No MP. This is a rambling collection of my angry thoughts, so if I've said something offensive, appropriated the recent awfulness in Ferguson or come across as "it happens to white people too!" please let me know and I will edit myself right away.
As most of you know, I live in the UK and I am very privileged. I am white, grew up in a nice rural area, nuclear family, all that jazz. The same is not the case for my father, who had a troubled upbringing and, though technically middle class, is in a blue-collar career. This is not a discussion of American policing or race, though race does come into it. The situation of institutional violence and power in the UK involves a different historical and cultural context, but I think certain elements speak to a near-universal pattern of systematic abuse of minorities and the disenfranchised.
I have never had much contact with the police. My biggest moment with them was coming home from work in my dad's van. He's a fishmonger and he had a big white van. In the UK, the vision of the "white van man" as criminal, aggressive, impoverished, sexually deviant and dirty encapsulates all the stereotypes of the "chav", or the working white class, usually male. Particularly in recent years where a campaign of welfare cuts and a crackdown on crime has led to the demonization of the working class (and, of course, of immigrants), signs of supposed "poverty" like this are not only embarrassing, but an active barrier to success for many people. We were driving home at night from a long and difficult day at the shop, stinking of fish and looking extremely scruffy; I was asleep against the window, when I was jolted awake by sirens, blue light and my dad slowing down an pulling over.
"What's going on?" I asked, expecting to look out the window and see an accident.
My dad looked angry, and after a few mumbly swear words he said, "They've been following us for half an hour waiting for me to make a mistake."
"Have you made a mistake?"
"No. But I know what they're going to say."
The police officer knocked on the window, and visibly recoiled as my dad wound it down, letting her smell the delights of our profession. She didn't wait for my dad to say anything. "A vehicle matching this description was involved in some robberies in this area earlier this evening," she said sternly.
"Funny," my dad replied. "That's the same thing your colleague said to me last week."
She ignored him. "I'm going to look in the back of your van, Sir."
Of course, all she found was a few empty poly boxes that had held our restaurant deliveries, a fishing net, and just general gross water with lots of scales. She looked like she was going to vomit, and often threw looks of disgust at us. "Do you like working in this filth?" she asked me aggressively. I nodded. I wanted to be more defiant, but honestly I was tired and pissed because we were only ten minutes from our house and what kind of burglar drives around the scene of his crime several hours later? After not finding stolen goods, she kicked all our tires to check they were inflated, and checked our lights and tax disc while her (male) co-worker ran the registration through the system to check it wasn't a stolen van we were using to ferry fish around rural England. Finally, after finding no evidence of criminal activity, they apologized and left.
I told my dad that I thought it was weird, and he launched into a huge rant, saying that the only thing that was weird about it was that it was a weekend so I was there - during the week at nights he gets pulled over twice a week and always with the same bullshit excuse of looking suspicious. "Usually it's when I'm closer to [dodgy city]," he said defeatedly. "It's a shame they won't leave me alone even in the arse end of nowhere now."
"At least you're not black on top of it," I said dully. (Quick note: This is not a story to talk about how lucky I am that I'm white. Please bear with me.)
"Yeah, well..." my dad looked uneasy, and he lit up a cigarette. "Back when I was young and stupid, I got caught for speeding. For the third time. I mean, this was back when I was working in finance, so I really was just trying to show off in my fancy new car and shit, so I was doing 80 in a 60 zone, I think. I had to go to court and when I was in the waiting area I was chatting to this black guy who was also getting done for speeding, but it was his first offence and he'd been riving for about ten years. I can't remember what he'd been doing, but it was less than me by a lot. Anyway, I got a right ticking off in court and a hefty fine and I was feeling very hard done by, but me and this guy had agreed to go for drinks afterwards so I stayed in the public gallery to watch his trial and wait for him."
"What did he get?"
"A bigger fine, a suspended sentence, and a very vicious telling off from the judge. It was a complete eye opener for me. I already knew the police were shit - I'd seen them when I was young, coming up to me and my foster brother when we were trying to wait for a bus or something, getting right up close to my brother and demanding to know what he was doing, goading him into lashing out and then arresting him when he pushed them or tried to run away. But it was upsetting to see that same behaviours, which I'd always just pegged to a few power-hungry arseholes, going up all the way into the system. I'd say things have changed since then, but probably not."
"What happened to that man?"
"I dunno, to be honest, we moved out of London obviously and I lost contact with him. But it was completely unfair; what I'd done was much worse than him, and there he was apologizing in court and accepting his suspended sentence while I was grumbling about being told off."
We got home, and he remained in a bad mood all night. After that, I noticed these things more often - previously, oblivious to the idea that anyone would see my dad as anything but the big softy he is, I hadn't paid much attention to the police. But now, on the drives home after work, I would see them tail us, pull up alongside us to see if he was using his phone, glance at our tires and lights as we drove past.
It is not to say that our treatment was worse or even that similar to the way ethnic minorities are treated by the police - my dad and his brothers were never, to my knowledge, brutalized or framed. But it highlighted to me the culture of power that the police naturally generates - at a theme park a year later, I stood behind a group of young police officers on their day off, comparing arrest rates in some sort of station competition they were having.
"I could still win!" one was saying. "If I arrest twenty next week-"
"You'd be dreaming," another interrupted, and they all laughed.
"You could just hand around [council estate]," said another. "They'll practically fall into your cuffs there, all the shit they get up to."
With recent cuts and constant criticism of police laziness, particularly in the wake of the London riots, the pressure on the police to see physical results, combined with the racist, classist and every other kind of -ist profiling of people they feel they could get an easy conviction out of, the resulting mix seems, to me, to have generated a systematic abuse of power which is particularly exploited with people that are regarded as nuisances - immigrants, white van men, environmentalists, students and ethnic minorities have all been in the UK press in recent years because of police brutality or harassment, with relatively little outcry, while the genuine and (from what I can see, good) investigations of more difficult crimes, such as the historic sex abuse cases involving various celebrities from the 70s and 80s has whipped up a media storm... not against police, but against the disenfranchised and persecuted groups which bring them to attention.
Very often, those going into the police are subject to the same media propaganda and general ignorance of the whole UK population. You do not need a degree to become a police officer, and from what I remember at school most of the students aiming to go into the police service were from the same groups that were likely to be harassed by the police - quite simply, I believe that it was a mixture of people who wanted power back, and people that were generally attracted to power. Those that got into trouble knew they would be excused if they made a song and dance about their career aspirations - I recently heard about a boy I used to babysit for, now in his late teens, who got high at a party, threatened people with a knife, and punched his (female) friend in the face when she tried to take the knife off him. The police talked to the parents of the girl, and everyone has decided not to press charges because it would be the end of his dream to be a police officer.
We have evidence from history and psychological studies like the Stanford prison experiment that ordinary people can do very awful things when given institutional power over vulnerable people. I honestly believe that many police officers are not ordinary people, but people that from the start are attracted to the idea of power, the idea of cleansing society from annoyances such as black people, white working class males and sex workers. People that love the idea of the uniform and the action and the car chases and seeing gruesome scenes. The very people that should never be given handcuffs and batons and the ability to harass people are the very ones that wish to be police officers - don't give me any of this "giving back to the community" bullshit. Of course there are good cops, but I think even they get corrupted by the institutional abuse of power. This will always happen. Always. And in America guns and military weapons are thrown into the mix. Give me strength.
I don't know what the solution is. More accountability, a greater emphasis on preventing crime rather than punishing criminals, more transparency in investigations and disciplinary hearings - all this sounds obvious but requires a massive societal shift. My dad has random drivers swear at him as he drives, people scowling at him as he gets out of his van and sneering looks from the beer gardens of the pubs that he supplies. If he told them about being pulled over they'd shrug and say "well, they have to check all vehicles matching that description," completely ignoring the fact that it's likely bullshit. Empowerment and respect for entire groups and communities of people is the only way to solve these problems, and is a pretty big fucking thing to do. That's why I've been so delighted, when I've seen pictures from Ferguson, to see white people in the crowds, to see organized movements and symbolic gestures - something our London riots never really managed to do. Only when society as a whole, rather than just the persecuted, speaks out against the power-hungry culture of police forces around the world will there be any change to the corruption and institutional racism. For you GTers out there marching, I applaud you, and wish I could join or support you in any useful way. It feels like you're battling against human nature sometimes, but I beg you to keep going, in the hope that one day the way nations police their state will be completely different to the shit-show it is today.