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?

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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.

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Some Facts

This is meant to be principally a philosophy blog, so forgive this brief interlude to focus on relatively un-processed facts.


1) someone has died during yesterday’s protests;

2) the police have claimed that while trying to help him, they were pelted with bottles by protesters;

3) the police have a long and established history of lying, lying, and then lying some more about deaths that they cause;

4) many major news sources are reporting that “police trying to help the man were pelted with bottles” and not that “police claim that they were pelted with bottles while trying to help the man”;

5) most other sources would, in my personal estimation, probably be quoted and put in quote marks, especially if it had a long history of lying;

6) the figure of the masked black-wearer is often used as a symbol of menace and unfriendliness;

7) in my very personal experience yesterday, masked black-wearers were very often the first to offer help to those who had been injured or were being harassed or arrested.

That is all.

Edited to add:

8. The noun ‘bottle’ can apply both to glass objects, which are heavy, hard and rigid, and plastic objects, which are light, soft, and flexible, and also to both objects filled with liquid and to empty objects.

9) There appeared, in my very limited experience yesterday, to be at least a good few empty plastic bottles being thrown, though also at least one glass bottle (which was thrown late at night in the scuffles outside, not inside, the camp).

G20 Protests: Perspectives on Police Tactics, Part 1 – Liberal Moralism

The way that people approach and evaluate police tactics depends to a great extent on what initial perspective they take. I want to discuss three such perspectives, using examples from yesterday’s G20 protests.

The first and easiest perspective is to take everyone at their word, abstract from the concrete goals involved, and be a liberal. People have the right to protest within limits, and police have the right to control them within limits. It’s all about the limits. Police and protesters are bound together by a shared framework of rules and limits and are essentially on the same side. They are not enemies – they are friends who disagree over something.

This produces a moralistic mode of evaluation: were the police “restrained” or were they “brutal” (to use one of those lovely words founded on the equation non-human=mindless violence)? Did they use “enough” force or “too much”? And conversely, were the protesters “extreme”? Were they “violent” (i.e. did they shoot anyone in the head, or did they chalk a circle-A onto a wall – both could qualify as “violence”)?

In short, when the supposed “rules of the game” break down (as they often do) who started it? Who was being a ‘peaceful and legitimate’ protester and who was being a ‘thug’?

Now I said this is the easiest perspective to get into, but it’s also the hardest to defend. It’s easy because it simply accepts so much of the framing provided by the rest of society – it accepts the idea that we’re all in this together, with an essentially shared interest, that we all at some level agree on the ‘rules’ of how to resolve disagreements, that those rules are fair and just, that the initial goals of the two sides (police and protesters) are equally valid. None of this is true.

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Put People First, Psychological Biases, and the Role of Violence

Today I went to the ‘Put People First’ march in central london.

One of the things that really annoys one of the people I was with is the media presentation.

Every article, every broadcast seemed to have the following script: say there will be a protest march; say that there might “be violence”; say that the police are preparing for the possibility of violence being; get someone affiliated with the protest and ask them if there is going to “be violence”. Etc.

And similarly, the coverage afterwards was fairly uniform: there was a march; it was entirely peaceful – this time; but there may still be violence later in the week.

Now I find this hard to respond to because there are a number of problems and issues with the way the matter is framed, but dealing with each one pushes in a different direction. To lay it out as briefly as possible:

The presentation is – those with authority obviously use violence (but let’s say force), and the question to ask is whether they do so with the right manner and degree. Conversely, those without authority should never use force at all (let’s say violence), and if they do it reflects not a response to a situation but an expression of essential violence. If people without authority are violent, they are violent people.

For what it’s worth, this connects very neatly with a well-established finding in social psychology called (somewhat misleadingly) the fundamental attribution error.

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Can we get rid of the police?

Anarchists are typically not friends with the police. This is both a practical matter of broken windows and broken bones, and also a theoretical one. If your goal is a society without authority or hierarchy, where does such a hierarchical and authoritarian institution as a police force fit?

Yet at the same time, such a suggestion often prompts a certain bewilderment in non-anarchists – how will crime be dealt with? How will order be maintained?

A common response of course is to point out how much crime is a social product – most crimes are crimes against property, for a start, and most others are committed by people suffering from socially-constructed affliction like poverty or unemployment. More generally, it is argued, hierarchy and alienation and a society that conspicuously works for the benefit of someone else are all likely to encourage anti-social modes of behaviour.

However, that response is unlikely to be the desired answer. It may be true, and important, but it still leaves uncertainty about what could replace a police force in the case of whatever crime remained.

So let’s ask, what is a police force for? I would suggest we can distinguish force broad functions: 1) the police meet force with force, 2) the police enforce other laws with force, 3) the police investigate crime and gather information, and 4) the police have a military role.

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