Anger after the violence and chaos caused by the Metropolitan Police. Anger after the violence and chaos caused by the Metropolitan Police. Photo: Flickr - Gerry Popplestone / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Attempts to defend the police in Bristol ignore the essential role of policing in society and the hostility to protests and pickets, argues Chris Nineham

Everywhere there is outrage at ‘criminal acts’ and ‘violent thuggery’ by protesters demonstrating against the Police and Crime Bill in Bristol.

The police are being portrayed as victims. The attacks apparently stopped them from performing their main role of ‘protecting the vulnerable in society.’

Bristol’s Labour mayor Marvin Rees has joined the chorus with a left variant of protest demonisation. He is claiming the protesters were selfish, not serious and that they have played into the hands of those who want to push through the Police and Crime Bill.

This rush to take the police’s side is quite startling so soon after the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard and the graphic images of police officers attacking and arresting women on the peaceful vigil for Sarah.

It follows a summer in which police harassment of black and brown people was in the spotlight and numerous cases of police violence were exposed.

The suspicion must be that the Bristol protests have been used by the right to push back against the loss of police credibility. 

Against this background the idea that the role of the police is to protect the most vulnerable is laughable. A glance at the history of British policing is useful in gaining some perspective.

A history of harassment

The knee-jerk demonisation of protesters is naïve. It ignores ample evidence that the police are regularly hostile, violent and provocative to protesters. The killing of Ian Tomlinson at a G20 demo in 2009, the regular illegal kettling of peaceful protesters and the infiltration of campaigning groups should be enough to make it obvious that the police are not neutral when it comes to protests.

In fact, it ignores the essential role of policing. The truth is that British police forces were actually established to suppress protest.

The precursors of the modern police forces emerged from debates after part-time yeomen killed 18 demonstrators in the Peterloo massacre in Manchester in 1819.

Killing tended to inflame difficult situations. In the 1820s, some forward-thinking members of the elite argued for bodies that could confront protesters with non-lethal force rather than straightforward shooting and stabbing.

Putting the case for a new police force, reformer and police champion Edwin Chadwick argued for the use of truncheons rather than muskets because truncheons leave ‘one hand at liberty to seize and hold the prisoner, whilst the other represses force by force’.

The following years saw a massive wave of riots and protests for democracy which forced the government to introduce limited voting reform in 1832.

As it happens, Bristol was one of the cities most affected. The population rose up in 1831 and for a week the city was in the hands of armed insurgents. They burnt official buildings and all four Bristol prisons to the ground demanding the vote. Seventy people were killed in the repression before a military force from London regained control.

It was in this context of trying to repress a movement for democracy that the British ruling class rushed to set up police forces around the country. By the 1840s most British towns and cities had their own force capable of dealing with local strikes, protests and disturbances.

This has been their most important job ever since. The police are mobilised for protest, strikes and riots in far greater numbers than at any other time.

They were used to try and limit picketing and disruption in the general strike of 1926 and they were sent in – ineffectively – to try and break up mass pickets during the miners’ strike in 1972. They famously failed in their assault on the huge solidarity picket at the Saltley coke works in Birmingham.

Toughening up

Their failures in the strike wave of the early 1970s led to a rethink. The 1972 Ridley plan for defeating union power called for ‘a large, mobile squad of police who are equipped and prepared to uphold the law against the likes of the Saltley Coke-works mob’.

During the 1970s increasingly aggressive police tactics were used against protesters and inner-city black communities. Police killed protester Kevin Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration in Holborn’s Red Lion Square in 1974. Five years later Blair Peach was killed by police on an anti-racist protest in Southall, West London. Anger at the levels of police harassment exploded in a series of riots in the early 1980s.

At around the same time, women peace campaigners who gathered to protest against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common RAF airbase were regularly harassed by a force especially drafted in to try and break up their camp.  

The full rollout came during the miners’ strike of 1984/5 when thousands of police were used to assault, intimidate and isolate the mining communities. They fought and brutally beat miners’ pickets at what came to be called the Battle of Orgreave in the summer of 1984.  

Further attacks followed the miners’ defeat. Most dramatically in 1986 and 1987 mounted police assaulted printers picketing Rupert Murdoch’s new Wapping plant almost every night for the year of the dispute. 

The police attack on the 300,000 strong Poll Tax demonstration in 1990 backfired and the police lost control of the West End of London. This defeat for the police was followed by further attacks in the 1990s including the systematic clampdown on raves and protests triggered by the notorious Criminal Justice Act.

The great anti-war demonstrations in the early 2000s and last decade’s anti-austerity marches were often too big for the police to challenge.

Recent police behaviour and the proposed new bill, however, suggest that the government is worried about a post-lockdown explosion of protest and that they intend to try and get tough.

The depth of anger on so many issues is going to make any kind of clampdown hard and the spirited response to the Bill so far is one sign of that. But we will always be blindsided by police attacks and provocations if we see the police as a neutral force. And we will not be able to build a united movement to defeat the Police and Crime Bill if we are not prepared to support and defend people protesting against it.

Chris Nineham’s latest book The British State: A Warning is available here

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.