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It’s time to abolish the UK’s police

OPINION: You can’t reform a system that’s doing exactly what it’s intended to do: protecting the elite’s capital

Melissa Céspedes del Sur
20 January 2023, 4.20pm

History makes clear that the police do not exist to protect any of us


Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

It feels like every day there is a new story about a British police officer enacting violence on someone. Most recently, the Metropolitan Police has come under fire for continuing to employ serial rapist David Carrick, who this week pleaded guilty to 49 charges of serious sexual violence committed over 20 years, despite receiving repeated warnings about his behaviour.

Carrick’s violence is not a one-off. Met Police bosses are currently reviewing more than 1,600 cases of alleged sexual and domestic abuse involving its staff, and yesterday openDemocracy revealed the force’s refusal to say how many officers in its Sexual Offences Unit have been accused of sex offences. This is not limited to the Met: 80% of UK officers who have been accused of domestic abuse have been allowed to keep their jobs.

It’s unsurprising then, that a growing number of people – myself included – are demanding the abolition of the police in the UK, and internationally. But to understand why, and what it might mean to live without officers, we must understand the true purpose of the police.

Established in 1829, London’s Metropolitan Police was the first organised police force in the world. Overseas, Britain was a colonial power making huge profits off of slavery, exploitation, and trade with other powers. At home, a newly established working class was moving into urban centres, having been forced out of the countryside by Enclosures Acts which privatised land and prevented people from living, farming and roaming freely.

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The working class lived in gruesome conditions, and the repeal of the 1824 Combinations Act allowed workers to collectively organise – and the ruling class needed a way, backed by the rule of law, to suppress and control them. The haphazard methods of the military or private security teams were failing, with the use of military force against the rebels of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre leading to more popular resistance and support.

And so, the Metropolitan Police was born. The British police have always described themselves as ‘policing by consent’ – an ideological tool developed by the elite, who knew that policing only by force was ineffective.

In the colonies, though, this was not the case. The abolition of slavery in 1833 meant Britain could no longer accumulate capital through the extraction of free slave labour. But much of the world was still under British rule, and police forces were established in the Caribbean to control recently emancipated slaves. Modelled after the Royal Irish Constabulary, which was organised on semi-military lines, police forces abroad had the explicit aim of crushing unrest and resistance to the British Empire. They did not police by consent, instead being heavily armed and utilising violence as their main tool of policing.

This difference in policing can still be seen at home today, with racialised communities bearing the brunt of police violence in the UK. Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts (with 71% of those searches leading to no further action), and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and prisons.

Change is coming

History makes clear that the police do not exist to protect any of us. They exist to have power over us, and like perpetrators, they will use that power indiscriminately to keep us in our place.

When we understand that the police’s purpose is to protect the ruling class and their accumulated capital and resources, the mechanisms of how forces actually work – and their incredibly poor results – start to make more sense.

The Met Police’s budget for 2021/22 was £3bn pounds. That’s £3bn to finance a prosecution rate of 5% for sexual and violent crimes. £3bn for more than 98% of reported rapes to go uncharged. £3bn to pay the salaries of the likes of David Carrick and Wayne Couzens, who raped and murdered Sarah Everard in 2021, and the murderers of Mark Duggan, Chris Kaba and Olaseni Lewis. £3bn for the perpetrators of what has been branded “state-sanctioned sexual assault” against Child Q. £3bn for the countless unnamed officers who terrorise our communities daily.

An alternative to policing would be to build infrastructure – meeting people’s material needs is the best way to reduce ‘crime’

It would be poetic justice if the first police force in the world was also the first to be abolished – but we must be careful in not allowing our demands for change to be utilised by the state to continue its monopoly on violence. What we ask for, and build, must take power and resources away from the police, and not fall into the trap of reform, the system’s inbuilt mechanism to keep itself relevant.

Over and over again, the state has co-opted anti-racist or otherwise abolitionist movements by commissioning reports, enacting equalities legislation, hiring and training more police officers. We have seen this done in response to the uprisings in Black communities in the 1980s, or more recently, as a response to the widespread criticism of the Met Police following Sarah Everard’s murder.

You cannot reform a system that is working exactly as it is intended to: in the interests of the capital of the ruling elite, at the cost of the rest of us. The system relies on crises such as these to prove itself and individualise issues – one could say it is always in a state of crisis, but how many crises will it take before we are finally done with it?

An alternative to policing would be to build infrastructure that helps communities to survive and thrive – meeting people’s material needs is the best way to reduce ‘crime’. The annual £3bn handed to the perpetrators in London’s biggest gang could be invested in housing, community centres, transformative justice programmes, education, healthcare, public transport, and Universal Basic Income, to name a few. But to do this reinvestment under capitalism would inevitably mean that the interests of capital would still come first. As Aviah Sarah Day and Shanice Octavia McBean write in ‘Abolition Revolution’, “Abolition demands we change not just ourselves but everything.”

But this change is already happening – every time someone intervenes in a police interaction, organises a strike, offers mutual aid, or resists an eviction or an immigration raid. We are changing the system when we talk to our neighbours instead of calling the police, or organise CopWatch meetings, or take to the streets to demand accountability for our murdered sisters and siblings.

We are shifting power away from capital and towards people. We are changing the conditions that allowed Carrick to get away with the atrocities he committed – and we are building a future in which we keep each other safe rather than hoping for an external power to come in and fix things.

Join (or start!) your local Copwatch. Join a union. Talk to your neighbours. Intervene. We protect us.

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