Crime And Punishment

Seven male police officers on bicycles in a rural setting

BM Blob on policing, prisons and the 1981 riots...

Submitted by Fozzie on April 15, 2022

'Modern prisoners are imperfectable since they are perfect. There is nothing left to do but to destroy them'.
Victor Serge: 'Men in Prison'. (1914)

In the slammer and the keys thrown away

The sum total of those arrested and imprisoned at the end of the riot week reached over 2,500. Initially they were going to be accommodated in overflow army camps like Rolleston which had been used to house prisoners during the recent prison officers pay dispute. Though not exactly 'veritable concentration camps' as Tass (July 14th '81) would have it, if the prison officers had still been in dispute the camps would have been run by the army. The Act (The Imprisonment Temporary Provisions Act) was passed 12 months before in 1980. It looks suspiciously like a step in the direction of a military State even though prison officers disputes are likely in future to break out once more. In December 1981 for example the screws because of overcrowding refused to take any more short term prisoners sentenced by the courts. Pressure had softened up the hard boiled screws who casting about decided the arguments of the formerly hated prison reformers best suited their 'industrial' action. However the quality of this mercy is measured in droplets ready as the screws are to send prisoners to army camps to serve their porridge.

Whitelaw, the Beaks and mob rule

As was only to be expected pressure on the Tory Government to introduce special riot packages during and after riot week was particularly intense. They had after all been elected on a law n' order ticket. However the Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw had been forewarned many weeks prior to the rioting that the prisons were fit to bust and that a further influx of short term prisoners could prove catastrophic. Even before the first stone was thrown, Whitelaw had got ready the 'overflow' army camps which he then proceeded to pass off as the Tory Government's response to the clamour coming mainly from the media for new measures to deal with the rioting.

There was much talk for instance of reviving the Riot Act which had been on the Statute book ever since the days of the rampaging London mobs in the 17th century and repealed, incredibly, only in 1967. Under the terms of this Act anyone arrested on the scene of a riot was presumed guilty and access to a jury denied automatically. Tories with ministerial posts have for the moment backed away in haste from introducing such draconian measures but this should not blind us to the existence of powerful ministerial currents favouring increased sentencing powers for magistrates (responsibility for administering the Riot Act was left mainly to magistrates) and squashing the right to opt for trial by jury in a higher court for a whole number of offences.1 It might be said of Thatcherite Toryism that reform and the blackest judicial reaction chop and change repeatedly in the same pickled brain cells.

However even for Thatcherism, pragmatic considerations have had their sway. Solely because of conditions in UK prisons, Whitelaw alone had to perform a penal 'U' turn even for short term prisoners who had served one third of their sentences. The plan was thwarted by Judges and magistrates who warned Whitelaw they would increase sentences to compensate if ever the proposals because law.

Faced with the might of the judiciary, Whitelaw's retreat back to square one only served to underpin the instantly recognisable 'independence' of the British judiciary which is altogether such an anomalous feature of the legal system in the UK.

The ease with which individuals can end up in stir in Britain is for many a person living in the UK a continual nightmare. Hence features on prison life put together by liberal minded prison reformers are read and watched by masses of people with a fascinated horror, (e.g. The BBC TV documentary inside Manchester's Strangeways nick regularly drew audiences of 8 million. The programme obviously did not call for any unconditional, revolutionary demand for the abolition of prisons). Add to the scales the fact that Britain has a prison population in excess of any European country and one must be face to face with the most notorious example in modern bourgeois democracy of judicial insularity, pigheaded obstinacy and ignorance.

In truth the Tories promise of stem measures to deal with the rioters was all piss in the wind. That was left to the care of the judiciary holed-up in their jealously guarded territory which is as the Tories would have wanted it originally, as they were set on restoring a hypothetical 'civil'/'political' division associated with laissez faire capitalism. It is the greatest irony of Tory rule that they have been steam-rollered into attempting to wring changes out of a sector of society they revered among the most.

The sentences meted out are frightened. 8 years here, 5 years there and just for trashing or torching with molotovs. Truly if the 'Angry Brigade' - despite their terrorist illusions - had been active in the 80's they'd have got 50 years each. Those that have been consigned to the slammer have received little publicity apart from snippets in the more 'concerned' newspapers.

A high proportion of the rioters coming up in court were unemployed thus doubling their chances in any case of jaundicing, prima facie, magistrates and judges. It is commonplace now to link the work ethic to the rise of industrial capitalism but the relentless persecution of the workless especially among the judiciary has far older roots in Britain.

Marx devoted a chapter in Capital entitled 'Bloody legislation against the expropriated' which still makes harrowing reading. In it he describes how from Tudor times beggars expropriated from any means of subsistence were branded, striped, lashed and imprisoned. The backdrop to this torture was the genesis of ground rent in the countryside. Various statutes belonging to a recognisably capitalist legal system set out in grisly detail what the local judiciary was empowered to cut. It would be silly to suggest that statutes passed in 1530 had a direct bearing on vengeful judges sitting in session during the summer of '81. But equally habits die hard (especially in long lived institutions like the British judiciary) and the judicial frame of mind lingers on. Any explanation of the atrocious prison sentences must, in part at least, be traced back far into the venerable past. To the day the first ear was chopped off to be exact.

In modern day Britain workers in comparison possess a far greater immunity from prosecution and haywire rulings affecting powerful groups of workers (Denning and Co.) tend to be over-ruled double quick in more realistic courts of appeal (usually the House of Lords.) The bourgeoisie have been scared shitless of introducing legislation to curb industrial disputes (e.g. the Heath's government ill fated 'Industrial Relations Act') ever since the traumatic weekend in July '72 when five dockers were bundled off to Pentonville nick. On the Monday morning, following a breathless example of 'judicial' fiat they were released under a legal loophole. We might be wrong in accrediting this piece of legal pie in the sky to an attempt to storm Pentonville prison and a wild cat general strike beginning to sweep like a prairie fire through the UK.

Even though the unemployed cannot use the industrial weapons of strikes and occupations of plants more could have been done to save arrested rioters from the wrath of the judiciary. In order to publicise the plight of those imprisoned and awaiting trial public buildings could have been occupied. But no inner city neighbourhood assembly with some degree of permanence arose from the ashes and any proposals along these lines were hemmed in by lack of a public forum. When for instance in a very different setting striking workers at the Ascon company in Vigo (c.f. 'The Poverty of Unionism' in Wildcat Spain Encounters Democracy) rioted, trashed banks, stores, torched cars, built barricades etc. they did so under the cover of an assembly led strike where in spite of manipulation by the strike committee and unions, the shortcomings and successes of the actions undertaken were openly discussed.

When a society is ravaged by recurrent crises like Britain, the judiciary and penal system will be among the first of the State's guardians to feel the strains. That is why to defer to tradition and hope for the best as Whitelaw did when confronting the judiciary is unhistorical. They are a different breed from what they were in the 19th century because the underlying situation has dramatically worsened and Britain is likely over the coming years to be faced with a revolutionary upheaval.

Once this happens, the law loses its pretence to equity (necessary for its continued legitimation) and becomes increasingly arbitrary. Violent hiccups appear within the normal framework of bourgeois judicial rule. Combined with a growing police licence (even to kill and be excused on the grounds of 'justifiable force' in the case of the school teacher Blair Peach not to mention the much publicised dubious deaths of Jimmy Kelly, Liddle Towers, Barry Prosser and others while in custody) the system of 'civil liberties' once the proud boast of the British ruling class and which many political refugees like Anarchist Johann Most to his cost, took for granted is now lurching crazily sideways.

Though the punishments handed out to the rioters were exemplary and constitute a break with the traditions of 'fair play' normally deferred to by the British legal system they still form a continuum with the system. British law is notoriously based on precedent having the demeanour of a higher political power able to undermine statute law passed in Parliament if it should offend the judiciary's anachronistic code of right and wrong. The recent Law Lords ruling abolishing London's cheap fares policy dusted off as legal justification a quaint 19th century law requiring public transit systems to pay their way as part of their 'fiduciary duty'. In the rest of the world it is accepted all major city transit systems run at a loss.

There have of course traditionally been safeguards in its procedures simply as law, to check that the inherent wilfulness of British law does not get out of hand (special judges conferences for examples where notes are compared). Failing that in the case of sentencing 'aberrations', the Lord Chief Justice might have responded, as on other occasions, to declarations of conscience smitten outrage, provided they came from respected pillars of the establishment. But none of it was brought into play over the sentencing of rioters. It marks a watershed in law as practised in the UK and a sickening foretaste of things to come. Behind the robes, wigs, baronial manners and legal pedanticism of this idiosyncratic lot of geriatric bigots, eccentric mystics, and truncheon fetishists a weakness for sadism has finally slipped the leash.

The people's dispensaries for sick justice

There are plenty of countervailing forces around trying their level best to check that the Big J(ustice) doesn't run amok. The bottom rung, if you like of the alternating judicial ladder tho' it includes influential bodies like the Parliamentary All Party Penal Affairs Group. Actually a report by this group (Young Offenders - A Strategy for the Future) was published, on the dot (July 7th 1981) during riot week. The report called for a reversal of the trend towards locking up more and more 'young offenders'.

The report's appearance was at the time all but drowned beneath disciplinarian howls of outrage but it isn't true either to say the gates were flung wide to an absent welcome. The same can be said of similar groups (e.g. The Howard Group for Penal Reform). Briefly their main aims are reform of the legal system, community policing and continuing to preach the gospel of non-custodial sentences, in order to reduce the prison population. It is all done with an eye to circumventing 'random law enforcement' before it is too late.

Fortunately the normally deceptive radicality of their congruent statements was shown up by events to be quite explicitly not revolutionary. A case in point. The General Secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Patricia Hewitt, was moved to write to The Times (July 16th 1981) condemning just about every injustice in sight - C.S. gas, mass screening of the population in N. Ireland, rubber bullets, water cannon, riot acts, curfews. But trouble in the streets for once made it clear which side of the fence the NCCL was on. 'It is appalling' the Gen. Sec. of the NCCL wrote, 'that police officers should now be facing petrol bombs'.

The illusions of these pressure groups flow from their conception of law as inherently able to 'fairly' manage profound social crises'. A national body of lawyers, the Legal Action Group, condemned for instance proposals to introduce a new riot act. A new riot act it said would 'have serious implications for the criminal justice system which needs to be more not less fair at times of political and social unrest-'.

All historical experience points way to the contrary and what happened in the courts recently in Britain ain't no miscarriage of justice. 'Fairness' is the property of stable bourgeois regimes because there comes a point when class conflict reaches a point of no return and the bourgeoisie is left to restore the rule of capital with every means at its disposal. At these moments getting the consent of the proletariat is an unpayable for luxury.

The ultra legalistic statements (re the above), that radical lawyers have a tendency to come out with are historically blind for other reasons. Radical lawyers are a product of the tensions between the two basic classes of society. Depending on the degree to which the neutrality of law is accepted as common currency they stand or fall. They stand between the two main classes having a firm anchor in neither. Their concept of the law as neutral to some degree, must inhibit genuinely revolutionary class struggle. The judicial apparatus is after all a State apparatus. To insist on the increased vigilance of the law ('more fair not less fair') is merely a way of sensitising the State, not a prelude to its abolition. When laws are broken en masse and authority openly defied in every nook and cranny, the State is disintegrating. When it gets to this stage law is pushed to the brink of annihilation, being replaced with the developing momentum of proletarian social justice. Caught in the crossfire the radical lawyers are only likely to dither, raising an ineffectual finger of rebuke at the excesses of contending sides as they become daily more tragic figures.

There was one outstanding example of this in the days following the Brixton riot in April 1981. Several papers mentioned that Rudi Narayan, the black lawyer who had helped defend the Bristol rioters was given a rough reception in Brixton when he attempted to capitalise on the events there. According to the Anarchist twice-yearly eXtra the Brixton Defence Committee dropped the demand for a general amnesty of all arrested and fearing trouble, called off a demonstration. Narayan never once made it clear in public whether he was opposed to the proposals or not. The law was, it seems, the law. The severity of the law against blacks helped make Narayan. The severity of their response is exposing him for what he is.

Tribal war. Law and the survival of the state

The Bristol riot in April '80 broke like an unexpected thunderclap on the British scene. It came from out of the blue on the weekend the steel strike, the longest in post-war history, was fizzling out. Because it looked at the time an isolated incident and not the -first of many, the bourgeoisie could afford certain luxuries. They searched their consciences for an explanation which largely helped sheath the avenging sword of Justice. All the defendants who elected to go for trial by jury were acquitted. It took nearly a year for all the cases to be heard.

Come the nationwide rioting of the following summer and it was obvious the boot would go in on some of these 'luxuries'. They were strictly a one-off affair, a mere drop - not never-ending tapwater. Now a sort of summary justice was inevitable otherwise, at the very least, the courts would get choked up.

As The Times admitted, Ministers were anxious that the courts provide 'early deterrent examples' as a warning to others. On the other hand an unreservedly indiscriminate policy would likely do more harm than good. So PM Thatcher used the sentencing quandary as a means of dividing the so-called copy cat rioters from those in Toxteth and Mosside. The Times (July 13th) put it like this. 'Her main conviction appears to have been that the hooliganism of the past 3 or 4 days does not require a search for deep-lying causes as do the major riots in Toxteth and Greater Manchester.'

By sanctioning the Courts to act in a particular way Thatcher was throwing a garland to the copy cat rioters. It was a hidden acknowledgement that post war Britain's very well known outbreaks of hooliganism had reached a new stage. Hooliganism was at last beginning to merge into a lived experience of class unity elevating copy cat rioting above the many blind alleys of Sat'day afternoon football hooliganism and bank holiday punch ups at seaside resorts. Beyond the question of a doubt the rioting pulled youths likely to be involved in both but there was little evidence of either inter-sub-cultural aggro or the psycho-slob frenzy (including racism) associated with football hooliganism.

In the event no enabling legislation was passed to set up special courts. The clamour subsided but make no mistake, the thought lingers on. The type of special courts that were set up were familiar enough because they were the same as those convened after a Celtic v. Rangers match or following August Bank holiday in Brighton. But when and if (depending on the tempo of class struggle and not just random acts of violence) a riot package resembling the original riot act does appear, post war hooliganism, so closely related to the moment the working class becomes important to capitalism as a consumer will have played its part.

The last major sub-cultural disturbance had occurred over a year previously on Easter weekend 1980. Bristol was just days away and the steel strike was still on.

It had certain unique features that set it apart from other outbreaks in the '60s. Stylistically, discounting punk, it was a repeat except that there was a far greater stew of outfits than ever in the '60s. More importantly it flashed all over Britain (Ayr in Scotland, Great Yarmouth, Cardiff and Bangor in Wales as well as Margate and Brighton) thus displacing the dominance of the south eastern corner of England. (A Mod convention was held in Scarborough - of all places.)

At the time, one felt there was something auspicious about these weekend events. The new factor of countrywide mobility was more apparent than ever during the riots when gangs of youth travelled from one trouble spot to another.

In the Courts, though heavy fines totalling £650 were levied, the maximum prison sentences were only 3 months. Only!! - but they were trivial compared to the full fury of the Courts some 15 months later. This was because it was no longer 'tribal warfare': the difference between the seed and the fruit.

The immaturity of class conflict causes the minutiae of style to matter. It was by no means sure that the sub-cultural styles of the '70s, borrowed though they were, reflected the same class realities, to quite the degree they did in the '60s. For a start the great leveller of unemployment had brooded over the '70s. But style nowadays is saying more about the tailor's dummy than the person. A youth with fluorescent orange hair and a white painted face with a broad red and blue lightening flash over the right eye was interviewed following the Easter disturbances in '80. It turned out he worked as a driller and blaster in a quarry in Colne, Lanes and his idol was David Bowie. He went on to say, 'Bowie fans are totally against violence'. 10 years previously he would have been a dead ringer for a skinhead.

ABOVE: Once May Day was made into a Bank Holiday all remaining pretence to it being workers day disappeared in Britain. It always was a ritualized Labour Party, trade union do and demonstrations were as mild as the Spring weather. But by legalizing it even that speck of defiance in chosing not to turn up for work that day was taken away. However even gently sitting on class struggle in one place causes it to pop up in another. Meagre looking 70's hairdryer customiz- ing aside May Day, as the poster hints at, is becoming a focus of less institutionalized festivities leading to regular skirmish- es at sea side resorts.

Hand in hand with the ' de-politicization' of May Day goes the rise of May Day festivals which aspire to revive long dead customs and fertility rituals reaching aeons back into the pre-capitalist past. However deadly these State financed rites of Spring are (the Labour controlled Greater London Council put up £130,000 for 1982's new look Maypole and visit the country e fayre at the back of the high rise council estate. Falling as it did more or less on the anniversary of the first Brixton riot, last year's fire raising had to be confront- ed in a business-like manner. Under the guise of democratic 'consultation and participation' and ethnic pluralism all the available firewood in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney was figuratively speaking collected by a an 18 strong team of 'community artists' (grrr) then made into 'huge images of things they (who else but the 'people') most want to burn'. The 'East End - Best End' festival ended with the best available substitute for a fire extinguisher: an arty-community-farty 'Carnival of Fire'.

As this and the sequel showed, it was neither a relapse or unambiguous progress. Each successive revival wheeled out from the '60s was messing up the cramped stylistic hall marks of competing class fractions: contrary to the '60s they were consumed not 'created', and to many a survivor from that decade it did look a forlorn, deracinated sight. Had it not been for the underlying class reality which was far worse (better for us) than anything experienced in the '60s, things were well on their way to becoming a narrowed-down battle of the styles.

But finally, when the big day did arrive, this medley was also a factor in lessening tension. As style did not reflect the minute particularities of class division as it once had done, this typically British obsession and obstruction could not act as a fatal drag on the first flowerings of united class action among the unemployed.

Over Easter weekend 1980, a 'blazing missile' was thrown among the crowd at Tottenham Hotspur's ground during the game with Arsenal. It was a sickening incident but moralistic censure is no substitute for analysis. The same hand that threw the missile could a year later have lobbed it on the right target.

Many peaceable and fanatical supporters of soccer have for some time been aware that a hard core of soccer hooligans aren't much interested in the game. What happens on the terraces and outside the ground comes first and foremost. For some reason these supporters, because it really does expose a crisis at the centre of this highly capitalised game, are shocked. People are actually turning up who would far rather riot than watch the game!

This is just the kind of problem the Polish military was presented with when they imposed a ban on all sports. They knew that sporting fixtures would be used for ends other than sport. Class consciousness had reached, it goes without saying, a far higher level amongst the Poles than amongst UK soccer hooligans and there is not the remotest chance of the game being banned in Britain in the foreseeable future. (Bans on soccer fans are, however, become more frequent.)

But because soccer spills over into so many areas of Britain's strife-torn society, it is too important to be left to private market forces as it formerly was. It has, stage by stage (or game by game) become a focus for political initiatives. The State, for instance, regularly profits from nationalist frenzy whenever the proletariat gives in to the fool's paradise of support for the home side in international matches. To date the Argentinian world cup victory in '78 is easily the most imposing example of this.

But in Britain, because soccer crowds are so unruly the game has become a testing ground for crowd control techniques which include learning how to deal promptly and effectively with riots. It is also a center of punitive experiments combining the soft and hard approach ranging from 10 year prison stretches to 'lenient' community service orders for arrested hooligans.

Soccer chairmen now find themselves having to square up to problems like crime and the community and how not to land up with a situation which makes 'hooligans out of decent people'. Now this has a familiar ring! No, it isn't said by liberal Chief Cop, Alderson, but by the Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday FC in a letter to The Times (Sept. 8th, 1980). There is more to come. Like a 17th century Philosophe reflecting on founding Political Principles he adds, 'Good Government in this country or any other, requires bread and circuses'. Believe it or not this is an FC Chairman fearing in as many words that on the fate of the game hangs the survival of the State!

Abolishing the Police or policing the Abolitionists?

It is a great rarity to meet anyone in the UK who has a clear notion of what the police are there for. This lack of consciousness could possibly even deliver the proletariat into the arms of the police once more - even after having smashed their power. Because the question of police power is posed in an atemporal way -law 'n' order - common so far to every society that has ever existed, the specificity of what this really means in capitalist society is ignored.

For instance when asked point blank in areas of Merseyside where relations with the police are particularly tense people said they supported in principle the issue of law and order. Put like this the police are safely distanced from the economic system they are protecting. However when questioned in detail about the practices of the police in their own particular neighbourhood this brought total condemnation - a view shared by adolescents and parents alike.

But for those who are still into the belief that the Labour Party (reconstructed or otherwise) is out to demolish the police let's get rid of this myth once and for all because it's getting late and frightening shadows are drawing in. The Labour Party is anti the police as they are presently constituted but they certainly aren't out for the abolition of the police. This demand is inseparable from the abolition of the commodity economy, wage labour and the State which the Labour Party would never agree to. Instead they prefer to prattle on about community policing. As that King of reforming zealots, Tony Benn said: '…in the regions and in the localities the police are insulated from any real control by the elected representatives of the people who live in the areas.' (In fact all community control of the police amounts to is, party political control of the police under a reconstituted Labour Party.)

By definition, no police force is ever socially neutral: all that can be altered is political allegiances. The Tory Party has traditionally been the party of law 'n' order and long before the election of '79 they made certain the police were with them promising to improve wages and fringe benefits and to increase the numbers of police. However it wasn't merely a campaign of economic inducements. The Tories undertook to back the police to the hilt reinforcing the simple-minded bigotry and prejudices of the force by promising greater immunity from criticism. (However, police unilateralism is by no means party political; it has been growing 'unchecked' for years.)

The Labour left wants to reverse the tide while the Tories are hell-bent on leaving the centralised apparatus of repression alone while dismantling as far as possible centralised economic control. But both parties are in their differing ways for a centralised State as is their 'new' offspring the Social Democrat/Liberal alliance. The Labour left intends to nationalise (i.e. centralise) all leading industries and banks while devolving as much as possible the task of political legitimisation which includes the issue of community policing.

At the moment, the Tories are wilfully ignoring these indispensable safeguards. If property handled they might save Britain from social revolution. By pigheadedly trampling them underfoot the Tories are reaping a whirlwind.

The Labour Lefts are out to undermine the power of the regional Chief Constable and the Police Commissioner in London, seeking to veto the ultimate accountability to the Home Secretary which reduce the locally elected police committees to an empty charade. Wow! Heaven must be within our grasp to dare such things.

Just after Brixton, Ted Knight, the 'notorious' leader of London's Lambeth Council in April '81 said that he wanted to see the entire Metropolitan force disbanded and 'replaced with an organisation answerable to the working people'. Sounds radical, don't it just!

Labour politicians in the UK have a history of revolutionary statements made on great proletarian occasions. Ramsey McDonald called for the setting up of Soldiers and Workers Councils in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Red Ted's statement is of the same order. It is a tongue-in-cheek response to a popular mood. If Red Ted was at all logical he should also call for the 'disbanding' of the local State. As the highly placed boss of Lambeth Council, he is unlikely to do this. In fact he, alongside all other Labour Councillors is struggling to extend the local State against the unprecedented onslaught of centralised government.

His comments on the police must be judged in this light. What he wants to see is the restoration of 'civil' hegemony in policing matters exercised through a liquorice allsorts of various committees. As he has his own 'leftwing' axe to grind these must include shop stewards committees, local union branches, works councils etc. - in short, workerist bodies which get in the way of the proletariat abolishing itself as a class.

Shifty characters like Ted Knight won't flinch from using rioters as cannon fodder to achieve their ends. Lady Smiley did just that in Liverpool on the day before the detestable Royal Wedding.

This life peer with the unfortunate title of Lady Simey of Toxteth seemed about to gamble her job as Chair of the Merseyside Police Committee on a fire risk. People in Toxteth she said, 'ought to riot' and sure enough, police sources reported a 'large-scale disturbance' within hours of her statement.

It was the desperate act of a bourgeois democrat, not a specimen sample of an eminent Lady about to chuck it all in. She made plain in an interview that she was 'worried about policing methods but I can't take the matter up with our Chief Constable. This is the flaw in our society' (our italics).

Much has happened since Lady Slimey made this statement. The Scarman report came and went but his recommendations did have some effect. Statutory control by police committees has been thrown out but increased consultation and a variant of community policing is now the name of the game. Shortly after Xmas '81, foot patrols were back on the beat in Toxteth and the first to enter the district since the summer of 1981.

So Lady Simey has after all got something of what she wanted. But her gain has been, in the eyes of the people of Toxteth especially, loss of notoriety for her, because it is an open secret she has fought a behind-the-scenes campaign to protect Chief Cop, Ken Oxford. As a member of the police authority said, 'She could have had his head on a platter. She has actually tried to keep him on. She didn't want the mob to think they could get a reward like that for rioting.'

Disband the Special Patrol Group? There has been no end of demands for just that, especially since 'Operation Swamp' in April '81 has been much publicised as the final straw that lit the camel in Brixton. But what's to stop these elite police thug brigades from merely pretending to shut up shop? A lot of police work is after all cloaked in impenetrable secrecy. Moreover if the Labour Party once in power cannot check the rioting it's unlikely Police Chiefs will consult the brothers and sisters before going in for the kill and 'please, comrade chairperson, may we be allowed to gas them'.

This type of aforementioned rhetoric is a preparatory noise. The louder the noise the more any incoming Labour Government (if there's ever to be another) will feel it incumbent to alter the Police Act of 1964 creating (who knows?) in its stead a more overtly party political police.

Sketches as to what form this could take have been drawn up by the fledgling GLC Police Committee chaired (typically) by Paul Boeteng, a middle-class, black barrister. Boeteng, in addition to monitoring police behaviour, has other empty- headed political ambitions. Like his arch rival and comrade in arms Rudi Narayan (who, attempting to parachute in over the heads of the Brixton rioters, got a fully deserved mauling) he thirsts to be a black Labour MP.

As against the near fascistic proposals of Manchester's Chief Cop, Anderton, these bureaucrats look more towards the liberal, sociologically loved example of John Alderson, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall. Alderson is retiring to take up a Cambridge fellowship but that may only be temporary. His ideas have received enormous publicity and Alderson and Scarman regularly pat each other on the back. Cornwall's top copper is firm-set on conjuring from the upturned policeman's helmet an illusion of poetically liberal bucolic gentility which appears to carry such authoritative weight in Britain. When he got protestors to peacefully quit the proposed site of a nuclear power station in his constituency he did so with all the charm of a country gentleman dressed in checks and tweed shooting hat, a model of propriety and politeness. At the same time Alderson lets it be known that he was brought up amongst Yorkshire miners and fancying himself (!) much influenced by their egalitarianism. If this 'revolt' emphasising locality against the growing centralisation of the police force (reduced in geographic area from 117 to 43 between 1969-74) is even temporarily to succeed it will need to muster more than a tradition bound deference, even in policing matters, to a small is beautiful village bobby ideology.

As for the TUC they are pressing for more coloured coppers. Significantly at the same time, they are also demanding more coloured teachers for inner city areas.

The greatest challenge for the philosophers of community policing (the Devon and Cornwall constabulary actually does employ philosophers) is stemming the drift into random law enforcement which rapidly escalates into widespread uncooperative hostility to the police. By putting coppers back on the beat intent on getting to know 'their' manor, they help roll back a process which changes a mugger into an unapologetic social being. Community Police, by being selective in their approach isolate the mugger or burglar lessening in this way the chances of a generalised explosion brought on by indiscriminate policing. With the escape route to transcendence cut off more effectively either a mugger (say) reforms or stays a mugger caught up in an escalating spiral of crime and violence in between lengthening spells in the nick.

The fate of revolutionaries vis a vis community policing is pertinent to the above scenario. The support community policing receives from social workers, community workers, radical lawyers and guardians of civil liberties etc, also isolates genuinely revolutionary critiques against which they then pit the combined strength of their dislike.

This is not as far fetched as it sounds. The headlining John Alderson to loud acclaim has made a show of weeding out Special Branch files in his constituency. Files on anti-blood sports campaigns, anti-apartheid activists and political undesirables who were seen having ajar with Benn have been thrown into the dustbin. An intelligent move because what's left behind is a hardcore of files certain to include the names of more consistent enemies of the State and capitalism. Not only is the State educated as to who its real enemies are but veering off to take down the names and details of anyone caught raising a finger is stopped.

On present form the Special Branch is trawling its nets so wide and deep that only a few sprats are lucky enough to escape. But screening the population like this also tends to be much more trouble than it's worth, devaluing its importance as a policing technique and creating amongst the people at large a healthy antipathy to the police.

One further point. The subliminal effect of community policing is to internalise the violence engendered by capitalist social relations. Allowing little scope for real expression violence turns psychotic. In sum community policing makes social despair more unpalatable by allowing flowers to adorn intolerable prisons. Do your nice local copper a favour please. BEAT YOURSELF UP.


Handsworth, Birmingham, with a large black and Asian population is the one spot where community policing has so far made the most strides. During the early '70s the cop shop regularly came under siege and if it hadn't been for the pioneering hip pacification treatment the explosion would have equalled Liverpool. Chief Cop David Webb, like Alderson, is now quitting the force in utter disillusionment with its cod-eyed outlook, to become hopefully the local MP (most likely Liberal/SDP). On the day Toxteth erupted a festival was held in Handsworth attended by 8,000 people. According to The Times reporter (July 1st '81): 'The spirit was as amiable and peaceful as a village fete'. It was jointly sponsored by police and community groups and the chairman was none other than the superintendent of the local nick. Programmed 'roots' festivals are part of the conciliatory baggage inseparable from the soft cop approach and many locals and reggae musicians boycotted the Handsworth festival. Yet five days later, Handsworth blew and the police station came under siege. Though the kids yelled for the head of David Webb, the outbreak lacked the ferocity of either Toxteth or Moss Side.

Community policing is now the in thing to advocate. A glib panacea for all our troubles in all probability, it will only be a marginal addition to strong arm methods. Once rioting starts up community policing is of no avail. Six months after the first bout of rioting, European style riot squads, equipped with CS gas and plastic bullets and estimated at 11,000 strong evolved out of the police support units set up originally to deal with civil defence in time of war. No matter how much they might borrow from America's experience and Mitterand's reform in France, only when things have calmed down will the paraplegic Dixon of Dock Green scarecrow be wheeled out once more.

Torture and sand castles

Even a strained combination of the two is possible if the appointment of Sir Kenneth Newman to the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan police in London is anything to go by. This difficult to swallow cocktail was first mixed in Northern Ireland when Newman as Head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary from 1976 to 1980 reorganised the force into the best equipped, most sophisticated police force in Britain. During this time he presided over the notorious Castlereagh interrogation center where terrorist suspects were tortured. For light relief in between these scenes of medieval barbarity, 'Blue Lamp'(!) discos were also organised attended by tens of thousands of Catholic and Protestant kids, and hand-picked coppers especially trained in social work took slum children away on outings to the seaside…

It is finally being rammed home the extent to which N. Ireland has been a training ground. Newman admitted as much when he first took over the job as head of the RUC: 'I did have it very much in mind that British police forces might well be faced with similar problems in the years ahead.' Newman has conveniently reduced the problem to one of policing minorities and he has obviously not got the size of the class question in Britain. He was appalled that the RUC could do nothing to police the Ulster Workers strike of 1974 and the lessons he learnt in N. Ireland may turn out to be damn all use. Still tactics developed in Northern Ireland were deployed in the first major incident of 1982 in Notting Hill Gate London. It looked for a brief ten minutes as if the police had withdrawn killing the momentary rush of blood with boredom. Then in they came - the heavy mob - the first real engagement of the 'immediate response units' modelled on similar units in N. Ireland. Within minutes it was all over bar the cleaning up.

However, the authorities weren't suddenly in the summer of 1981 prepared to throw away the last remaining distinctly British approaches to policing. Assistant Commissioner, Pat Kavanagh (New Standard, July 20, '81) said: 'It is the public and the press who have been ahead of us in demanding things like water cannon and better shields' and McNee, the then London Police Commissioner declared he was opposed to a French-style riot police. It was left, perhaps inevitably to Jim Jardine, chairman of the Police Federation (the coppers' union) to get really heavy, sinking £30,000 in an advertising campaign calling for the restoration of capital punishment. However with the exception of the police murder of David Mower in Liverpool, run over repeatedly by a land rover both sides tacitly drew the line at killing. It was fit and right to bash each other's skulls in and set coppers alight. But when it came to actually killing each other, a deep-rooted 'civic' respect for human life was intangibly present in the fiery street air.

Laughing Policemen?

During riot week the police force was stretched to breaking point. On the first night of rioting in Moss Side, Manchester's Chief Cop didn't favour, as he claimed, the cool approach. He literally didn't have enough police to deal with the rioters because many had been called away to the battle for Liverpool. Sir Robert Mark had to admit, 'in all but the biggest forces some hours will inevitably elapse before a reserve force can be concentrated to deal with an unforeseen emergency' (The Observer July 12th,'81).

Although the riot movement spent itself within ten days, at the end of that time the police were knackered. Constantly on duty or on immediate recall, many collapsed in tears with the strain, some even falling asleep on their riot shields. As a factor contributing to yet further demoralisation this will in future have to be born in mind. It is for instance already claimed that police turnover in the UK on account of crack up is higher than in any other profession. Why? Surely it's because they're constantly deployed against demonstrations, mass pickets and flying pickets and this deeply troubles those cops who still have some shreds of humanity left. In fact during the riots, strains within the force were beginning to show. On the one hand carpet slippered Inspectors and Chief Constables safely tucked away in their plush bunkers, on the other, the ordinary copper dead on his feet, the target of endless flack.

To keep up their spirits, the cops in Liverpool joked about this. One cop had finally snapped and taking to his heels had collapsed in a doorway. 'On your feet lad' he heard a voice saying. 'Sorry Sarge' he replied, 'I just couldn't take it any more.' 'You mean Inspector' came the reply. The huddled figure looked up. 'Blimey', he said, 'I didn't know I'd run this far back.'

That beery, red-faced old time British institution the laughing policeman never had to joke like this before.

  • 1Since this was written a modified Riot Act of sorts has been proposed by the Law Commission. The three new statutory offences of riot, affray and unlawful association can be bent for as much as it takes to get a conviction. For example if three people should heartily agree on the need for determined resistance to some injustice and attempt to convince others they could wind up doing five years. These proposals are not as arbitrary as the original Riot Act but they're getting warmer.