The police are a tool of state oppression
The savage police attacks on the Occupy camps in Melbourne and Sydney over the past few days have been a rude awakening for many in the movement who had previously harboured illusions in the copssays Corey Oakley in Socialist Alternative.
In the course of the previous week there had been a lot of debate, in the camps themselves and on the various facebook pages associated with the movement, as to whether or not the police were on our side. Many argued that police were “part of the 99 percent”, and that we should see them as our allies. When the chair referred to the cops as “pigs” in one of the general assemblies in Melbourne she was met with howls of outrage from many participants.
Even as we linked arms on the makeshift barricades defending the Melbourne camp on Friday morning, standing off against a wall of menacing riot police who had sealed off the square and were readying for an attack, some were convinced the police could be reasoned with.
But none of the attempts to placate the police made any difference when the order was given to attack the square. In groups of four or five, riot cops from the Public Order Response Unit broke from the main police group, charging the picket line, grabbing individuals by the neck, and, once they had been dragged from the group, smashed them into the ground. In numerous cases protesters were then kicked or punched before being hauled away.
It was a sickening display, designed not just to break up the picket, but to terrify and intimidate peaceful protesters.
And the police were not finished with the clearing of the square. They were determined to break up the protest at any cost. Of those of us who were removed, some were put in police vans and taken away, and others were simply thrown on the ground on the other side of Swanston Street. When the latter group moved over to the intersection of Swanston and Collins Street to join up with hundreds of supporters who had gathered, we had only 20 minutes before a new police onslaught.
400 police were involved in clearing the 1,500-strong peaceful protest from the road. Lines of riot police were backed by the dog squad and mounted police, who rode in over the top of protesters, a tactic whose only purpose is to cause injury.
After clearing the intersection the police continued to push the demonstration north up Swanston Street. As they did so officers repeatedly threw punches at demonstrators, smashed cameras, and arrested people who were on the edges of the crowd. By the end of the day between 50 and 100 had been arrested, and a significant but unknown figure injured.
The police attack, which took place in the centre of the city and was seen by thousands of onlookers, was probably the most vicious attack on a political protest since police savaged demonstrators at S11 in 2000 (the demonstration outside Crown Casino against the World Economic Forum), where hundreds were injured in bloody baton charges.
And as in 2000, and with the mass arrest of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge three weeks ago, it looks at this stage as if the scale of the police response has only hardened the resolve of those involved, and widened the level of public support – indicated by the 3,000 who turned out in torrential rain on Saturday for a solidarity demonstration.
This, rather than any sympathy for the right to protest, is what motivated the distinctly unexpected editorial in Murdoch’s notorious Australian newspaper on Saturday criticising police tactics.
The brutal police violence has also shifted the attitude of many participants who previously objected to the arguments by socialists and others that the police are not an impartial force but a tool of the ruling class, whose purpose is to put down dissent and maintain the rule of the minority.
But the argument is far from over. Even at the General Assembly held at Trades Hall on Friday night, there were some who maintained that the police were “human beings”, and “just doing their job”.
This is a highly specious argument. Although the amount of body armour and robo-cop type weaponry may raise doubts with some, the species-being of the police is not actually being questioned. You may as well point out that Hitler, Stalin, or any other butcher of the last century was a human being. Or, indeed, the 1 percent we are protesting against.
Of course what people are getting at with the “human beings” thing is that we can appeal to the better nature of the police.
And it is true that at times there have been some police so disgusted with the role they play in society that they have broken ranks and resigned, sometimes speaking out publicly. An early edition of Socialist Alternative magazine in 1997 featured an interview with just such a person, who explained his former role in an article entitled “why are the police so rabid?”
But the actions of the occasional individual – and they are very occasional – who leaves the police force in disgust doesn’t tell us anything about how to relate to the police as police, as a particular group with a particular role in the social struggle.
The plain truth is there are almost no examples of a substantial section of the police force, let alone the force as a whole, shifting its allegiance from the powers-that-be to the masses, even in times of profound social upheaval.
There are many other layers of the state apparatus for which this is not the case. In almost every revolution the state media, usually a pliant tool of propaganda for the establishment, breaks apart, and faces a revolt by journalists and other workers who refuse to any longer disseminate the lies of the regime.
It is the same with the military, particularly in countries with large armies made up of workers and the poor. Social struggle tends to bring out the class divisions between regular soldiers, who are treated badly, and remain connected to the communities from which they come, and the generals who are part of the establishment and committed to defending it.
We saw this in the Egyptian revolution earlier this year. While the mass of the security police were happy to fight the revolution to the death, the military generals were too afraid to launch an open crackdown on protesters in Tahrir, because of the widespread support for the revolt among the army rank-and-file.
The case is similar with the US military. Over the past decade increasing numbers of soldiers have become involved in anti-war activism and a number of soldiers and former-soldiers have been active in Occupy Wall Street.
Whereas “Iraq Veterans Against the War” has gained considerable traction, the idea of a similar organisation among police is ludicrous. To my knowledge there is no group called “NYPD officers against beating up Blacks and protesters without provocation”.
To understand why the police are so different, we need to understand their social role.
The police are the day-to-day enforcers of the existing social order. Their function is to maintain by force the existing divisions in society, in particular protecting the wealth of the rich, and keeping the poor in their place.
If you drive through the streets of Australia’s cities you can see crime every day. It is a crime that there are 100,000 people living on the streets, barely able to keep themselves alive, while in rich suburbs like Toorak or Sydney’s North Shore there are grotesque mansions with dozens of rooms, where servants serve the finest wine and food to a parasitical minority of the super rich.
But instead of combating this crime, the police are crucial to supporting it. So the police routinely harass people in poor communities – particularly young people, aborigines and migrants. They are the guns for hire for a legal system in which it is a crime to smoke dope or engage in petty theft or minor vandalism, but perfectly legal to sack workers while raking in billions in profits.
Of course there are many parts of the state apparatus – the education system, for example – that in the final analysis are designed to protect the profit system.
But the difference is that the police are on the front line. Their day-to-day activity is imposing their authority over the poor and downtrodden. Psychologically, when police think of the phrase “serve and protect”, they understand that it means to serve and protect the status quo from any disruption from below.
This is why the everyday of police harassment transfers so easily into suppression of political protest. And if police are in general inclined against demonstrators, the specialised riot police, who have been deployed to political protests with increasing regularity in Victoria over the last year, have mass repression as their singular purpose.
The officers of the Public Order Response Unit pride themselves on being thugs. Their job consists of three parts: training to beat the crap through people; waiting to beat the crap through people; and beating the crap through people. Appealing to their better nature is like asking a lion to consider going vegetarian. A better option would be to suggest to them that they get a real job.
The point of clarifying the role of the police is not to argue that protest movements should never negotiate with them and try to pressure them to allow us our rights. But the first rule of successful negotiation is understanding who you are dealing with. The police are not neutral enforcers of the peace who can be reasoned with and convinced by rational argument. They are the front-line enforcers of the current system, and as such implacable and dangerous opponents of any movement for justice and social change. We should treat them as such.