“Lord have mercy, it’s the cops!” – Van Morrison
ACAB was once so popular there were fellows had it tattooed on their knuckles.
But the PR is now so pervasive, and nervousness presses in so closely, that you could find yourself in bother just for spelling it out – All Coppers Are Bastards.
This is not to suggest that anyone should rush out and pick a fight with the police. But the old slogan could soon enough become relevant again, when they pick a fight with us.
In news stories in Britain, the police are now casually included as “essential,” alongside health workers, refuse collectors, supermarket assistants etc. – implicitly depicted as among the caring professions.
But this is far from the fundamental role played by the police in Britain or in any class-divided society. And, notwithstanding the mantra of “all in this together,” society remains as class-riven as ever.
This is the context in which to examine recent instances of dodgy police behaviour – turning back people going for a walk in the park; using drones to track dog-walkers, then publishing the footage to discredit them; summonsing people from the same house for walking outside together; taking a 13-year-old into custody for refusing to say why he wasn’t at home – a child detained by the law for being cheeky.
None of these amounts to a major incident. But they shouldn’t be ignored, either. They are indicative. In each case, the police didn’t have a right to do what they did, even under the new rules supposedly designed to fight the pandemic.
Some police forces have admitted that officers were “over-zealous”. Invariably, they go on to remind us that the police only want to protect us.
In the future, in different perspective, we might look back and conclude that what they are doing was taking advantage, testing the limits, trying it on.
It is a sign of changed times that one of few voices expressing alarm at the direction of events has come from a retired Supreme Court Judge.
Justice Jonathan Sumption suggested in a Radio Four interview on March 30th that Britain was experiencing “collective hysteria.” He went on: “When human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away (but) because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. The threat is usually a real threat – but usually exaggerated…This is how societies become despotisms…
“This is what a police state is like – a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”
Not long ago, this statement would have dominated every front page. But in current circumstances, scarcely a word. The uneasiness perhaps contains an element of embarrassment. Sumption was doing what opposition politicians and media commentators have a duty to do but have not been doing – holding authority to account.
This isn’t a British phenomenon. Everywhere, the pandemic is being used to stifle complaint against authority.
Twelve people have been shot dead in Kenya for breaking curfew. Police in Peru have used tasers and teargas to repel families fleeing Lima out of fear of the virus enveloping the city. In the Philippines, dictator Rodrigo Duarte has publicly called on police to “shoot dead” anyone defying his new edicts. Etc.
Civil rights are being shredded in the name of fighting the virus.
There’s no guarantee that rights taken away now will be restored later. There are few things more permanent in public life than a temporary law enacted at time of emergency.
Laws against sabotage imposed in Britain in the first week of World War One were used against leaders of the 1926 General Strike. On our own island, the 1922 Special Powers Act, enacted to sustain the Northern State through the tumult of its inception, helped provoke the Troubles half a century later. Dublin’s Offences Against the State Act was invoked in May 1972 to counter a perceived threat to the Republic from the Provisional IRA. The Provos offer no threat to the State now. But no-jury courts continue to sit.
The significance of all this will emerge more clearly when the lockdown is eventually lifted.
The communal sense of solidarity which has marked public response to the crisis suggests that, post-pandemic, the world might be remade as a gentler, kinder, more cooperative place. But there are other possibilities.
It’s not just Covid-19 that humanity now has to deal with, but a convergence of crises.
We face a climate emergency of existential import – fire, flood, extinction of species. The places where the poor live will be hardest hit. The tide of refugees will swell. Competition for scarce resources will intensify. Those who care least about democracy will put themselves forward as leaders of their tribe, and demand obedience. “Unity” they will call it, in face of enemies, real or summoned from a fevered imagination. It’s always the way.
The global economy is in a state of collapse. Unemployment will stabilise, if it does, at sky-high levels. Businesses big and small will contend with one another in an ever more desperate scramble for survival.
Rivalry between States will erupt into war.
Ruling classes everywhere will arm themselves with legal weaponry to bear down on whatever resistance the people can muster.
If obedience isn’t forthcoming, they will use whatever means they think necessary. The police they rely on won’t manifest themselves as bobbies on the beat.
If we fail to prepare for such possibility, the Scottish singer-songwriter Alistair Hulett may come to be seen as a socialist prophet.
It’s not post-modernist
It’s not post-structuralist
It’s not the end of history like they promised.
It’s not post-feminist
It’s the new age of the fist,
Brecht asked: “On whom does the outcome depend?”
And answered: “It depends on us.”