As the student movement has taken to the streets, the police have blocked off roads, kettled young people for hours in freezing temperatures, and hit out with batons, shields and fists.
This throws up the question—why do the police try to stop protests? Why are they violent and abusive to us, and how do they get away with it? What is their real role in society?
We live under capitalism—a world system where a tiny rich minority seek to control and live off the work of the vast majority.
And as the rich and powerful are only a small number in comparison to the people they exploit, they have created the police and the army to protect this wealth and power. These “armed bodies” are what make up the state as we know it.
The origins of the police go back to the early days of capitalism. The ruling class realised they needed such an organisation as the new urban working class gathered strength.
In 1848 the Chartists, the first mass working class movement in the world, faced down London’s Metropolitan Police. The Met is generally considered the first modern police force and had been set up less than 20 years earlier.
Some 150,000 workers wanted to march from London’s Kennington Common to parliament to present their six million signature charter—but the government used 100,000 special constables to stop the march.
Protecting wealth doesn’t just mean making sure we don’t steal from the rich—it means making sure their authority isn’t challenged by large numbers of people. It means propping up the existing system.
Today’s new student movement isn’t the first to be attacked by the police. Throughout history, ordinary people have marched against injustice only to be met with violence.
As students and workers marched on the US embassy against the Vietnam War in 1968 they were confronted by police in vans and on horses. Many protesters were injured and arrested.
When Margaret Thatcher wanted to shut down the mining industry in Britain, thousands of miners struck in 1984-85. They, along with their families and communities, were met with huge repression. More than 10,000 striking miners were arrested.
At the Battle of Orgreave, thousands of miners picketed a key plant—but the state used the police to violently break up the picket.
The police’s defenders argue that they are simply “workers in uniform”, and that any violence is perpetrated by a few “rotten apples” or in response to a hostile and violent crowd.
But police violence is a result of the force’s role in society. They are not some kind of neutral “referee” between the movement and the ruling class, they are the arm of the state used to oppress the working class.
Some police recruits may be from working class backgrounds, but once they become police they are no longer workers. They are taught to hate working class people and are systematically used against us.
New recruits are trained to “keep order”—meaning protect the existing system—and given weapons to do it with. And they are protected from accountability for their actions.
We’re told that the police are there to “fight crime”. But their real purpose is to fight us.
In the 1990s, Thatcher wanted to bring in the poll tax. It was like council tax, but everyone would pay the same whether rich or poor.
Understandably, this made millions of people angry and people poured onto the streets—building groups in their local areas and marching in London.
The campaign culminated in the poll tax riot, where police drove vans and horses into the crowd and people fought back.
Mass arrests and a media outcry about a “violent mob” followed, but the poll tax was beaten and Thatcher was on her way out.
Today the government has reason to be worried again. Just six months into the coalition’s life, there are huge demonstrations that show no sign of going away.
The police will be brought in to crush protesters, just as they were in the past.
But when workers and students unite, our side can win. The police may have batons and shields and helmets and horses—but a mass movement can beat them back and win victories for us and future generations.
Fighting against the repression of the state must be part of a fight against capitalism as a whole—to beat back the armed guards of the rich minority and win justice for the vast majority of people.