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Policing, Violence and State ‘Truths’

For us, the recent demonstrations in Bristol raise at least two important issues about violence and ‘safety’ in the UK as we write.

First, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill marks a further intensification and escalation in the state’s authoritarian, paramilitarised response to maintaining public order. This has been a constant focus of political and popular debate for decades, resulting in a layer of oppressive and restrictive legislation and the uncritical valorisation of the world of public order.

In contrast, the often-brutal maintenance of private order in the home through the fear and use of male violence still remains shrouded in political silence, and systemic indifference, despite the rhetoric of successive governments that the state is taking it seriously. The UK Femicide Survey, covering the years 2009-2018, paints a damning picture of the still-neglected violence happening daily in the world of the private which has not generated the same popular and political response:

By far the most common relationship consistently over the ten years between the perpetrator and the victim was that of current or ex-spouse or intimate partner being 888 of 1,425 cases (62%). The next most common relationship between victim and perpetrator was familial (10%) with 111 women being killed by their sons and a further 32 women killed by another male relative. Only 8% of cases involved total strangers.

It is also worth noting that the state’s concern with safety and order in the world of the public only extends so far. Safety can also be compromised by hate crimes, which, like violence in the world of the private, still receives scant political and popular attention. In 2019/20, there were 105,090 hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales excluding Greater Manchester. This represented an increase of eight per cent compared with the previous year. The majority of these crimes were ‘race hate crimes, accounting for around three-quarters of offences (72%; 76,070 offences).’

State ‘Truths’

The second issue raised by the state’s response to the demonstrations was the relentless and insidious attempt to construct a ‘truth’ about the nature and extent of the violence experienced by its agents, through a toxic combination of exaggerating and overdramatising the violence committed by the protestors and the seriousness of the injuries sustained by police on the ground. Exaggerating and over-dramatising injuries sustained by state agents has been central to the state’s ideological armoury for decades. The state’s mendacity around who is to blame for public disorder, based on the pejorative construction of ‘negative reputations’, and uncritically disseminated by the mass media, also has a long history as the reporting of the year-long miners strike in 1984/5, Stonehenge, Hillsborough and the death of Ian Tomlinson have demonstrated.

Both the major political parties in England and Wales have unequivocally supported this ‘truth’ about the dangers posed to its agents. And while the Bristol police had to retract their mendacious claim that a number of officers had been seriously injured during the protests, the ideological damage had been done.

Additionally, the violence committed by state agents is individualised. State violence is focussed on those agents who step outside the acceptable limits of state violence and coercion. This means that any critical consideration of the unfettered discretion, the authoritarian, occupational culture and the lack of democratic accountability that prevails within the police and prisons is effectively ignored in favour of a narrative based on a few ‘bad apples’ whose behaviour is dismissed as an aberration from an essentially benevolent state norm. This guarantees ongoing immunity and impunity for the broad mass of state agents in favour of the ‘deviant’, unacceptable individual.

Kingsnorth

One of the most outrageous examples of media manipulation occurred after demonstrations at Kingsnorth power station in 2008. As The Guardian revealed at the time, the police claimed that out of the 1500 officers policing the demonstration, 70 had been injured by demonstrators. In fact, there were 12 reportable injuries, only four of which were sustained through direct contact with protestors and they were at the lowest level of seriousness. Other injuries included ‘being “stung on finger by a possible wasp”, “officer injured sitting in car” and "officer succumbed to sun and heat"; one officer cut his arm on a fence when climbing over it, another cut his finger while mending a car, and one "used leg to open door and next day had pain in lower back". A separate breakdown of the 33 patients treated by the police tactical medicine unit showed that three officers had succumbed to heat exhaustion, three had toothache, six were bitten by insects, and others had diarrhoea, had cut their finger or had headaches’.

The claim that protestors come to demonstrations ‘tooled up’ with dangerous weapons – a familiar state and media stereotype – was also not in evidence at Kingsnorth. The ‘dangerous’ items confiscated from the protestors included: toilet rolls, board games, clown costumes, glue, marker pens, cushions, carpet, wood, paint, scissors and bicycle locks as well as ‘anything that could have been used to set up camp, including spades and duct tape, generators and hammers and nails’. This information was only revealed after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Christine Berry, who was involved in exposing the state’s mendacity, has pointed out that:

A strikingly similar playbook was used in Bristol last month, where police claimed to have suffered a punctured lung and broken bones. They later admitted these claims were baseless, but by then the damage was done: swathes of media reports had successfully implanted the idea that the protesters were violent, and anyone defending them was subjected to social media pile-ons. Finally, the hugely controversial report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, published on March 31 continued the state-defined trend. It contained data which reinforced the narrative about the dangers police officers faced. The chapter on Crime and Policing, which at over 60 pages was the longest in the report, compared with chapters on Education and Training (50 pages), Employment, Fairness at Work and Enterprise (30 pages) and Health (34 pages), finished with a section on ‘the risks of doing the job’. Not unsurprisingly, the Commission, citing data from the Police Federation, argued that, in 2017, a police officer ‘was assaulted every four minutes’. Five other sources, over and above the source from the Federation, were cited as evidence regarding the risks police officers faced: two from the Home Office, two from the Daily Telegraph and one from the BBC.

Conclusion

In 2005, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys pointed to the ‘unprecedented levels of secrecy, obfuscation, dissembling and outright lying that now characterize public life…a generalized pathology of chronic mendacity [which] seems to be a structural condition of global capitalism at the beginning of the 21st century…’.

Sixteen years on, the state’s elasticated relationship with the truth has arguably become even more problematic, a point poignantly and powerfully illustrated by the pandemic, particularly around the number of dead, and, crucially, how they died. For example, the government has consistently denied that there was rationing of intensive care for the elderly. And yet, there is evidence to suggest that rationing of life-saving care was ‘widespread’ in hospitals. Thus: just one in six Covid-19 patients who lost their lives in hospital during the first wave had been given intensive care treatment. This suggest that of the 47,000 people who died of the virus inside and outside of hospitals, an estimated 5000 - just one in nine - received the highest critical care, despite the government claiming that intensive care capacity was never breached. One doctor commented on how the government’s narrative was facilitated by daily press briefings where:

…you just couldn’t recognize anything that they were saying. It was so discordant with what we were seeing. They’d made it all up. It was completely bizarre – picking certain statistics to highlight how well they were doing versus other countries when actually, particularly in London, it was an absolute car crash (ibid, emphasis added). As we pointed out over a decade ago, claims about the on-the-job risks faced by police officers wholly obscure the fact that, compared to many occupations in the UK, the police experience remarkably low levels of occupational death and injury. In both absolute and relative terms, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and transportation are by far the most dangerous occupations for fatal and major injuries, whilst police barely figure in the 13,000 or so deaths from occupational exposures recorded every year by the Health and Safety Executive. Therefore, while it should be recognized that some police officers are injured, die and fall ill as a result of work, empirically, compared with the dangers faced by other workers, police work is at the safer end of the occupational spectrum. If their work is to be made safer, and their victimization is to be reduced, then the complexity of the dangers they, and other occupational groups face, needs to be considered as a whole.

The simplistic claim that the issues referred to here are all effects of a ‘post-truth’ society obscures the fact that the UK state has always bent the truth in order to achieve its ends. In 2021, what is important is that the technology currently at the state’s disposal, the decline in investigative journalism, despite some honourable exceptions, and an acquiescent, mainstream media, has facilitated the speed and spread of official discourse which makes it difficult, though not impossible, for counter narratives to emerge. At the same time, the state’s ‘truth’ in this and other areas has not achieved hegemony. Contradictions, contingencies and spaces of contestation, generated by grass roots organizations and community based media alternatives ensure that the state’s definition of reality has not prevailed, at least not yet.

This blog was also published by the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, see https://ccseljmu.wordpress.com/