Arguments for abolition

Mike Phipps reviews Black resistance to British policing by Adam Elliott-Cooper, published by Manchester University Press and Brick by Brick: How We Build a World Without Prisons by Cradle Community, published by Hajar Press.

Black resistance to British policing is an academic work but is written by someone with first-hand experience: the author was himself arrested for his involvement in Black Lives Matter protests. His book is based on a decade of research and re-writing and constitutes an important addition to the growing literature on this subject.

This is not a book primarily about state racism, but about resistance to it. But it does have an understanding of racism that goes beyond the idea of ‘white privilege’. Racism is not just an interpersonal act that can be fixed by the promotion of Black individuals to positions of leadership, argues Elliott-Cooper: it is a mechanism whereby capitalism and the state reproduce their power. Hence, Black liberation requires the liberation of all people.

The author takes us through some of the well known conflicts between the police and sections of the Black community  -St Pauls in Bristol, Brixton, Broadwater Farm, Handsworth, but also some of the less well known ones– who now remembers the Harlesden Six case in 1976 where police brutality was resisted by Black women?

The revolt in Liverpool 8 in 1981 saw tactics from Northern Ireland deployed – CS gas, police driving vans into crowds of people, in one case killing a disabled man. Many of these methods had roots in colonial policing. Yet an equally lasting legacy of these uprisings is one of co-optation – the use of soft power and targeted funding to configure “a state-managed anti-racism, in which Black politics has been stripped of its radicalism.”

But with the 21st century, many of these initiatives dried up in the tighter economic climate following the economic crash. Between 2012 and 2019, 700 youth clubs closed and police were increasingly deployed in schools.  At the same time, campaigns began to resist the allure of government-led responses to racism. Revelations in 2013 that the police had spied on the Stephen Lawrence Campaign underlined an awareness that little had changed in state attitudes, a fact that was reinforced by the large number of deaths of Black people in police custody.

Elliott-Cooper notes that many of the campaigns around these issues were led by Black women, often mothers, some of whom made the connection of police brutality In the UK to slavery and the colonial experience.

The shooting dead by police of an unarmed Black man in North London in 2011 led to a wave of unrest that spread to 66 locations across the country, with much of the violence of thee protests directed against the police. Elliott-Cooper explodes some of the myths that were spread at the time about ‘alien gang culture’, pointing out that while the majority of people on Greater Manchester Police’s gang database were Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, the majority of those involved in serious youth violence were actually white. Similar discrepancies were found elsewhere, suggesting that the stated criteria for inclusion in a gang database did not align with the police’s definition of serious youth violence and that racial attitudes were skewing the results.

In the aftermath of the 2011 disturbances, over 3,000 people were arrested, midnight raids on homes escalated and police beatings of young people were widely reported. Extremely harsh judicial punishments were meted out, with reports of boys as young as eleven appearing in court and a man with a history of mental health difficulties dying in prison while he awaited sentencing for stealing a gingerbread man.

Wisely, Elliott-Cooper does not get too drawn into the debate about just how political or not the disturbances were, and focuses on the work of the defence campaigns set up in their aftermath to defend the Black community from rampant police abuses.

One of the more radical demands to emerge from recent protests is the abolition of police and prisons. This is not, argues the author, a call for the immediate abolition of the penal system, but for reforms that have a long-term aim of abolition, that would “erode society’s reliance on the police and prison systems, and instead empower community-led and social solutions to the inequalities that lead to harm in the first place.”

Brick by Brick: How We Build a World Without Prisons (Paperback)

Cradle Community’s Brick by Brick develops thee arguments. The UK’s prison population is the third largest in Europe after Russia and Turkey. Conditions in UK prisons are among the continent’s worst. Someone dies in prison every four days.

Two-thirds of people in prison were unemployed in the month before being taken into custody and 15% were homeless. The link between inequality and incarceration is indisputable.

“Prison doesn’t build the skills people need to be accountable for the harm they have caused,” argue the authors. “Nor does it provide a safe place to heal and unpick the cycle of violence they are caught up in.”  The incarceration of people with mental health problems is a particular cause for concern.

The Crown Prosecution Service increasingly target teenage boys of colour using the common law doctrine of ‘joint enterprise’, allowing prosecution for a crime of someone only distantly connected to the incident. At the same time, police violence and lawbreaking seem to be increasingly protected by the justice system. Since 1968, the police have infiltrated over 1,000 activist groups. The immorality of these operations, where spycops even fathered children with their targets, has not deterred the government from increasing the scope of these activities and increasing police powers more generally.

The prison-industrial complex is a lucrative opportunity for corporate exploitation. In the US, the prison economy accounts for fully one percent of the total economy. Here, companies like G4S hold multi-million pound contracts for running prisons and enforcing curfews.

Dismantling the carceral state, the authors argue, means building a better society on a much wider basis, where migrants are not criminalised, where there is food and housing justice and where healthcare and education are decolonised. Some immediate demands include the abolition of Stop and Search, Prevent and the Gangs Matrix, the decriminalisation of sex work, the repeal of laws that criminalise survival, such as drug and vagrancy laws, and an end to mandatory reporting, in order to ensure confidentiality between people and the services they support.

There’s not much support for abolitionism in the movement at present, but these two books are important contributions to the conversation on the steps needed to begin the journey.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.