The British public imagination remains replete with nightmares about racialised crime. This year, there are statue desecrators. In the 1980s, there were muggers. There is always the figure of the thug. The illegal immigrant. The terrorist. More recently, over the past decade, there have emerged particularly frightening types of gang: drill music-producing gangs escalating knife crime within inner cities and running ‘county lines’ of child drug dealers outside of them; and the ‘Asian grooming gang’, networks of Muslim south Asian men engaged in child sexual exploitation who target white girls.
Each of these formations has congealed into public consciousness in as little as a few months through liberal media and political posturing. They are often then reified in policing infrastructure. Databases for suspected radicalised youth and gang members pose remarkably low thresholds of proof to warrant storing an individual’s data for further surveillance, injunctions restricting their movement and activity, conditions on immigration or citizenship status, access to essential services, or increased intrusion of violent policing – including home raids and repeated stop and search – into everyday life. The Metropolitan Police’s Gangs Matrix, for example, stores the information of almost 4,000 people, 78% of whom are black, and the majority of whom – by the police’s own estimation – pose no threat.
It is perhaps worth a disclaimer that all crime is fake, in a sense. Demarcations of behaviour as illegal, and the differential ways in which criminal law and its enforcement operate in people’s lives, are in constant flux. Notwithstanding the development of these categories over time, even as they rest as stable entities, they do not operate consistently. Murder, for example, often carries a life sentence for a woman who kills her abusive partner. For a police officer who orchestrates the fatal shooting of an innocent man in a tube station the same year, however, there is merely promotion to head of the Metropolitan Police. The formations of the mugger, thug, gang member or terrorist which haunt public imagination are woven together in this context. They stand out as particularly fraudulent because they so disingenuously link crime’s demarcation, and its control, to race and its proxies – one’s housing, name, local area, school, religion, migration status or ‘culture’. Though the violent conditions which such categories can impose on the life of those caught within them is devastatingly real, nothing about these linkages is authentic.
The far right is agitated about all of these formations. Indeed, some of the largest far-right led demonstrations in recent years have congealed them into a rallying cry against a generalised spread of black and brown criminals. In winter 2018, a far-right group that calls itself the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) held a mass London protest against what they described on Facebook as “returning jihadists, […] thousands of AWOL migrants, light sentences for paedophiles and an epidemic of gang and knife crime”. Central to their narration of why so many undisciplined criminals walk the streets are the police. Criminals are causing great harm to people, communities, towns and cities, to national security and to their conception of British cultural, racial and moral order because the police have failed. The mismanagement of gang and knife crime by the Metropolitan Police is chalked up to a soft touch and loss of control over the city, often attributed to a politically correct cautiousness on behalf of the city’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. It is popular amongst far-right circles online, including amongst mainstream far-right commentators such as Katie Hopkins, to nickname the city ‘Londonistan’ whenever another stabbing (that is, on the street, as opposed to any of the tens of fatal stabbings that occur in domestically violent settings, mind you) takes place. An Islamophobic slight against Khan himself, no doubt, and one indicating his perceived inability to control the black and brown residents of his city, and their criminal violence. It is not a fringe view. Indeed, the US president Donald Trump, has regurgitated concern about the Khan’s out of control London, and its knife crime problem.
On ‘grooming gangs’, meanwhile, the story goes that rife abuse went uninvestigated and covered up by local authorities and police for fear of being ‘seen as racist’. Again, a desire for political correctness drove police to avoid investigating and prosecuting Asian men. This story entered wider public consciousness via a Times investigation that lifted the ‘Asian grooming gangs’ label from far-right literature and presented an equation of ‘sexual violence against white girls with national security’. Later commissioned reviews that went looking for evidence of these frightening and horrific networks, found that in fact, police had dismissed girls’ stories with victim-blaming misogyny. Far from being concerned with political correctness, police had told a number of survivors they were ‘asking for it’, ‘risk fuelled’ and ‘prostituting’ themselves. This total refusal of care, protection or interest in justice for these women and girls was intensified by their class position. Many were in institutional care settings, almost all were working class. They were black, white and Asian – and were targeted by groups of white men, too. Police dismissals were, and continue to be, particularly acute when victims are themselves Muslim.
These formations of racialised criminals – the gang, the terror network, the Muslim paedophile, the statue desecrator – are galvanising the far right. Agitating around these issues has seen some of the largest far-right mobilisations in decades and has heavily shaped public opinion. On each of these criminal formations, the far right is demanding more from police. Far from opposing law and order apparatus per se, they seek to expand and intensify their scope and use of force. Their rallies insist that policing, immigration and prisons apparatus are not bearing down heavily enough on these criminals, and by proxy the black and brown communities which harbour them. A cursory look at the DFLA website, or of organisations like Britain First, their allies on the street that day, shows petitions demanding escalated state violence – more weapons for police, no benefits, housing or essential services for criminals, more prisons, longer prison sentences, less ‘privileges’ in prison, bans and deportations of migrants and revocations of citizenship. Again, this is not on the fringes of our politics. Access to essential services, from NHS care to free school meals, have been cut off for migrants with no access to public funds. Recent sentencing in child sexual exploitation cases saw Muslim men have their British citizenship revoked. Black people who have lived in the UK since they were toddlers have been deported as ‘foreign national offenders’ after traffic violations or drug possession convictions. Our youth offending institutions, though locking up far fewer young people in total than they were 10 years ago, are obscenely racially disproportionate – 28% of those incarcerated here are black, despite making up only 3% of the population.
In some ways, the far right well understand what the police do. Indeed, police get to enact a great deal of disciplinary violence on the criminals that haunt fascists’ imaginations with apparent legitimacy and without consequence. Although, compared with Greece, the Philippines or the United States, the British police is not an institution well-infiltrated or in overt alliance with the far right, they are proving a fulcrum for their demands.
Far-right derision and condemnation of police failures can effectively agitate for the police, whose violence is born of racist control, to enact further state surveillance, discipline and brutality against black and brown people and political opponents. When police fail to mete out adequate violence, far-right figures are able not only to agitate for further police repression but to legitimise their own vigilantism: if the police won’t do it, who will? It is not incidental that alongside a growing and insurgent far-right movement in this country, we have an ongoing expansion of carceral capacity led by the British state. Bloated since the 1990s, there has been a continuous extension of activities categorised as criminal, of prison places, of police capacity, and of police access to and powers over people. Bolstered anew with tough law-and-order talk from government since 2019, policing can only ever go rightwards. The far right well understands this. It is time we did too. Abolish them.
Becka Hudson is a writer and organiser in London, involved with struggles around housing, criminal justice and young people.
This article is an extract from Abolishing the Police, edited by Koshka Duff, illustrated by Cat Sims and published by Dog Section Press. You can support the crowdfunding campaign to pay for print costs and pre-order a copy here.