Just in case any student still thinks that the police’s role ought to be to facilitate protests and demonstrations, the commissioner of the Met, Sir Paul Stephenson, has put them right. As they showed in London on Wednesday, the police as a state force have other loyalties.
They kept a mainly teenage, mostly peaceful group of protesters against the rise in tuition fees hemmed in between police lines for over nine hours in the freezing cold. This was after a police van was conveniently left isolated and promptly vandalised.
Stephenson defended the notorious “kettling” operation, describing the area as a “crime scene”. What rubbish! The police on the ground were under orders from Scotland Yard and no doubt the Home Office. The clear objective was to demoralise the school and university students by denying them the right to move through the streets.
Michael Chessum, a co-founder of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, was right when he commented: "It is the kind of policing we saw on Wednesday that creates disorder. If you refuse to allow people, many of them young, first-time protesters, the right to walk down the streets of their own capital city, and then 'kettle' them in Whitehall for eight or nine hours, people are going to get frustrated."
As Jenny Jones, a Green Party representative on the Metropolitan Police Authority which questioned Stephenson, pointed out, the effect had been to “imprison thousands of people”, adding: "You kept people for nine-and-a-half hours. You punished innocent people for going on a protest. How can that be right? I just do not see it."
Stephenson does not have to account for tactics to the MPA and he told – or rather warned – the authority that the “game has changed and we must act”. In recent years the Met had reduced the numbers of officers deployed to tackle demonstrations, he said. "Regrettably, we are going to have to review that. We are going to have to take a more cautious approach."
The Met chief’s statement is a clear indication that the police are preparing to suppress mass civil disorder which is an expression of the anger that the spending cuts and the consequent rise in tuition fees – have already provoked and which is bound to intensify.
In practice, is not that the “game” has changed but that the mask has slipped. How the police like to portray themselves and the reality of their actual role in the power structures of the state is usually obscured by anodyne statements like “serving the community” and “protecting the public”.
But when push comes to shove, when resistance to government’s policies strays beyond marching from point A to point B or signing petitions and actually expresses social frustration and anger, the role of the police is solely to protect the state. Before most of today’s student marchers were born, the police showed their loyalty by brutally attacking pickets and communities during the 1984-5 miners’ strike for jobs.
So this not some “neutral” state that is just a little too skewed towards big business and property, which can be redirected to serve a more progressive purpose. The modern state evolved alongside and in response to the needs of capitalism and is geared in every way to sustaining and developing the profit system. So when, for example, the financial markets insist on spending cuts, the state – and its political expression in the form of the government – jumps to attention.
A strategy for resisting the cuts and the rise in tuition fees must, therefore, incorporate the vision of creating new democratic social and political structures, building on the ideas like People’s Assemblies. Then the game of capitalist rule will really be over.