G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 3 – Dispassionate Mechanism

The two perspectives considered in the last couple of posts were both very person-oriented: they treated police and protesters as individual or collective persons. It’s also possible to look at protests in a more mechanical way, treating choices people make as a function of their circumstances so as to consider the dynamics of the system they form.

For example, there has been a fair bit of discussion recently of ‘kettling’ – some people have considered trying to challenge its legality (it is, after all, basically a form of ‘arresting’ people in one place for a matter of hours). One way to approach the question is to consider a kettling situation mechanically: what things does it increase and what things does it decrease?

For example, on the one hand, it reduces people’s sense of collective power by showing them something simple that they can’t do (leave); on the other, it increases people’s nervous energy by making them tired, frustrated, and possibly hungry of toilet-needing. What effect will this have? That depends on the effects of those two variables together, along with other relevant factors. Let’s do some experiments guys, then we will have more data. It will be sweet.

That also relates to the issue of Ian Tomlinson, who died on Wednesday. While details are still to emerge, it doesn’t appear that any indvidual deliberately caused his death. But at the same time, we might ask whether there’s an overlap between ‘effects of being forcibly held in a crowd for long periods’ and ‘factors conributing to chances of heart attacks etc.’.

More broadly, you might ask – what will, all in and all and on the whole, be the effects of the police as a solution to problems? We might suggest the following: typically, strongly anti-social behaviour, e.g. violent assaults, tend to be associated with strong inequalities of power.

That would make sense because if you are sufficiently more powerful than your victim, you can get away with it or so arrange things as to lose little, while if you are sufficiently less powerful, then you have little to lose and little prospect of getting what you want by ‘acceptable’ routes.

Relatively equal relationships, we might imagine, provide the right balance of carrots (you’re powerful enough to get by without assaulting anyone) and sticks (the other person is powerful enough to make assaulting them cost a lot).

And this seems to be to some extent corroborated by statistics which suggest that in general, levels of ‘crime’ are higher in societies with higher levels of income inequality. I can’t be bothered to search out the studies but I know they’re out there somewhere.

It’s also a pretty general finding that for many forms of ‘crime’, they are much more common in socioeconomically deprived areas – which still fits the analysis because crime, through the mediation of ‘law’, is partly a relationship between the individual and ‘society’, and the poor, unemployed, marginalised, etc. are thus in the position of the ‘much less powerful’ relative to that collective person.

Now given that, what is the likely result of having the general policy of resonding to ‘crime’ with the police (and the associated justice system)?

Well, the police add a fresh layer of power inequality – they have a lot of power that others don’t. This works both in that they can do stuff and get away with it (recent report by Amnesty that French police operate with effective impunity) and in that they often leave people so much more powerless than before that they are even more likely to commit ‘crimes’ (like the ridiculously high recidivism rates for people coming out of prison, or the way that people often have to go back to their ‘crime’, e.g. prostitution, burglary, drug-dealing, etc. in order to pay off fines). There’s also the fact that people who are already low on power tend to get a much worse deal off the police/justice system – more likely to be harassed, more likely to be arrested, more likely to get a long sentence.

So what’s going on is that the response to ‘crime’/anti-social behaviour involves providing it with more of one of its key requirements. That – without saying anything in person-terms, without saying that the police are doing something wrong, pursuing such-and-such a goal, breaking such-and-such a rule – that’s suggests that policing generates crime.

Maybe a good metaphor would be blowing on fire. Sure, if you blow hard enough on a small enough fire, it will go out (and in small limited cases, the police can obviously reduce ‘crime’) but on the whole, if that’s what your general response to fire is, you’re just giving it more oxygen, you deal with fire by providing it with one of its requirements. Result: more fire.

We could also look at the role of the other perspectives, considered as social phenomena. Liberal moralism, for example, might be expected to produce a check on the actions taken by both police and protesters, in order to maintain liberal moralistic support. But the strength of this check will be related to how they can expect to be presented in the media. It also gives both sides an incentive to encourage the other side to escalate first.

What would we expect in a scenario with two opposed sides, each unwilling to escalate themselves but keen to get the other to escalate? It will certainly differ from, say, a war, where the liberal presumption of shared interests between the sides is much weaker, and where there is thus much less of an incentive to show ‘restraint’. It will also differ from what we would expect if liberal moralism were really true, if both sides really were on the same side, because then we would expect people to seek to de-escalate both their own responses and the responses of the other side.

Um, if I’m honest, this post doesn’t have a good ending planned. So it’s just going to end here.

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