G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 2 – Militant Strategy

As I said in Part 1, the liberal or moralistic perspective on the police works from the assumption that both protesters and police have a valid goal and should therefore endeavour to find a compromise (the beloved “right to, and duty to facilitate, legitimate protest) in which both can ‘do their job’.

I know of no better definition of ‘militant’ than the rejection of this assumption. Thus the second perspective to take on police tactics is this: that the goals of protesters are opposed to the goals of the police, that ultimately no compromise is possible, and that therefore neither side need concern themselves with preserving the basis of such a compromise.

To illustrate by contrast – when you argue with a friend, though you both want to win, you also want to preserve the friendship, and so ultimately you want an outcome that both are happy with. So, unless you’re foolish, you won’t do things that might help you to get your way but would so annoy or aggreive your friend as to endanger the friendship. As well as separate goals, you both have a shared goal (maintaining friendship) which constrains the means you each use to pursue your separate goals.

Militancy then, the willingness to fight, is to give up the goal of being acceptable to the police, and to thus avoid the constrain that would put on methods. It’s accepting that what we want is not something that the police could accept while remaining police.

Correspondingly, class war is the belief that the interests of the proletarians-as-proletarians cannot be adequately satisfied in a way that would be acceptable to the bourgeoisie-as-bourgoisie. This is controversial for capitalist society, but hopefully not controversial for other societies. For example, no-one could deny that the interests of slaves as a class are incompatible with the interests of slave owners as a class – because they involve the abolition of the condition (slavery) that constitutes the oppression of one and the privilege of the other.

We should note that this arguably makes more room for sympathy with police officers as human beings. On the liberal view, if something happens that shouldn’t have happened, it must be because someone did something wrong – if people were hurt, some police officer must have enacted their personal, culpable, brutality. But the militant, though unlikely to like the police, can at least accept that brutality and filth-ish behaviour flows not from the personal evil of any individual but from what the police are, what they are for, the goals which have to frame their split-second decisions.

This means that a totally different set of questions are asked. In place of ‘did the police exceed their authority?’ or ‘did the police use excessive force?’, or conversely, ‘did protesters use illegitimate methods?’, the question becomes one of strategy. What targets did each select, and how wise was that selection? What methods did they use, how wisely chosen, and how successful?

For example, I would offer the following personal impression of one aspect of the police’s plan for the last two days. Although many things remain unclear and my viewpoint has been very partial, I get the impression that their main tactic on Wednesday was to corral groups in ‘kettles’, to split people up from each other, and to hold people in one place for long periods of time, sometimes letting individuals leave one by one, in order to 1) prevent communication, organisation, or planned reactions on the part of protesters, and 2) make the protesters as despirited as possible, tired, frustrated, hungry or thirsty, and generally miserable.

This had two results – in the long run it deterred people from protesting, and in the short run it made people less likely to show up on Thursday. Then on Thursday they were facing much smaller groups, only a hundred or so, and could get information, make arrests, take details, and exploit the general feeling of excitement to raid activist social centres. That is, first frighten off the softcore, then go after the hardcore.

That may well not be what they were going for, but it’s an illustration of the way that their tactics should be viewed – not in terms of ‘was this within their legitimate authority?’ (for example, is it legitimate for them to do things to discourage people from protesting in the future? surely that conflicts with ‘legitimate protest’?) but simply – was it effective? And from what I can tell, the answer is largely ‘yes’. Damn.

It also implies that there’s no point in people saying “well, look at it from the police’s point of view”, or “what would you do if you were a police officer?” If I was a police officer, I would resign. What would you do if you were a member of the Iraqi army, ordered into an invasion of Iran? There’s no good answer, because as long as that is your role, you are in the wrong.

To give up your autonomy and your freedom to refrain from wrong actions (like impeding people’s efforts to fight climate change through direct action), carries over the culpability of those wrong actions. The legitimate limits of police authority form a neat boundary around one choice – to resign.

2 Responses to “G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 2 – Militant Strategy”

  1. Observer Says:

    I agree that the question about the police’s tactics becomes one of strategy, but don’t think your example does it justice. Though trivial you don’t say that one of the main results of the kettling the police would claim was to stop any outbreaks of violence.

    Assuming for a moment that the tactic failed in its aim and actually resulted in more violence it is then quite legitimate to ask ‘what would you do were you a police officer?’. Your conclusion might be not ‘resign’, but amend your tactics for future protests so that they more wisely reflected your choice of targets. There was a mistake in your use of tactics – for which you might rightly expect to be challenged on the day and in the courts afterwards.

    Though we cannot easily speculate about what the police’s aim was, unless we know it surely we cannot evaluate the effectiveness their actions. If their aim was to contain violence but it had consequences to dissuade people from protests in the future (which might not have been their aim) then they failed and some outrage might be justifiably expressed by those who claim to be playing by the rules.

    The actions of the more violent protesters may or may not have been illegitimate. But the actions of the peaceful protesters were surely legitimate under the rules the state has created. Many accept these rules as legitimate and hold to them. If we had gone into the day expecting these rules would be flouted so openly, maybe we would have been better prepared to resist the ‘illegitimate’ procedures that the police decided to set up.

    If of course protesters and the police have different aims, I agree, outrage is somewhat futile. And that may increasingly appear to be the case as protesters feel that the police are illegitimate in their stance. However, we don’t yet know their intentions fully and in the early stages of our friendly disagreement we are choosing to play by the state’s rules and that they choose to break them is outrageous.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Many accept these rules as legitimate and hold to them…we don’t yet know their intentions fully and in the early stages of our friendly disagreement we are choosing to play by the state’s rules”
    Well, we know that their goal is to uphold the law: subordinate goals like ‘prevent outbreaks of property damage’ appear in the context of overall goals. And our goal is, let’s say, freedom, equality, justice, and sustainability. I think that those things can only be obtained by doing away with, among other things, the government, who make the law. So I think there’s a basic incompatibility between those two goals. I think that shows in that playing by the rules doesn’t always get a like response from the other side.


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