Police on trial

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The ongoing Kill the Bill protests in the UK and the criminal trial of Derek Chauvin have created a moment of real tension between law enforcement and civilians across the Atlantic. In both the literal and figurative sense the powers and accountability of the police are on trial. A crucial moment is approaching to amend the strained relationship between the police and society.

There is an inherent tension between the police and society, a tension that centres on the police’s role as protector of society but also as enforcer of the law, and the thin line between what constitutes the necessary and valuable use of power to enforce law and the historical tendency to overstep that power; to abuse the rights of force.

This right to protest is as necessary and valuable as the right to police

Civil protests place this relationship under the greatest strain of all, with the distinction between disruption and riot, protest control and police abuse, often becoming hazy. Yet, this right to protest is as necessary and valuable as the right to police, and a balance between them is crucial to a functioning democracy. Boris Johnson’s government is in danger of fundamentally disrupting this balance. The ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill’ threatens the ability to effectively resist the state. Its provisions, empowering the police to shut down protests causing public disruption, undercuts the legality of effective resistance.

By defining a protest’s legality under such a vague term, the state essentially gives itself the power to mediate exactly how public policy can be protested; a restriction that seriously undercuts the important freedoms crucial to modern Britain. Further, it’s authoritarian restrictions will lamentably alter the balance of power in the police’s favour. Far from acting as a deterrent such measures will more than likely lead to an increase of riotous, disruptive, civil and police violence.

In the United States the line has been more than crossed. Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. The bold manner in which Chauvin’s defence has attempted to place the character of Floyd on trial, to take attention away from the clear video evidence and towards the ambiguities of substance abuse, should be extraordinary but really it is not. It fits neatly into a pattern in which the American system has protected law enforcement above and beyond the rights of civilians.

The crucial balance between law and enforcement is fundamentally broken in the United States

This pattern was clear following the asphyxiation of Eric Garner, it was clear after the killing of Rodney King. Ultimately, the crucial balance between law and enforcement is fundamentally broken in the United States and it has been for some time. If history is not proof enough, the events of Thursday April 14th should be; in relation to the shooting of Daunte Wright, protestors in Minnesota were met by The National Guard, in full combat gear with armoured vehicles reportedly using gas to disperse the crowds. While there have been reports of crowd unrest and the throwing of bricks, it is hard to justify this as a proportionate response.

This disruptive imbalance must be avoided in the UK. The strong inequalities of power, the disproportionate legal ability of police in the United States to respond to civil unrest, and their near-complete unaccountability undoubtedly contributes to the toxification of the political environment and surely contributes to the extraordinarily high frequency of police violence across
the Atlantic.

This moment presents a chance to set vital precedents

It is incredibly important that a marker is now laid down in the UK in order to avoid the mistakes of the US. In the US there must at least begin to be a moment of reconciliation. This moment presents a chance to set vital precedents that could have important consequences long into the future. Since the 1992 acquittal of the officers involved in the violent killing of Rodney King, despite strong video evidence, the US has been crying out for a case to fight against police impunity.

The Chauvin case cannot ‘fix’ a broken American system in a stroke, nor can it ‘remedy’ the pain already felt, but it can provide at least a small precedent and hope that extreme violence against citizens will no longer be accepted in the USA. This constitutes a small step, but an important one; police impunity must be removed.

The UK is a long way from the situation in America, I do not wish to catastrophise the changes Johnson wishes to make, but this Bill still represents an important juncture. If public pressure does force a U-Turn from Johnson, or at least an amendment to the bill, it will provide an exemplar case of exactly why civil protest is so important in a free country. It can serve as a clear expression of the line between what is and isn’t acceptable for the government to enforce, defining the boundaries of coercion and liberty to future governments.

Such a precedent can hopefully forestall future attempts to impose greater restrictions on the right to protest or the unnecessary augmentation of police power, and prevent the further toxification of relations between UK society and the police.

Image by Richard Hopkins via Creative Commons

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