Making policing history: different ways of resisting

Date:

How have activists tried to put manners on the police? Which methods have worked? Which might be worth trying? This article is a brief overview of different ways of resisting political and social policing.

In general, it is very difficult to successfully demonstrate wrong-doing on the part even of individual police officers, let alone systematic misconduct – a rule which holds across countries and police/legal systems. Very few complaints brought by members of the public are upheld, while successful complaints seldom translate into any significant disciplinary action; and successful criminal prosecutions of police officers for acts of political or social repression are extremely rare.

At present, for example, the UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission has noted that despite 333 people dying in British police custody over the past 11 years no officer has ever been successfully prosecuted; a mere 13 officers were even prosecuted. Matters are no different in Ireland. There have been occasional successful prosecutions for corruption, making it clear that it is not so much that police are universally above the law as that particular kinds of crime (violence against the poor and political activists) are systematically tolerated by the courts, prosecution services and other police officers.

The main purpose of the strategies discussed here is not the wider one of creating a society in which this is no longer true - one which does not see the job of the police as defending the rich against the poor and the status quo against popular movements - but the more immediate one of creating a climate which "puts manners on the police", where either police commanders are reluctant to sanction previously-normal behaviour, or individual officers restrain themselves from such behaviour. It is important to realise that police commanders are vulnerable to media criticism, and to cases which create public embarrassment for their own bosses in government, while individual police officers are conscious of the possibility of what they typically see as unjustified persecution or scapegoating by management.

The strategies discussed below work both directly and indirectly. Directly, strategies such as the presence of legal observers, the stated concern of human rights groups, the presence of independent media or "copwatch" patrols all act to discourage police from behaving in ways which they may have to work hard to justify or which they fear may jeopardise their careers.
Indirectly, the publicising of cases of police abuse (even when they never reach the courts), the dissemination of "know your rights" information and so on, act to create a situation in which the public at large is less willing to grant the police carte blanche to behave as they like.

More generally, both strategies can contribute to crises of established policing models, such as that after Reclaim the Streets 2002 in Dublin (discussed elsewhere in this pamphlet) or that of Ian Tomlinson (who died following police assault at the London G20 in 2009), where media pressure leads to political, police-internal or legal inquiries into particular police approaches. Such inquiries rarely solve the problem, but they can set a different tone for what police commanders and individual officers feel they can get away with – or how they are expected to behave.

On rare occasions they can actually lead to institutional change (most notably, the disbanding of organisations with an institutional culture of violence, such as the Irish "Heavy Gang"). The experience cross-nationally of police-internal reform initiatives and oversight bodies has been relatively disappointing, but at times police reform has led to more effective "command and control" – meaning that police violence becomes less a matter of individual behaviour and more a matter of deliberate policy.

Thus policing campaigners have to be prepared for a relative lack of visible results in terms of convictions of violent officers etc., in return for invisible results – in terms of assaults and deaths not taking place, police restraint, a broader public "eye on the police" etc. Police violence and abuse of powers is extremely unlikely to cease within capitalism, but some limits can be placed on it in some circumstances.

Different strategies
Dissemination of information is the most widespread tactic used in response to both political and social policing. This involves making available basic information on your rights – for example, in relation to being stopped by the police, to answering questions, to being searched, to arrests etc. – in an easy-to-use form (associated with contact details for potential support, such as a legal hotline for a protest or a local community group). It can be effective in encouraging those targetted by the police to stand up for themselves.

Stewarding is a double-edged tactic; in Ireland the role of stewards is now mostly to make sure that protestors comply with prior agreements between organisers and police, but their origins lie rather in police attacks on protestors. The Irish Citizen Army, whose organisers included James Connolly, Sean O'Casey and Jack White, was formed after the deaths of two strikers and police assaults on working-class areas during the 1913 Lockout, initially to protect workers' demonstrations from the police. (Not much has changed in this respect: the police were acting on behalf of the owner of the Irish Independent among others, and were subsequently rewarded for their behaviour with free use of the trams which he also owned.) In 1968, stewarding groups in countries like Italy again became more like self-defence organisations in the face of police attacks. If democratically controlled stewarding can help protect protestors from police provocation and marches from being broken up, in practice Irish stewarding is typically about controlling demonstrators and does little to protect them.

Protest training for all participants often seems a more effective approach for contemporary protests. There is a wide variety of training available, including the use of affinity groups (small support groups who look out for each other on demos), de-arresting (what it sounds like), resisting "kettling" (police encirclement and extended open-air detention of protestors), spotting covert arrests, grounding techniques (a means of staying calm and resisting panic) and so on. Trauma support work (for those recovering from police attacks) has also come to be an important element, both in training and as protest support, given the ever-present possibility of police violence.

Legal observers are widely used at protests in many countries. The task of a legal observer in a potentially conflictual protest is to act as an independent witness, taking a record of incidents of police violence and other potentially unjustified actions to a standard suitable for courtroom use. Under the right circumstances, the presence of clearly identifiable legal observers can deter police brutality. It is also a role which can be offered to (for example) older, more established or mainstream allies, who are unlikely to be the targets of police violence themselves and who courts are more likely to see as reliable witnesses.

Legal follow-up work is resource-intensive and time-consuming, but sometimes has had remarkable results. A good example is the legal team which worked for the 9 years following the 2001 protests in Genoa. While the results for protestors facing charges were not good, the team's compilation of evidence was part of a process which saw a series of major trials in which members of the security forces were found guilty of serious offences in relation to the attacks on protestors at the Diaz school, the treatment of prisoners at the Bolzaneto barracks which was converted into a temporary detention camp, and so on. 44 people (including carabinieri, prison officers, soldiers, police officers and doctors) were found guilty in the Bolzaneto case alone; in relation to the Diaz case those found guilty included the Genoa chief of police, the heads of the Rome riot squad and the current chief of anti-terrorist activities. While the Berlusconi government did its best to rescue its closest allies, outcomes like this (which also threaten the pension rights etc. of senior police officers) are going to be noticed by those who may in the past have felt they had a free hand in attacking protestors. The Genoa legal team achieved this at a heavy cost - a constant process of fund-raising and touring to support the development of some very innovative work with video evidence in particular - but the example is worth bearing in mind. 

By contrast, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission has been a major disappointment (see the personal experience elsewhere in this pamphlet). The vast majority of complaints have no result. However, on occasion (as in Rossport) the Commission has recommended action (in this case reprimanding a senior Garda). Elsewhere - in the case of Garda attacks on students occupying the Department of Finance in 2010 - complaints to the Ombudsman formed the basis of a story which allowed RTÉ journalists to release footage of police violence which had previously been embargoed.
Human rights and civil liberties groups have a natural brief in promoting the respect of human rights and civil liberties by law enforcement, court, prison and military officers. Their effectiveness depends on their independence, their non-political status and (often) the legal expertise of their staff. Statewatch, organised at European level, has a particularly useful website for research purposes.

Independent media can play a comparable role; as with the filming of the "cop riot" at the May 2002 Reclaim the Streets party, high-quality video or still photography in particular can play a role in highlighting police abuses; under some circumstances, the visible presence of a technological record can put limits on police behaviour, but suitable arrangements need to be made to ensure the rapid handing-on of images to safe third parties (for example, using bike couriers or Internet cafes to upload data). Independent journalists can of course themselves become targets of police attacks.

One rapidly developing area is the use of online sites to record and publicise police violence in particular, and more generally to support demonstrators (eg calling for people to come and support protestors under police threat). This can range from twitter feeds covering police actions via live streaming of demonstrators’ experiences to direct broadcasting from protests.
Copwatch tactics are more associated with issues around “social policing”, for example harassment of young men in disadvantaged communities. Copwatch groups in the USA and Canada organise patrols monitoring police interactions with civilians. On occasion this has been successful in forcing inquiries into particular incidents.

In the context of political policing, the UK’s Fitwatch group has been particularly effective in turning surveillance back on the intrusive and aggressive “Forward Intelligence Teams”, publishing their names and photos in a “name and shame” process, deliberately blocking their attempts at surveillance, and publicising illegal police activity.

Community-based projects, such as the Newham Monitoring Project in London, can integrate casework with research and monitoring on police racism as well as campaigning on specific issues.

Protests directly targetting police behaviour can often be effective in various ways; in Dublin police have been withdrawn from the locations of the Terence Wheelock campaign marches, while in Italy there were more protestors at police violence after the 2001 Genoa protests (at which one protestor was shot and killed) than there had been at the protests themselves.
Self-defence and exclusion of police has been a response of some beleaguered communities, usually ethnic minorities.

Sometimes this has been in response to attacks by racist mobs (as in Notting Hill in 1958), at other times (as with various Native American protests) in response to police racism; Free Derry in 1969 started with assaults on the Bogside by the RUC and "Paisleyite" mobs. Such organisations have usually been targetted directly by police forces (most famously in the case of the Black Panthers, which were founded in opposition to police brutality in Oakland and which pioneered neighbourhood patrols.)

Critical police organisations and critical judicial bodies are relatively common in western Europe, such as the German Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft kritischer Polizistinnen und Polizisten (Federal Working Group of Critical Police Officers, 1987 - present), a body of current and past police officers who understand themselves as "citizens in uniform", the Republikanischer Anwältinnen- und Anwälteverin (Republican Lawyers, 1979 – present), which plays a similar role for German lawyers, the centre-left Magistratura democratica (Democratic Judiciary, 1964 – present) in Italy, Magistrats européens pour la démocratie et les libertés (European Judges for Democracy and Liberties, 1985 – present), representing trade unions and associations of judges from 11 different European countries committed to the defence of democracy and human rights, and so on
Within the Republic, the "barracks culture" of the gardaí means that individual whistle-blowers, let alone groups of critical police, are absent, and those who find themselves uncomfortable within the force tend to leave rather than try to change things. However, this need not be a permanent state of affairs. Within the US, the BadCops police oversight portal is oriented to "good cops, community leaders, victims and other concerned citizens".

Finally, if dissemination of information is where the work starts, victim support and solidarity comes at the end of the process. Public support of those who have been the victims of police violence is often effective, notably in court and prison processes which are geared to isolating victims and punishing them further. This can include everything from courtroom accompaniment and prison visits through the organisation of legal defence funds – or collections for medical fees – to awareness-raising meetings and the production of documentaries etc. One particular form of this is the Anarchist Black Cross organisation, which specialises in supporting anarchist prisoners (and more locally Maura Harrington).

Clearly there is no "one-size-fits-all" model of how police can be brought to respect basic human decency (let alone the letter of the law). Perhaps the most important outcome from the various experiences mentioned here, however, is that you can do something; the police are not all-powerful; not everyone accepts that they have a complete licence to do what they want; and it is possible to set some limits to their behaviour. 

What are the most useful tactics? Much depends on who you are - your ability to commit time and energy, take risks and engage with the unpleasantness and dirty tricks that can be expected from challenging the gardaí - and the kinds of actions you are comfortable with. What is clear is that even a small group of dedicated activists (as noted in this pamphlet’s article on the Prisoners’ Rights Organization) can have a real impact in specific areas.

As noted above, indirect effects are really important as direct success will probably be limited. Change within police forces (which does happen) depends on a huge range of other actors. Some of these are elites - modernising police managers, judges who are not willing to give the police a blank cheque, critical journalists, even occasional politicians. Others have more to do with communities resisting the police, a decreasing public willingness to accept police violence, even individual officers who become willing to risk their careers by acting as whistle-blowers.

Resisting policing is multi-dimensional, and perhaps the best advice is to pick one field of activity which can be sustained over time by a small number of people, and attempt to do that well - without losing sight of the bigger picture and links to others working on different parts of the jigsaw.


For ease of reading you can download a PDF of the entire text in A4 format or fold over A5 format.

Return to the index page of Make Policing History

Leave us a comment or share your experiences


Like what you're reading?
Find out when we publish more via the
WSM Facebook
& WSM Twitter