history took place. Known as the ‘Broomielaw Race Riot” it was the result of speeches delivered by local delegates of the National Seamen’s Union in which they scapegoated, mainly black British colonial and Chinese sailors as the reason that the white Glaswegian sailors were finding it hard to get work. It was all an attempt to gain support from the local seafaring workforce in the general strike that was planned for that Sunday. Such inflammatory speeches simply stoked fires that had already been lit. The shipping trade already enacted racist policies with many shipowners instigating a ‘colour ban’ in response to trade unions opposing the hiring of non-white British subjects.

The events unfolded later in the day as sailors were waiting at the port offices to try and get work. A group of around 30 African sailors were harassed by a much larger group of white sailors, it got so bad that the African sailors ran away to seek shelter where they were staying in Broomielaw. The mob of white sailors followed them and attacked the building causing the African sailors to run again to a nearby lodging house. Again, the crowd followed them, now numbering in the hundreds, and attacked the building with bricks and bottles. The police eventually arrived and took the African sailors away in ‘protective custody’ but subsequently charged them with riot and weapons offenses. None of the white rioters were arrested or charged.

Scotland has always struggled with poverty and is a place in which the scapegoating of immigrants has always had purchase. Whether it’s African and Chinese sailors in 1919 or South Asian migrants in the 50s and 60s or more recently the Syrian refugees; there has always been a narrative pushed that the poor people of this country have the poor people from other countries to blame for their woes.

THE PRESENT

If you read all of that and scoffed, thinking them the actions of a past nation no longer linked to the Scotland of today, think again. The systemic racism of that time has reverberated through the generations and is still evident today.

In response to a Glasgow Times article discussing the Black Lives Matter protest, this is what the comments section looked like –

Comments section of a Glasgow Times article about BLM protests

Interestingly in 2018, Glasgow University academic Neil Davidson, a lecturer in Sociology, co-authored a book with findings that between 2000 and 2013 there were 1.8 race-related murders per million people, compared to 1.3 per million in the rest of the UK.

We also have similar issues with policing. Although nowhere near the extent that the policing in America is a problem, a remarkably similar incident to the murder of George Floyd happened here in Scotland. In May 2015 in Fife, police were called out to reports of a man acting erratically with a knife. The mans name was Sheku Bayoh and by the time the officers arrived he was in no possession of a knife. The officers used CS spray, leg restraints and batons to subdue him resulting in 23 separate injuries. Much like George Floyd he shouted that he could not breath, he died in hospital after the incident. The officers denied all wrongdoing and were never charged for his death, luckily the incident is being investigated in a public enquiry.

Other than these examples there are always reports of racist abuse at football games, of attacks on people of other ethnicities and a normalisation of the use of racist language.

Racism is not something that can be ignored until it goes away. It is a parasite that must be confronted head on. The collective ignorance or wilful dismissal of the issues of racism in Scotland, whether in the past or the present, simply entrench the problems further. As a people we need to be educated and mindful of this country’s historical place in the implementation and complicity in scientific racism and can only claim to be the friendly wee country we seem to think we are if we start acting like it.

Photo by Donald Edgar on Unsplash

Minneapolis riots

No doubt you’re aware of the events currently unravelling in Minneapolis and now across other American cities. With so much noise and confusion on the subject we at the ACU thought we would do our best to provide our readers a timeline of the causes and responses to this wave of civil unrest that has swept across the United States. 

On the 25th of May police were called to Cup Foods– a supermarket in Minneapolis- as it was reported by the teenage clerk behind the counter that a man by the name of George Floyd had attempted to use a fake $20 bill to pay for his groceries. It was never proven if this $20 bill was a forgery or not. When the police arrived on the scene four officers restrained George after pulling him out of his car. The police force would later claim that George was resisting arrest, a claim which has not been backed up by any video evidence, but bystanders did manage to capture the image of Derek Chauvin- one of the arresting officers- kneeling on George’s neck. During the film George repeatedly pleaded that he could not breath, and eventually lost consciousness. The crowd can be heard begging the officers to let him up at this point, with people pointing out that he was not resisting and that he had a bleeding nose. Officer Chauvin did not respond to these pleas and instead kept his knee on George’s neck for a total of 8 minutes; he did not release his grip on the man’s neck until 7 minutes after George had started gasping for air, 6 minutes after the crowd had started to beg for the man’s life and 3 minutes after George had lost consciousness. Instead Derek put his hands in his pockets and maintained the choke hold that would take George’s life, with three officers in support who at no point acted to prevent their colleague from murdering George Floyd. George never regained consciousness from the police assault and died from his injuries in hospital. 

The video of this incident would go viral and strike a chord with many communities across America, with its brutal similarity to the racially charged murder of Eric Garner (17 July 2014), where Eric also repeatedly said on video that he could not breathe as police officers used a chokehold to bring him to the ground. He was also pronounced dead at a hospital hours later. 

The local government in Minneapolis was quick to respond to the outcry and all four officers involved in the arrest of George Floyd have been fired. The mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey released a press statement on how the incident showed just how far America still has to go in terms of racial equality. The same day, members of George Floyds family began to push for the four former police officers to be charged with murder, feeling that simply firing these individuals did not go far enough to deliver justice. The next day Mayor Frey would add his voice to this demand for justice.

By the 28th of May prosecutors were still undecided on whether or not to charge Derek Chauvin for the murder of George, and as a result of this indecision and the slow action of authorities, protests began in the city, in front of the police station. Similar protests in support also got underway in other cities across America. Once these peaceful protestors had been outside the police station for nearly half a day, the police force opened fire into the crowd with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. 

The next day, President Trump tweeted out several things regarding the protests, including calling the protestors thugs, offering the support of the military to the Governor of Minnesota Tim Walz and ending by quoting Miami police Chief Walter Headley from the 60’s- a man famous for his bigotry and racism to the black community in Florida- saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. This, alongside the violent police response the day before and the release of information showing that Derek had been involved in 18 police complaints– including one involving the shooting of another person of colour- only raised passions further. 

In the most decisive blow ever struck by Liberalism against the Trump administration, Twitter, seeing the reckless incitement to violence of the commander-in-chief, decided to… put a warning tag on the tweet.

On the same day another video became public as a CNN news crew was arrested live on TV. The video showed the black newsman asking multiple times if where they were standing was okay with the police, while showing his media pass. The police never responded and then put the man under arrest whilst not reading him his rights. The entire crew was released later that day but the incident only served to further distance the police from public sympathy by highlighting another incident where they broke the law to put yet another black person under arrest without cause. 

This was the day that Derek Chauvin was finally put under arrest. He had been in police custody from the night of the incident, but this was actually a police protection measure as there had been credible threats on his life, rather than as part of any formal criminal proceedings: where he had previously been treated like a witness under protection, he was now being treated as a murder suspect. However, another point of contention emerged as the charges were revealed; third degree murder and manslaughter, without any of the other arresting officers being formally charged. The charge of third degree murder- essentially murder without foreknowledge, malice or intent- became especially difficult to justify when it emerged that Derek had known George for 17 years, having previously worked in security with each other. 

Protesters again took to the streets and this time burnt down a police precinct, after looting and redistributing goods from a Target supermarket. 8pm on Friday, Mayor Frey declared a curfew that started at 8pm that night. 

Saturday began with Trump threatening to use the national guard to suppress civil unrest; a terrifying prospect for anyone concerned about human life, out of the 12 times this has happened previously in American history, 10 of these times had been in response to black communities protesting state violence and 8 of these deployments resulted in the National Guard using firing on American citizens. Trump’s words clearly had the desired effect as later last night the Governor released a statement that 80% of those arrested had come from outside of his state, a claim unsupported by arrest records, which show that those arrested were predominantly from inside Minnesota and Minneapolis. This false pretext has since been used to justify the full mobilisation of the National Guard. At the time of writing, no one has yet been killed, but with 2500 troops heading into the state, with maybe 12000 more mobilised across the US- ostensibly to assist in the coronavirus pandemic response– this looks likely to change knowing the historic reputation of the Guard.

We at the ACU would like to encourage readers to support the protests in any way they are able. For those of us watching across the world, the most easily accessible avenue for support will be the Minnesota Freedom Fund.