Freedom News

On the periphery of police violence: dispatches from London, Athens & Mexico City

The first time I encountered violence outside of the family I was fifteen and there was a machete pointed at my throat. My boyfriend and I used to take a long walk to the only 24- hour off-license in several square miles when we were doing pills and ran out of cigarettes. We never prepared enough in advance because we knew we would need an excuse for the adventure. One night he peed in front of the wrong house and like a flash its enormous guardian had jumped out of a parked car and had us both at the end of this huge blade. My boyfriend talked us out of it and we left with a warning.

Next it was a young man with a switchblade. We had nothing for him to take from us and we convinced him that violence wasn’t a sufficient reward for its own sake. My boyfriend also referred to someone we knew, someone who could destroy him if he touched us. There were unwritten laws of society at night, down back alleys, the underside of London, and even at that age we had some understanding of them. We understood there to be an ever-present risk of violence, and deferring to the police was something we had already learned to consider out of the question. Whether this was because he and his brother were both petty drug dealers, or because calling the police could be considered treacherous, or because police were the people who protected affluent neighbourhoods and terrorised poor ones, I’m not sure.

There were stabbings so frequently at a bus station in our neighbourhood that the council’s solution was to have classical music playing from the loudspeakers throughout the night, as if the eruptions of class-based violence could be quelled by lulling the perpetrators as if they were caged animals. Wagner was a misstep; the tactic had no positive impact on the rates of violence.

Very rarely, though, was I more than a silent witness on the periphery of these frequent explosions. There was the time I was right behind a kid being dragged out of a bus window just smashed by someone he presumably knew, and the time I stood frozen as five men beat to a pulp a drunk who had accidentally stumbled into them. An image particularly burned to memory, because it’s one weighed with guilt, is a young man beaten on a curb in the city by men his own age, dressed just like him. We should have stopped, we should have done something, but it was 5am and we were all too high to know what to do, and definitely too high to be on the road. Someone in the car made some half-baked comment about the futility of young black men killing each other. I remember thinking we were the worse example of futility but I didn’t have the words.

Growing up I was made implicitly mistrustful of police. If we can speak of anything like working class interests, it was clear that they were of no concern to police. But moving through public space in the body I do, I never really feared them. As police go, the UK forces are relatively tame. This is not to undermine police brutality and corruption which does occur in the UK, but compared to countries worldwide, some reassurance is granted by the regulatory constraints in place, the need to maintain the notion of ‘policing by consent’ and the relative lack of firepower.

I learned to fear police in Greece. During 2020 the Greek government responded to the pandemic, in simple terms, by reducing public health funds and increasing policing. Greek police make British police look like children’s cartoon characters by comparison. They patrol the streets like swarms of beetles, armoured and always-armed. They look past you scanning the streets from behind visors and never say a word unless you’re in trouble, and even then, it’s often fists before mouths.

I spent the winter of 2020 in a very poor neighbourhood in Athens, with a high rate of ‘invisible’ migrants squatting every conceivable shelter, where people rooted through bins for food and for containers to recycle, where desperation was visible and vocal, and the only violence you feared was from the police.

During those months, Dimitris Koufodinas was close to death on hunger strike and there were large protests in response. There were also thousands of people marching against the deployment of militarized police onto university campuses, and labour unions were protesting for better wages and conditions. Nearing 17th November, the anniversary of the student uprising and overthrow of the fascist junta in 1973, the government requested permission from the European Parliament to temporarily suspend citizens’ right to assemble in public, citing public health concerns related to the pandemic. This was granted, and when people still turned out in large numbers with very serious existential concerns, reports of brutal policing spread.

The atmosphere in Athens was exacerbated when the government perpetually retracted and reintroduced convoluted Covid-19 regulations. Business relief was slashed, individual emergency welfare was made almost impossible to actually receive through complex bureaucracy, and the city passed from the supposed end of one lockdown right into another. Meanwhile, the prime minister was photographed hugging strangers out mountain-biking and enjoying a large terrace party with family and friends, and deployed armed police and helicopters to deal with citizens who turned out in outrage.

Large reinforced buses line the streets around Syntagma Square [the central square of Athens] all year round. Armed police stand stoic, waiting for the smashing of a Molotov, or chanting, or just for a gay couple to walk by. The buses are mobile prisons, a jarring protrusion against the marble facades preserved for thousands of years, the Acropolis in the distance, and the memory of multiple revolutions. I rarely saw police in my neighbourhood. They only turned up once when a nearby squat was on fire; I watched them say a word to the firefighters, do a brief sweep and leave. But throughout the city I passed them constantly.

Videos began to circulate of them assaulting young people sitting in the few green spaces left accessible, and the city began to swell with the anticipation of explosive violence. The person I was dating was terrified one day because she had been stopped while driving out of her neighbourhood for an errand and interrogated. She said she only avoided arrest by deferring to a family contact. Her mother was prevented from boarding the ferry home; when she showed the police her permit to work in the city and asked where she was supposed to spend the night, she was told that’s not their problem.

I grew angry and frustrated by a sense of impotence. Friends asked me to join protests and for the first time, I experienced the odd singularity of being a tourist amidst a political crisis: my British passport afforded me a certain kind of freedom and impermeability against the forms of police oppression I was witnessing, but joining the resistance could have easily led to my deportation and damaged my application for citizenship (even when you are fortunate enough to possess ‘birthright’ you have to pass tests of nationalism and Orthodoxy).

I received reports from yet another protest, which, after the criminalisation of public assembly, ended in unprovoked tear-gas, rubber bullets sprayed into crowds, and many young women subjected to violent and humiliating instances of sexual abuse by police officers.

A friend of mine was on the front line every night. I had coffee with them one afternoon and they told me they were caring for a friend who had been brutalised by police. I assumed they were referring to a clash with protesters, but their friend was not protesting; he was just walking in his own neighbourhood, carrying his ID and ‘legitimate reason for leaving your residence’ as per government recommendations, when he was stopped and interrogated by police. He provided his documents, but being black and read as queer, the police searched him anyway. They detained him after finding makeup in his bag, held him in a cell for as long as they were permitted, and submit him to violence and homophobic abuse for hours.

This is nothing new for Greece, whose culture of hyper-masculinity has survived the fall of the Golden Dawn only to be preserved by its central institutions. My heart broke. I asked my friend if the young man wanted to fight back. He was too exhausted, they told me; he just wanted to forget about it and heal.

The day I was packing my bags for Mexico, the neighbourhood I had called my temporary home shook with the force of fighter jets tearing through the sky. It was Independence Day and I didn’t pay much attention to the pageantry. I had grieved my father in those months and decided I would have to find another time to forge a less complex relationship with the fatherland.

I had seen a space being constructed in the city for world leaders to gather, and whilst normally there would have been a street parade, there seemed something so sad and stupid about people on their balconies craning their necks to catch glimpses of the planes through slits in the narrow urban sprawl of cramped apartments they were confined to. The previous nights there had been reports of police following people home from protests and unlawfully detaining them from their apartments, the only one of many shocking incidents which piqued international interest.

Mexico City is a huge, beautiful and complex place, one with looming Spanish architecture, smooth roads and upkeep of green spaces, where I have watched silhouetted couples dance on rooftops. It is the best and the worst of free-market capitalism: local markets, street vendors, anyone with a roll-out mat and something to sell unrestricted from doing so. Fronts of homes opened to the public far outnumber the chains of supermarkets and coffee shops, but all the poverty which explains its enterprise is there at its foundation. Much of Roma contains a revolutionary history in street names only, many of which are beautifully lit, tree-lined rows of South American, Japanese and vegan restaurants.

On one of these streets, I sat and watched at least six police patrol cars pass in just half an hour. Many of them have the faces of missing people taped to their windows, most of whom will never be found, some of whom are found eventually in mass graves and some whose heads end up rolling into night clubs. These are the horror stories repeated by Europeans whose only representation of the entire country is provided by Hollywood. These incidents are also true, but they do not contain the totality of this city. Mexico City is beautiful and monstrous; rich in many ways and poor; both as safe and banal as many cities, and also dangerous. These binary truths have made the question of relating to the police, both actual and symbolic, quite singular for me as a tourist.

When I told my friends in Europe that I would be in Mexico for the next few months, I received unanimous pleas to be careful. It’s not safe, they said, particularly for a lone woman. But I was leaving Europe while Greek women were sexually assaulted by police officers and a British woman had just allegedly been murdered by one. It didn’t seem like it was necessarily helpful to approach the entire country as inherently risking death.

My friend who would be hosting me in Mexico City prepared me over the phone. She gave me an extensive list of things she doesn’t do, which she might do in Europe, most of which amounts to diligence I would employ in any foreign city for the first time, a lot of which are things I wouldn’t do at home in London (don’t walk home alone late at night, be careful using cabs, don’t get too drunk alone in public). Despite all this, she said, she feels fairly safe here. But she’s an Italian woman, she emphasised, and like every city, there are layers of Mexico City rendering it real in different ways for different demographics.

On my first night alone I ended up in a beautiful, rough-around-the-edges little Oaxacan restaurant and had my first glimpse of television news. One narco killing, a woman jumping from the roof of a building, a family burnt alive in their car, a fugitive on the run, all before the regular briefing on Covid-19 cases. I digested the fact that the question of navigating risk is different here than what I was used to. When I went to leave the restaurant, the young waiter asked how I was getting home and insisted on having me wait inside until my taxi arrived.

These early impressions meant that when I first saw those police cars drive by in succession, my body responded in a way which was alien to me. For the first time in my life, the presence of police didn’t stand for an antagonist to my poor neighbourhood, or instigate mild panic; it became perverted into a signal for safety — what it purports to be but rarely is. In that moment in which I was a lone foreign woman in this place I was told to fear, the police became a vanguard between me and the unidentifiable, ever-present threat of unfathomable violence. My body was at odds with what I know. When it was over, I felt confused, and then I felt shame.

The kidnapping and murder of women in Mexico is a serious crisis. It is visible in the infrastructure. Trams and the metro have women-only carriages, and I arrived in the wake of feminist protests which have left the windows of government buildings smashed, statues stained with pink paint and graffiti all over the Centro Histórico. Much of the graffiti is unapologetically separatist. Many women in Mexico have adopted the mantle Radical Feminist with pride, I am informed by friends. Victims’ names are scrawled on walls and appear in vigils but there is little mention of perpetrators.

In my first week in the city, Victoria Salazar’s name was widely spoken: a migrant woman killed by police during her arrest in a way reminiscent of the killing of George Floyd. Subject to domestic violence and the cartels, whose concentrated presence in some regions determines perpetual existential anxiety (more so if you’re poor, more so if you’re indigenous), women in danger turn to the police, who then might kill you. I have little sympathy for the strain of feminism which explicitly stigmatises and excludes sex workers and transgender people, but given their conditions, I can understand why they have turned to this particular ideology. Their desperate response to what seems to be a hopeless situation is that the problem is something essential about men.

A similar fear operates when my body defers to the presence of police on the street to defend me against something I neither understand nor know to how I exist in relation. It is a primal strategy, and as such is forgivable. I sometimes wonder how things would look if there were sufficient social structures in place to make us feel safe in our cities. The discourse around police violence against women seems to be accelerating, and I am aware that the police forces in this country are deeply corrupt, and that my Mexican friends fear them. Despite this, I responded to the sight of them in this way, in absence of a society that centres gender equality, safety, compassion and public health. I say this for Mexico City as I say it for Athens and for London. Events of past months have been clear: nowhere is safe, and more policing is never a solution to violence.

I was alarmed by my internal conflict because it is precisely what I see mirrored in the kind of carceral policies advocated for by many feminists internationally, whether they are calling for more institutional policing or an abstract policing of gender expression. In some cases, carceral feminism is an aggressive othering, sometimes instigated by trauma, but which takes its pleasure in a misplaced sense of vengeance. In others, it is the primal cry for protection from what is already familiar, but in order to construct novel systems of equality and self-determination, we will have to explore unfamiliar terrain, because the old vanguards are not working. It is important to examine why institutions like the police, despite all the recent discourse, have been considered a necessary defence of public health and against societal violence for so long, only in doing so will we be able to do more than fantasise about organisational alternatives.

Freyja Howls

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Photo by Guy Smallman.

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