Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics

Silencing the Streets: From Covid Exceptions to Police Crackdowns

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, Deanna Dadusc, Raph Schlembach and Lambros Fatsis

As news of the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police Officer became a headline story, a vigil held in her memory was violently suppressed by the very same police force on Clapham Common in London. Both incidents should shock us, but they should occasion no surprise. The world may have suddenly woken up to the reality of violence against women — as it belatedly grappled with police racism after last summer’s #BLM protests — but institutionalised misogyny and police violence are nothing new.

Rather than representing an exception, these events confirmed once more that police violence is not the result of “bad apples” of “isolated accidents”. Migrant women, Black women, women of colour and those who are non-normatively gendered are subject to  racist policing and patriarchal violence every day. For decades, they have been saying that the police are not the answer to gendered and racist violence, but part of the problem. The strength of this political moment — however delayed — is that many (carceral) feminist groups who still addressed the police as a solution to gendered violence and who called for more security, more police and more prisons can now learn from the demands and struggles of social movements and community groups that call for the abolition of the police and the criminal legal system as a whole.

These new alliances, coalitions and the protests they inspire are powerful, but they are already targeted and pursued as “dangerous” and “threatening” by the state and its law enforcement institutions through the introduction of the UK government’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Rightly nicknamed the “crackdown bill” by those who oppose it, this 296-page document parades its anti-protest stance with pride — raising concerns over its illiberal, undemocratic and discriminatory nature from leading human rights organisations, charities, campaigners and more than 700 legal scholars who (rightly) fear that that aspects of the current emergency powers included in the Coronavirus Act are here to stay. Introduced as a piece of legislation that gives new protections and powers to the police, this new Bill allows senior police officers and the Home Secretary to restrict protest activity in unprecedented ways, while also criminalising the living circumstances of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

When Protesting Became a Crime

Under the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the police can now impose conditions on static assemblies, including timings and approved noise levels, even when the protest is held by just a single person. It will now become a crime to fail to follow police restrictions that protesters “ought” to have known and it will become an offence to intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance as part of a protest, however vague or ill-defined this phrase is. Such authoritarian crackdowns on the right to protest are hardly unexpected and entirely consistent with the government’s “law and order” agenda, whose enmity towards protest has been expressed in public statements that described the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter protests as ‘dreadful’ and labelled Extinction Rebellion activists as ‘criminals’ who ‘disrupt our free society’. Such inflammatory remarks could be ignored as mere reactionary ramblings, yet they threaten to become law. A recent HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report, which accompanies and complements the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, describes ‘activity that seeks to bring about political or social change but does so in a way that involves unlawful behaviour or criminality’ as ‘aggravated activism’. Adopting a Counter Terrorism Policing definition of activism as a form of domestic extremism, such language signals an era of renewed expansion of surveillance on political and social movements.

The criminalisation of dissent that such new legislation further enables is an assault on everyone’s protest rights. The violent suppression of last weekend’s vigils, however, reminds us that men and women are policed differently, as a national study on anti-fracking protests revealed. Scenes of police officers barging into a crowd of mourners, throwing women to the ground and making arrests — as eyewitnesses report — are of a piece with groping and the pulling of clothing to reveal women’s breasts by police officers. A public inquiry is currently investigating the extent to which secretive undercover policing units permitted police officers to deceive female activists into long-term, intimate relationships. Those women who have found that they had been targeted for such operations after their partners’ sudden departures from their lives have long accused the police of institutional sexism and are seeking redress. The practice of having sexual relationships with women in protest groups was apparently so common that some of the victims have spoken of officers conspiring to rape.

As a group of Criminologists at the University of Brighton, we are deeply concerned and angered by tactics used to clamp down on the women-led vigil in Victoria Gardens by the local police force. Neither the statement from Sussex Police, nor the silence from Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne fill us with confidence that lessons will be learned, or decision-makers will be held accountable. It comes as no surprise to us that further protests have been held outside Brighton police station. Many messages and notes left at the temporary memorial to Sarah Everard in Brighton reveal the deep-seated distrust of policing solutions to male violence. “Police don’t protect”, reads one. “You can’t trust the police anymore”, says another. And “more police powers is never the answer”. As many claimed: “We do not want your protection – just stop killing us”.

Policing Protests and the Politics of Disposability

Making sense of these events, urges us to set up before us a broader canvas for a better understanding of policing and violence against women than conventional portraits of the matter allow. It is worth remembering that the protest vigils were met with police violence because they were against police violence. Such attempts to control, limit, silence and dilute dissenting voices is part of a long process of serving, protecting, maintaining and enforcing an unequal social order that is marked by hierarchies of gender, class, sexuality and “race”. What the policing against last weekend’s vigil and the introduction of the crackdown Bill as an extension of police powers and emergency government reveal, is an attempt to dismantle political opposition and social movements. This political logic exposes the State’s hostile relationship to those who are racialised, gendered and classed as subordinate by ensuring that they feel the full force of the law. Such politics of disposability, or what Achille Mbembe calls ‘necropolitics’ encourage us to understand policing, state violence and gender-based violence as interrelated. Defining ‘who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’, as Mbembe notes, reminds us that the social order we are educated and socialised into is racial, as it is gendered and classed. To maintain such an order, an order maintenance institution is required, and the police are happy to oblige. This helps explain why those who are policed and treated with violence; physical, psychological or structural are Black people, those who are non-normatively gendered and those who are classed as a precarious and disposable workforce.

As we grapple with the implications of the current moment and the intersectional thinking that it requires of us, it is imperative to recognise, as the Combahee River Collective Statement compels us to do four decades after its publication, that ‘the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy’. Rethinking our current political moment, therefore, requires us to think about capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy as political economic and cultural systems of oppression that share a common language, ethic and purpose. The policing of protests against police violence therefore illustrates what policing is, what it does, who does it do it to, and who does it do it for; urging us to understand policing as an order maintenance institution that serves and protects a social order that is racialised as “white”, gendered as male or divided into heteronormative binaries and classed according to economic status. If we are to understand policing, we also ought to understand state violence. And to understand state violence, we need to understand that state formation itself is violent, depending as it does on an extractive and repressive logic that is imposed and therefore coercive by its very nature. And this extractive and repressive logic is disproportionately exercised on those who are racialised, gendered and classed as subordinate. As the State proceeds by arming itself with extra powers, empowering ourselves with the knowledge that “toxic masculinity kills” and that “police don’t keep us safe” is the first step towards making our demands heard and remaking the world we want to live in by mobilising our energies to create the conditions for the abolition of interlocking systems of oppression.

Ian Sinclair • March 19, 2021


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