Beyond the law: Defend the Right to Protest and the Ferguson Solidarity Tour

by Matt Bolton

The recent Ferguson Solidarity Tour shows the solidarity that has been built in response to police violence, in which the process of exclusion is turned against itself and becomes the basis of a new collective political subject

First published: 12 February, 2015 | Category: Activism, Civil Liberties, Racism

Last December, hundreds of protestors brought the US #blacklivesmatter movement to London, staging a die-in at Shepherd's Bush Westfield shopping centre. The Metropolitan Police's reaction to the protest – which was supported by many staff and shoppers, who came out of the stores to raise both their hands and voices - was as depressingly predictable as the decision not to charge the officers responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Replicating the strategy from two anti-fascist protests in 2013, demonstrators were kettled, arrested en masse - 76 this time – and then marched onto the fleet of double decker buses which had been hired especially for the occasion.

The media response to the protest, organised by London Black Revolutionaries, was a little more unusual. For, along with the standard world-weary indignation at the very thought that anyone might endanger the glorious recovery of UK PLC by depriving people of the right to go shopping for an hour, there seemed to be genuine incomprehension at the protest. 'What's it got to do with Westfield?' asked the Daily Mail, baffled that 'Hundreds of protesters cause[d] chaos for Christmas shoppers at London mall 'die-in' over AMERICAN cop choke-hold death, thousands of miles away'.[1] The paper's confusion was echoed below the line, with 'Mac the Jock' from Manchester wondering 'What the hell has this got to do with the UK?? Go clogg up an american shopping centre!' The Evening Standard even reported one policeman as describing the die-in as 'the worst protest ever. There's no message.'[2]

 Perhaps the policeman should have been listening to the crowd a little more carefully. Amid the chants of 'We can't breathe' and 'Hands up! Don't shoot!' carried over from the protests in Ferguson and New York, were others with an origin closer to home. Chants like 'Who killed Mark Duggan?' or 'who killed Azelle Rodney?'. Or 'Justice for Jimmy Mubenga!' That last one certainly should have been familiar, given that at the time of the protest three G4S security guards were on trial for manslaughter, after Mubenga had been crushed to death in their custody while being deported from the UK. His last words, like Eric Garner's, were 'I can't breathe'. The verdict? Not guilty, after evidence of the guards' virulent racism was ruled inadmissible.

And if the policeman had been looking, he might have seen Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean, lying on the floor amid the protestors. Sean died at Brixton police station in 2008, after police officers used 'unsuitable force' while he was being 'restrained in the prone position'. No police officers have been ever been held accountable for his death – just as they haven't for the other 642 men and women in England and Wales who died in the custody of police officers from 1996 to 2011. Indeed, no police officer has been convicted for a death in the UK since 1971.

So, despite the Mail's confusion, the message of the Westfield die-in could not have been clearer. It was that what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, to Eric Garner in New York, to Tamir Rice in Cleveland, was not merely a 'US problem'. The devaluing of black life and the impunity of the police, free to kill and kill again, is not something that just happens 'over there'. The British media's bewilderment merely underscores what Harmit Athwal and Arun Kundnani have described as the 'complacency about Britain’s own history of institutional racism and its manifestations in police violence', even amongst those outraged by events in the US.[3]

 The relation between events in the US and the UK was underlined again last week with the 'Ferguson Solidarity Tour', a series of public meetings co-organised by the United Families and Friends Campaign (who bring bereaved families together under one banner), Defend the Right to Protest and NUS Black Students. DtRtP was set up in the wake of protests against the tripling of student tuition fees in 2010, when student Alfie Meadows was nearly killed by a police baton and then, alongside dozens more, charged with violent disorder. The initial campaign opposing violent police tactics against protestors and providing legal support has now developed into a broader challenge to state violence in all its forms, with the organisation acting as a point of connection between struggles against institutional police racism and deaths in custody, undercover spying on campaigners and trade unionists, and attacks on the legal aid system. [4]

The Ferguson tour strengthened those connections, with Patrisse Cullors, the LA activist who co-founded #blacklivesmatter, speaking alongside representatives from British justice campaigns, including Marcia Rigg, Carole Duggan (aunt of Mark) and Janet Alder (sister of Christopher, who died in a Hull police station in 1998). Attendees were thus able to hear the extraordinary lengths that both the US and the British state continues to go to in order to avoid its agents being held to account for their lethal violence. 'Independent' investigatory bodies, led by former police officers, who fail to arrive on the scene of the death for hours, take years to write useless reports, and even co-author police press releases telling outright lies – such as claiming Mark Duggan to have shot an officer - in the wake of police killings. 'Lost' CCTV tapes, cameras, like the one trained on the 'cage' in Brixton police station where Sean Rigg died, that sadly 'weren't working' at the crucial moment. Footage that is cut and spliced to rewrite history, such as the hundreds of hours of footage of Christopher Alder's death which police whittled down to a misleading 11 minutes. Coroner's inquests that never begin, officers who are never charged, or retire before investigations even start. Stories leaked to – and eagerly repeated by - the press, portraying victims as 'yobs', 'hooligans' or 'gangsters', reversing the order of events, blaming them for their own deaths.

 There's rarely anything exciting about these struggles. Occasionally they act as the spark alighting a petrol trail of racist policing and immiseration, and uprisings on the scale of London in 2011 and Ferguson last year explode into life. For most of the time, though, such campaigns consist of interminable legal processes, battles to access documents and funds, weekly vigils outside police stations (state agents, of course, have no such difficulty in covering their legal costs, with unlimited public funds at their disposal). This never-ending succession of delays and dead ends prevents those who are left behind from coming to terms with their loss, suspending and expanding the moment of grief until it starts to consume their lives. The women who overwhelmingly lead the campaigns – the mothers, sisters, partners of the dead – in effect work full time, unpaid. The entire weight of the state is thrust upon their shoulders, as the various agencies scramble to cover each other's backs, while outwardly presenting only the icy, impassive face of denial and silence. Everything is turned upside down – a loved brother becomes a demonic thug, a cherished son a drunken hooligan. 'You think you're going insane,' Marcia Rigg told a DtRtP conference last year. 'And it's only when you talk to other families going through the same thing that you realise you're not, and you see the pattern.' Solidarity here is not an additional extra, something to strive for. Organisations like the United Families and Friends Campaign are absolute necessities, because it is only by understanding other similar cases that any single case begins to make any sense at all.

If nothing else, the state's paranoid, aggressive reaction to these campaigns – a paranoia that, as Janet Alder told a meeting at Portcullis House, runs so deep as to lead to police spies infiltrating family campaigns  -  demonstrates how dangerous to the state, how deeply political, they are. Because what does it mean to demand 'justice' for Michael Brown, or Sean Rigg, or Jimmy Mubenga? At the very least, it means a demand that they be counted as people truly worthy of recognition, of equal treatment in the eyes of the legal and political system. It is an insistence that the formal right of 'equality before the law' – itself a right that had to be wrenched from the hands of the white, male ruling class during a long, bloody struggle that ran from feudal times  all the way to the twentieth century civil rights and feminist movements - should actually become a concrete reality. It is a demand that the killing of a loved one should be treated in the same way as any other murder, and that the same laws should apply to the police as to the rest of society. The fact that this is a demand that has to be made again and again indicates the extent to which it strains against, and points beyond, the limitations of formal equality under capitalism.

This formal equality corresponds to the 'equality' of the wage relation, in which workers and capitalists are equally 'free' to exchange 'equivalents' on the market – a 'fair day's work for a fair day's pay'. That the 'equality' of the wage relation hides exploitation, the extraction of surplus value for which the worker receives no equivalent, and the separation of workers from the means of their own survival, is bad enough for the reality of 'formal equality'. But given capitalism's developing tendency to produce a surplus population – with automated production meaning increasing numbers of people finding themselves no longer even able to exchange their labour power for a wage, and thus excluded from the capital-labour relation, and the world of 'value', altogether – the material roots of even this mere formal equality are being eaten away.

At such a historical moment, the call for 'justice', so often an abstract and ahistorical liberal plea, becomes the most concrete of all demands. There is nothing abstract about the daily reality of systemic exclusions predominantly experienced by black and brown people, whose very existence becomes the symbol of what it means to be outside the world of value - a world whose borders are protected by a police force granted almost total impunity from the law. The 'justice' that is demanded on the streets of Ferguson or Tottenham, the insistence that black lives are of value, therefore pushes beyond the limits of the formal equality that was won by previous struggles, and becomes a direct challenge to the forces which produce and sustain the exclusions and devaluations that capitalism depends on. That is why the campaigns face such relentless opposition, so many obstacles and obfuscations.  

Police violence and racism is not an aberration, the regrettable behaviour of a few 'bad apples': it is a necessity for the reproduction of the capitalist class relation. Police power, wrote Walter Benjamin, 'is formless, like its nowhere tangible, all pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilised states.'[5] The police blur the distinction between  'Law Making' violence (that which establishes a new legal order) and 'Law Preserving' violence (that which ensures that order survives by suppressing all other potential sources of law-making violence). Benjamin argues that 'Law Making' violence must be immediately disguised so that the law can present itself as being 'the representation and preservation of an order imposed by fate'.[6] Relations of domination must be naturalised, creating the illusion that whatever the law does will always be, and has always been, not only true, but inevitable – and thus beyond challenge. The police oscillate between the two forms of violence: they do preserve the law through violence, but they also routinely go beyond it – and therefore violently make it. Benjamin writes:

'the “law” of the police really marks the point at which the state...can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain. Therefore  the police intervene “for security reasons” in countless cases where no clear legal situation      exists.'[7]

The police thus  act as a kind of pressure valve, allowing the law to hide the violence of its origins by going beyond it, in ways the 'peaceful' law 'officially' cannot permit itself.

There is a certain symmetry between the 'excess' of police violence and the 'surplus population' which, from the perspective of capital, has become simply an 'externality' to be controlled. One 'surplus' can be mapped upon the other. This is indeed how the police view their own role. In The Politics of the Police, criminologist Robert Reiner draws on interviews with serving officers to outline a segment of people which the police themselves regard as their 'property', to be dealt with in whatever way they deem fit. This segment consists of 'low status, powerless groups whom the dominant majority see as problematic or distasteful. The majority are prepared to let the police deal with their 'property' and turn a blind eye to the manner in which this is done'.[8] The prime function for the police here is to 'control and segregate' such groups from the rest of the population  - the concern 'is not so much to enforce the law as to maintain order using the law as one resource amongst others'.[9] Reiner includes 'ethnic minorities', 'radical political organisations', 'vagrants', and the unemployed in this category – all groups whose  poverty and oppression is relentlessly presented by the state and media as being somehow inherent to their 'natural' character.

Unlike the law, which has a time and place of the 'sovereign decision', when it comes to dealing with their 'property', the police act first, and decide later. They reverse the process of the 'sovereign decision': in effect, the law is changed around them on a daily basis. This becomes clear when looking at both the police-guided media coverage and judicial inquests after a police killing. Whereas a state killing under the death penalty (for all its horror) follows a legal decision, an inquest is precisely the means by which a legal decision regarding a state killing can be made after that killing has already taken place. The state's preference, of course, is to avoid an inquest altogether. The delay and premature termination of inquests is a British legal tradition running all the way from the aftermath of Peterloo to the death of Habib 'Paps' Ullah during a stop and search in 2008 (the inquest into his death finally restarted this month, after a seven year wait).[10] But once the state is forced to hold an inquest, then that inquest's primary function, from the state's point of view, is to ensure that the law keeps its appearance as fate.

To this end, the killing must be presented, both in the media and to the jury, in such a way that it too becomes 'inevitable', that no other outcome was possible – the police were in fear for their lives, the victim 'looked like a demon' and grabbed the gun, the fans at Hillsborough were drunk and uncontrollable. The initial killing is followed by a second 'character assassination', as Carole Duggan put in one meeting. This is perhaps one reason why the number of 'unlawful killing' verdicts remains minuscule – and that even when juries do find that verdict, police officers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. But it is also why it is so critical for the families to hold on to the memory of those who have died, to refuse to allow the state and the media to recast a loved one in the mould of the latest 'folk devil'. The state knows only too well the power of controlling the past, of eradicating memory and flattening history, in order to give the present the character of fate. The families do too.

The task for organisations like DtRtP is therefore best thought of as the attempt to weoponize the status of 'police property' or 'surplus population', turning the process of exclusion against itself by making it the basis of a new collective political subject, founded upon the steadfast refusal to let go of the memory of the dead. Last month’s meetings are another step in that process, grasping the global implications for the events in Ferguson, and showing how, for all the differences between the specific legal structures and histories in the US and UK, the state is equally reliant on the 'extra-legal' actions of the police for its own reproduction in all corners of the capitalist heartlands. As Janet Alder put it: 'I saw what happened in Ferguson and I was inspired. We need to build a network here. When we hear that someone dies, we need to get out on the streets and unite. We need to close the police stations down. We need to close everything down'. This is what it means to hold onto the memory of the dead. This is what it will take to overcome the limits of formal equality and the world of value, in order to prevent history from being swallowed up by fate.

Matt Bolton is a postgraduate student at Roehampton University. He tweets at @matatatatat



[3]
                 http://www.irr.org.uk/news/britains-michael-browns-and-eric-garners/

[4]              http://www.defendtherighttoprotest.org/

[5]              Walter Benjamin, 'Critique of Violence' in Reflections (New York: Schoken Books, 1986), p287

[6]              Benjamin, p285

[7]    Benjamin, p287

[9]              Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p123

[10]           Reiner, p124

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