Demands to “defund the police” begin with grassroots organising, rather than thinking we have all the answers
Ever since the rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, it has been far from clear that the demand to “defund the police” will resonate in Britain as it has in the United States.
The debate here is in its infancy and while there have been some first steps to try and offer practical suggestions centred in the particular political context of policing in Britain (and a book, Abolishing the Police, due out in June), abolitionist ideas and discussions are still overwhelmingly coming one way from across the pond.
In an article for Novara Media in June 2020, Koshka Duff and Tom Kemp argued that it was “easy to point to differences between US and UK policing” but that it is “important to understand that the core function of the police is the same in both countries: to maintain a disciplinary, capitalist and racially stratified society.”
Leaving aside my frustration at leftists using the term “UK policing” — the policing of the north of Ireland has always been historically and politically separate from Wales, Scotland and England — this is an accurate description of the fundamental role of the police in society.
There are other more practical similarities. For example, one of the reasons why activists in the US have researched and documented police spending is because it vastly outpaces expenditure on social and community services. In Los Angeles, 25.7% of the city’s budget is spent on policing, rising to 38.6% in Chicago and a staggering 41.2% in Oakland. The £3.9bn revenue funding for Britain’s largest force in 2020/21 was 29% of the Greater London Authority’s total revenue spending.
Despite constant complaints about underfunding from the Police Federation, this has remained relatively stable for the last decade and rose significantly in 2019/20, whilst local council services in the capital have suffered severe cuts since 2010.
However, it is equally important that we do not ignore the real differences that exist between US and British policing. Across the Atlantic, America’s police departments are engaged in what amounts to a highly militarised open war with the nation’s black, minority and working-class communities.
According to Mapping Police Violence, the police in the United States killed 1,127 people in 2020. and black people accounted for 24% of those deaths, despite making up only about 13% of the population. In circumstances where policing represents an immediate, existential threat across the US, it is hardly surprising that the sheer number of killings has created movements and organisations demanding disinvestment from the police departments that are responsible.
Unquestionably, police violence continues to lead to deaths every year here in Britain too and, having campaigned in support of bereaved families for 25 years, I know every single one is devastating for the grieving relatives whose loved ones have died.
The latest figures for England and Wales for 2020 show three police fatal shootings and 17 deaths in or following police custody. The growing number of officers now carrying Taser electroshock weapons presents an alarming prospect that these numbers may grow. Nevertheless, violent deaths at the hands of the police do not happen every day and instead of mobilising movements of mass support, family justice campaigns have often complained that they feel isolated and ignored.
Grinding and relentless
Instead, what we experience here is perhaps best characterised as “low-intensity warfare”. Disproportionate use of police stop and search powers is the most common interaction with officers on the streets. This is the kind of policing that is grinding and relentless: the kind that means black people routinely face vehicle stops, are more likely to have force used against them by officers and that under the cover of the coronavirus lockdown last year subjected a quarter of all black 15- to 24-year-old Londoners to drugs-related searches.
It is also policing that is driven by intelligence gathering, that siphons young people onto a gangs database simply for who they are are friends with or related to and targets surveillance, though Prevent, on anyone who is politically active within Muslim communities. It is policing that every year, without fail, creates the latest familiar-sounding statistics showing members of black communities are vastly far more likely to face targeting by the police than their white counterparts. Yet in spite of liberal voices insisting that “something must be done”, nothing ever changes.
In fact, it’s worse than nothing: emboldened by the lack of consequences for racist policing, Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Sir Stephen House, recently defended racialised targeting of stop and search powers, saying he wants to “decriminalise the word disproportionate”.
This is the landscape we find ourselves in. We have the most right-wing government and in Priti Patel, the most illiberal Home Secretary in recent memory, whilst the Labour Party competes to offer more generous support for the police than its reactionary opponents.
Even under Jeremy Corbyn, its most left-wing Labour leader in a generation, the party went into the 2019 general election insisting that “proportionate stop-and-search based on intelligence is a needed tool of effective policing” and committing to support “a police force working within our communities, with the capacity to gather local intelligence… the first eyes and ears of effective counter-terrorism”.
Organising from the bottom up
Faced with the unrelenting harassment and petty indignities of everyday policing in many British towns and cities, what we don’t yet have, unlike the United States, is the network of grassroots organisations who are able to counter police propaganda with hard evidence, individual testimonies and stories and with local protests and community mobilisation.
While it is tempting to see the uprising in the US following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 as spontaneous, it has been the product of decades of black and working-class organising at a neighbourhood and city-level against the smoke and mirrors of police ‘reforms’ that have made no impact.
This is why, if asked where we choose to focus our energy in Britain, I will always argue that the hard graft of movement-building, of setting up local police monitoring groups, youth rights projects and ‘copwatch’ groups, is by far the most pressing priority.
That is where practical abolitionist ideas centred on the experiences of policing in Britain can ferment: from the bottom up.
In the absence of a movement that is chewing over, testing, rejecting and adapting these ideas, the alternative is a top-down academic debate about ‘defunding the police’ that struggles to answer entirely legitimate concerns about the unforeseen consequences of arguments that are can seem removed from practical realities on the ground.