The rise of militarised policing

Kevin Blowe from the Network for Police Monitoring says the police are acting more like an army of occupation

January 20, 2016
6 min read


Kevin BloweKevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.

policePolice chiefs are fond of talking about the way UK law enforcement is guided by a bedrock principle of “policing by consent”: the idea that police officers are legitimised by a consensus of support in the communities where they exercise their powers.

Whether this has ever been true is another matter. Over the last four decades, there have been many in working class mining villages, in black and Asian communities, amongst numerous protest movements and in the north of Ireland who would profoundly disagree. Nevertheless, it is a comforting and prevailing fiction – even if it is hard to reconcile with the fact the police in this country are apparently in a permanent state of war.

These ‘wars’ on Britain’s streets include, unsurprisingly, the unending ‘war on terror’, but also a war on ‘gangs’, a war on ‘illegal immigration’, a war on ‘extremism’. Every battle requires an enemy and these wars are no exception, whether Muslim communities, or urban black youth, or political dissenters, or the ‘tidal wave of migrants’ the Daily Mail insists is the greatest threat to Europe since 1945.

The police leaders expected to prosecute these conflicts, like the generals of any army, are constantly insisting they need more comprehensive intelligence, improved weapons and logistics, more boots on the ground. Unsurprisingly, there is also a growing network of private sector companies, like their counterparts in the arms trade, whose profits are dependent on the continuance of irregular domestic war: on expanding the emerging policing and security market in Britain and exported it around the world.

The time has come for us to start joining the dots: between mass surveillance and data capture, the oppressive use of stop and search, the labelling of individuals as ‘domestic extremists’, the criminalisation of young black men and the racist targeting of migrants

In a 2012 speech after becoming Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe talked about ‘Total Policing’: “using all the powers we have, all the levers we can access, all the skills and capabilities of our people in a total war on crime.” He added:

“Our most important activity is often pre-emptive – targeting criminals before they strike – or preventative – trying to head off the risks… We will need to reorganise ourselves so that we can put more officers and staff into the teams who go into battle on our behalf”.

Placing everyday policing on a war footing enables senior officers to claim the need to respond to alleged ‘threats’ to social order using extraordinary means – in other words, to break the notional rules of ‘policing by consent’.

One result is a nominally unarmed British police who have shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes, Mark Duggan, Azelle Rodney, Anthony Grainger and Jermaine Baker, or who in 2014 alone threatened UK citizens with Tasers on over ten thousand occasions and fired on them over 1700 times.

Another consequence is a liberal society that is prepared to comprehensively spy on Muslim communities under the ‘Prevent’ ‘anti-radicalisation’ programme, increasingly extended to other so-called ‘domestic extremists’ involved in a wide range of activism from campaigners against fracking to bereaved families seeking justice following a death in custody.

So too is the changing approach to policing public order: more officers in riot gear, more mobile security barriers, the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to introduce water cannon to the UK mainland (defeated due to public pressure) . Another is the threat of eviction against families of alleged ‘gang’ members, a sinister form of guilt-by association familiar to occupied Palestinian communities; the fencing, barbed wire and scanning equipment at our borders; the systemic absorption of academia into developing greater police surveillance; or the operations conducted by police and immigration enforcement officers in search of ‘illegals’.

The desire for ever greater intelligence by police means mass surveillance of our social media, the routine filming of demonstrations, the harassment of protest organisers, a database of young people ‘at risk’ of becoming drawn into a gang. Currently, a public inquiry is examining the grotesque tactics that undercover officers have been prepared to use to undermine organised political dissent.

So much for consent: the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, we are expected to avoid questioning why the police are acting more and more like an army of occupation.

After all: don’t you know there is a war on?

The notion of police militarisation might sound like paranoia, but even the body representing rank-and-file officers has used it as a warning as austerity hits more ‘old-fashioned’ forms of policing. In part, this is because senior police chiefs know governments are always able to find money for responses to supposedly extraordinary threats: it’s the reason why the Metropolitan Police will recruit 600 extra armed officers in the aftermath of the Paris attacks last November.

In March this year, many of the companies that provide the technology and support for militarised policing – and that help fuel the demand for ever more repressive or intrusive methods of ‘Total Policing’ – are gathering behind closed doors for Security and Policing 2016, a sales exhibition in Farnborough.

The event, which is organised by the Home Office and the arms industry’s trade body (ADS), has been billed as enabling exhibitors “to display products which would be too sensitive to show in a more open environment”. Numerous national and international police forces, national crime units and military delegations will attend to network with delegates.

In response, a coalition of groups is arguing that the time has come for us to start joining the dots: between mass surveillance and data capture, the oppressive use of stop and search, the labelling of individuals as ‘domestic extremists’, the criminalisation of young black men and the racist targeting of migrants.

The militarisation of policing in Britain is already underway. If the police are using all the powers they have, all the levers they can access, all the skills and capabilities of their people to make it happen, then maybe we should consider the same approach to actively resisting it.

A public planning meeting takes place in London Thursday 21 January: Resisting police militarisation and state repression


Kevin BloweKevin Blowe is a community centre worker and activist in Newham, east London.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’


352