The horrific story of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota has caught worldwide attention and sparked protests of Black people and their allies from here in the UK to Australia. It has shown once again, in all its technicolour, smartphone horror, that black lives seem to mean less in the so-called developed world than the lives of others. But why does this story resonate so much? The COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the world has been disproportionately deadly to black people in the developed world, and this has not, and could not, draw protests from all 50 states in the United States and countries around the globe. The issues of injustice and quality of life amongst black people in the developed world are so obvious as to warrant an eye roll when it comes up on the news. But the stories that stick in our minds, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, and Mark Duggan, all have one common denominator: The Police Force.
Maybe they stick in our minds because, for black people who have grown up in the West, smartphones have displayed a truth that traditional media channels obfuscate and for non-black people, the idea that the police are here to ‘Protect and Serve’ you falls flat in the face of footage of a man being choked to death for 8 minutes under the knee of an officer. It appears the world is waking up to the idea (thanks to the courageous undertakings by organisations such as Black Lives Matter) that the police have been abusing their power, and the price paid for such abuse has come at the cost of black bodies.
I would initially go on social media and type up a blistering tirade at how racist the world is or post something in solidarity for brothers and sisters slain at the hands of police, but this, to me, felt like a hollow, participatory caveat. Everyone who knows me knows I blabber on about racism all the time, and I’m sure they’d be tired of me howling to the moon on a topic that has come up repeatedly since the slaying of Michael Brown. I will not be writing about institutional racism, a subject that has and probably will circulate the internet ad infinitum over the next few days and weeks. I am writing about the other common denominator in this and many other abhorrent killings: the police. I’m doing this to work through my thoughts on the legitimacy of the police force and what other options there are in finding a balance between looking after our communities and an end to the slaying of black men, women and children.
I’d like to start by saying the Police force is a modern phenomenon. It is not as old as some other things we take for granted in society, like the tacit approval of ‘Law and Order’. No one wants to live in a place where you can get robbed, raped, murdered at the drop of a hat. In the United Kingdom, where I am writing from and where Mark Duggan was murdered, the germ that became modern policing started toward the end of the 18th Century with the Thames Police Force. That means London, for the first 1790 years of its existence, survived without a police officer in the modern sense. A national, centrally managed police force already existed in France under Louis XIV (more on him later.) The idea was initially unpopular with the powers that be in England, partly because of our famed xenophobia against the French and partly because that kind of power in the hands of a few people was not in keeping with English values. The man who formed the idea, Patrick Colquhoun, based it on economic values instead of political or ethical ones: Cargo was being stolen from the docks of the Thames, and in a country about to explode into the industrial revolution, finance came first. They branded the idea a success, in a manner we view ‘successes’ by police departments worldwide in the modern day, the amount of money (see: goods, drugs, guns) seized from criminals. Thirty years later, the State formed the Metropolitan Police Force (known as ‘bobbies’ because of the Home Office Minister who founded them, Robert Peel) and implemented the ‘French-style’ policing across London. As we did with our system of Government, we exported the policing system to the rest of the world.
The police force, as this immutable institution, is a fiction. It’s not even as old as the United States Constitution. It’s barely older than the modern game of football. It’s not even as old as some pubs in the city, yet protecting one’s property, livelihood, and life is as old as human civilisation itself. We have been looking after ourselves for a long time and will continue to look after ourselves and each other long into the future. Human beings, as social animals, have an innate desire to conform, and this desire has helped to enforce social mores. The Golden Rule has a whole 2000 years on the Thames Police Force.
So, we have done without police for millennia. So what? We’ve done without the internet for millennia. Are you telling me, author, that you’d like to return to a time when we had no internet? Of course not. But the internet is doing the job most people would assume it was there for democratising the flow of information. It is fairly evident that the modern police force is not doing the job most people assume it is here for (notice I say assume; we’ll return to this later.) The job that Colquhoun had created was for the prevention of crime and the institution of order. Let’s take the United States as an example. It has the largest Police Force by numbers in the Western World. If the police force were effective in doing the job that people assumed it was there for, we would see that it has the lowest crime rate of any country in the Western World. But a cursory glance at American media would inform even the most ardent Americophile that there is a severe problem with crime and the semblance of Law and Order is illusory. From the high crimes of the holders of office, like Michael Flynn, to the rampant financial crimes that preceded the 2008 global economic collapse, all the way to the school shootings that have scarred the public consciousness since the Columbine massacre. The next largest police force in the West is the Russian police force, which even the ardent Slavophile would agree is not a place well-known for preventing crime. The largest police forces in the world, the Chinese and the Indian, respectively, have done little to diminish crime in these countries, with Xi Jinping ascending to his ‘Premiership for life’ on a campaign to tackle corruption, something that you would have thought would be non-existent with over 1.6 million men and women working on it, and Narendra Modi presides over a country where minority and women’s rights and bodies are being trampled upon, despite over 1.2 million police officers.
The following six countries in the list with the largest police forces by person are not countries well known for their emphasis on crime prevention or law and order. Funnily enough, apart from Japan, the exception that proves the rule, none of the countries with the most considerable police force are in the top 20 countries with the lowest crime rate, according to the World Population Review. There is no correlation between the size and the organisation of the Police Force and crime prevention, with China and the United States having massive and very organised Police forces.
While it is fairly evident that the size and organisation of a centrally managed police force have no bearing on the level of crime, it is just as pertinent for me to discuss the police in the abstract. It is the monopoly of force in the hands of a limited few, controlled by an even smaller number. No one in the United Kingdom may own weapons without a license (and we limit even those) except the police. No one in any country I know of in the Western World can restrict your movements, search your property without your consent, or even take your life without fear of serious reprisal, except the police. The last power is especially blatant and egregious in the United States. From 2005 to 2011, there were only 30 arrests made with the charge of murder or manslaughter. According to Phillip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, they convicted less than half, and most officers left early on time served. This, despite the fact that, according to the FBI, there were more murders per year in that same period than there were days in the year. Even when smartphones catch them using disproportionate force, the numbers look no better.
The monopoly of force is not the only alarming power the police have. The power of their prestige that they are here to ‘Protect and Serve’ rarely gets questioned until recently by some sections of society. Television shows, often appendaged by some police ‘advisor’ fuels this perception as does newspaper articles and the general idea that the ‘other’ is a boogeyman and the only thing keeping us from diving into the jaws of unbridled violent anarchy is someone with a badge. This image leaks into us as unconscious biases against those who die. Have you ever heard someone say, ‘Well, they must be up to no good; why else would there be police involved?’ or even more sickening, the apologists that crop up on social media the moment any murder of a black person is in the public consciousness, ‘They shouldn’t have run’, ‘They should have run’, ‘They shouldn’t have reached for their wallet so fast’, ‘They didn’t reach for their ID fast enough’, ‘They shouldn’t have been disrespectful’, etc. We even teach our children that grovelling to police officers is in our best interest. Can you imagine that kind of servitude in the presence of another ‘public servant’?
The monopoly of force and the power of their prestige are twin weapons available to the police to dispense with as they see fit. Society teaches that we live in liberal states. I use the term ‘liberal’ in its classic sense, in which the mistrust of concentration of powers is a central feature. It is why there is a separate Judiciary, Legislative and Executive branch in most Western Democracies. No one today trusts that kind of power to just one group of people. Why, then, do we give the power over the seizure of property, detainment, the ability to dole out life and death and the image that they can do no wrong to one group? I’ll come back to Louis XIV, the progenitor of the modern police force. It makes perfect sense to see why he would have instituted such a force during his reign. He was (and remains) the model of an autocrat, obsessed with wrenching power from the aristocracy and leaving it only for himself. It’s obvious why an absolute despot would have created the model for the police force today. It is, as I like to call it, the “fist of the state”, and as Louis XIV was the State, it was his personal fist used to bludgeon any of the ‘disagreeables’ in Paris.
We have all heard the phrase ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, which is no different with the police force. We see how they wield their power on those with little recourse and give leeway to those with more power than themselves. There has been no established link between criminality and social or economic class, yet it is those at the bottom of the ladders that end up in police stations, jails and prisons disproportionately all over the world. That those who are more wealthy and those who were born into higher social standing than others are less likely to commit crime is ludicrous, but it plays out in courtrooms all over the West. We know that immigrant communities, the homeless, the Roma and other disenfranchised people are often the target of police activities, while a bank like HSBC can handle money by cartel leaders and terrorists without a single board member going to jail. That the police arrest political dissidents in the rest of the world is so well known it is a stereotype and gives more impetus to the idea that the power they wield will not provide any respite for those who would need it most, the disenfranchised in society. Do you remember where I wrote that most people assume that the role of the police is to prevent crime and uphold law and order? This is false. Its purpose, as I hope I have shown in the preceding paragraphs, is not to prevent crime. If it is, it’s doing an atrocious job. Its purpose is as a weapon, a fist against those who step out of the bounds of vested interests at the top of society. If that is what they call upholding ‘order’, then I do not want it done in my name, especially if black bodies are the collateral damage.
So what do we do? I am often the type to point out problems, but I also feel compelled to offer some solutions, paltry as they may be. The ideas are not original, nor are they remotely radical, but they are simple and effective methods that I feel would fit the mould better than the current systemic violence of the modern police force. The first idea? Autonomous policing. As I just mentioned, this idea is not at all original. The Black Panther Party had the idea as a cornerstone of their movement, along with the free breakfast program.
It seems like the ideal solution for policing a community is to police it ourselves. No one on a full-time wage, with the power mentioned in the previous paragraphs, will spare the victim the oppression they suffer at the hands of the police. It just won’t happen. They will do it because they can. There are well-meaning police officers, people who put their all into doing jobs they see as morally upstanding, but it is impossible to fully understand a community (knowledge being an indispensable tool in looking out for a community) without being a part of it first. Not only that, it is difficult to feel any empathy for a person you use that power against if they are strangers to you. You know Albert is selling cigarettes on the corner to pay for his schooling, so even if it’s illegal, you let it slide. You know that Brenda has a brother you went to school with or a sister you used to date, so you’re less likely to murder her at a traffic stop in his car. I’m sure there are many police officers who start out with good intentions, but without the connection with the community, without knowledge of the neighbourhood, borough or district you are policing, without a deep love of the people that live in it, not the abstract patriotic love for a country that feeds jingoists everywhere. It is impossible for a police officer, even if he is a so-called ‘good’ one, not to eventually succumb to the brutality inherent in its makeup. De-centralise the organisational system, have its commissioners directly accountable to the people who live in those communities, not to shadowy heads of power structures or an even more shadowy ‘system’ and recruit officers strictly from a pool of local residents, people who have earned trust and respect in that community. The additional tragedy of the murder of George Floyd is that he would have made a perfect candidate for the model of policing I have outlined. He worked as a mentor to young people in his community and did fantastic work to stem the flow of violence that he saw plaguing his neighbourhood. And they murdered him. The people who claimed to protect his neighbourhood.
The second idea? Build fairer societies. People succumb to crime for a myriad of reasons, but the most obvious and the most pernicious is the fact that they feel disenfranchised by their communities. If there is no recourse to living a fulfilling life where you can take care of yourself and your family while society floods you with immaterial rubbish, what else will you resort to in times of duress? Denmark, Iceland and Finland are all in the bottom 20 of crime indexes. We know that these Nordic countries have less social stratification than the countries mentioned earlier, coupled with a social safety net that gives dignity to the least well-off members of society. There are also some laws that are patently unjust. This is fixable if we give people direct access to the levers of power in their communities. Not just a vote every several years but a chance to see real actionable change where they live, a chance given only to those who currently use those levers. Switzerland, a country that has devolved power to individual cantons and provides referenda on most of the laws that affect daily life, has significantly lower crime numbers in several metrics than the United Kingdom and the United States. Gun control also works. It seems like if there are no guns (or if we properly train everyone in their use), there are fewer violent crimes that result in gun deaths. Who knew?
The death of George Floyd was not a tragedy. A hurricane is a tragedy. A coronavirus death is a tragedy. The death of George Floyd was a homicide—an assassination. If we do not take a serious look at the way we police in modern societies, I fear he will not be the last.
~ Daniel Adediran
This article first appeared in This Way Madness Lies.
Image: Guy Smallman