Policing our Imaginations: The Role of the Police in Engendering Gender Violence


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The idea that violence and abuse by the police is exceptional, is false. It is the norm, and it is the purpose of the police in the wider ordering of our social relations. The idea that the police are at the vanguard of an anti-sexual violence revolution is ridiculous. An institution built on violence cannot and will not end violence.

Policing our imaginations: the role of the police

In the days following the news of her abduction, rape, and murder, many of us felt the ache of knowing that even when we do everything right – don’t wear revealing clothing, message a friend, carry our keys in our hands, have our Uber tracked, alter our route to well-lit streets – it still happens. At the ripe age of 36, my mother still says as an imperative and a warning when I’m out: “Be vigilant”. But it is never enough. It’s also the case that most gendered violence happens in intimate relationships, with people we know.

As further information has come to light, we now know that Couzens used his position as a police officer to arrest Everard under additional powers granted by Covid-19 legislation. It was an arrest she understandably complied with. Resisting arrest is a criminal offense, after all.

What Everard’s murder by a serving police officer has opened up is the role of police in our society. As we would expect, the Metropolitan police have tried to emphasize the ‘bad apple analysis’ in their public comments on the matter — see my colleague Rubie’s analysis of the function of this— as well as falsely distancing Couzens from the police by using ‘ex-’ and ‘former’ in descriptions about him, and deflecting the issue to one of undercover police.

The ‘bad apple analysis’ however simply obscures the reality that the criminal (in)justice system is not designed to provide safety to those marginalised and minoritised. It never has been. It’s built on the criminalization and disposability of black people, people of color, poor people, trans people, disabled people, and beyond, in service of those with wealth and power.

The very first state-funded police force pre-dates the founding of The Met in 1829. In 1798, the Marine Police was founded, at the London Docks. It was established to protect the cargo of, among others, the West Indian Planters (whose goods represented 25% of the cargo coming through the port). The cargo allegedly needed protection from “theft” from the poorly paid workers at the docks trying to complement their dismal earnings. The irony of the establishment of a police force to protect cargo extracted from the legal enslavement and subjugation of people in the British Colonies, should not be lost on us. Dr Adam Cooper-Elliot effectively argues that the British police were instrumental in the establishment and maintenance of the Empire: a tool to control and discipline the indigenous people so that Britain could extract and expropriate their resources to the Metropole. This too illuminates the function of police in society, then and now. To protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy, through the socially constructed nature of ‘crime’.

When we say that crime is a social construct, we mean that crime is a created category, not a quality inherent to an act. What constitutes a crime not only can change but what constitutes a crime isn’t always what is necessarily harmful, as Mariame Kaba often reminds us. In the above example at the London Docks, kidnapping people and enslaving African people was perfectly legal, and in the interests of many many people in Britain (as this database of slave owners created by UCL demonstrates). However, taking cargo from employers who didn’t pay you enough to survive, was determined a crime.

Let’s think of it a different way: why do the police patrol the streets, rather than the offices of investment banks whose actions produced the subprime mortgage crisis that cast millions of people into (further) poverty, or whose lending decisions fund climate catastrophe? What this tells us is that what is or isn’t a crime is designed and deliberate. Certain people’s interests are prioritized and elevated through designating some actions as criminal, while others — that certainly produce harm — are not.

The police aren’t just passive enablers of the status quo in their absence from certain quarters (like the decision-making rooms of which companies to lend to in some investment banks). There are countless examples of how the police enact and enable racist violence – which maintains the ordering of our social relations across races too.

We might look to police harassment and intimidation of the Black-owned restaurant, the Mangrove, that led to the now famous trial of the Mangrove Nine (for those with BBC iPlayer access, this film is great). 150 people gathered to protest the police’s harassment of the Mangrove and its customers, and were met with an extraordinary 500 police officers. Strangely, despite this response, the latter charged that it was nine black protesters who incited a riot. What about the role of the police in Southall in 1979 and their violence towards those protesting against fascism and the National Front’s assembly at the town hall of this community of color? Police violence there led to the murder of Blair Peach. Or the countless people that have died at the hands of the police, much more recently than 1979: Edson Da Costa, Rashan Charles, Darren Cumberbatch…Lives were stolen by the institution allegedly responsible for safety.

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And so we turn to Sarah Everard’s vigil on March 13th, 2021— a vigil that only existed because of the actions of their colleague — which resulted in police violence against mourners while using their enhanced Covid powers (again, the very powers Couzens used to falsely arrest Everard).

Patsy Stevenson was arrested by police at the vigil.

Rather than prevent crime and alleged harm – as the story goes — the police’s existence produces harm. The police are a tool of the state that has always been about maintaining order. It does this by suppressing and disposing of those who entrenched power deems undeserving and a burden — so that those for whom the status quo is comfortable can go about their (often, literal) business.

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But perhaps it’s different with gendered violence. Maybe the police are uniquely positioned to provide safety from such violence. Let’s examine the facts: Two years ago the Observer revealed that nearly 1,500 accusations of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, exploitation of crime victims, and child abuse, have been made against police officers in England and Wales over six yearsA recent investigation by Bylines informs us that in a review of 18 police forces in England and Wales, in 76 cases of sexual misconduct, almost 20% involved officers abusing their powers to elicit sex from vulnerable members of the public. The analysis covered the years between 2017 and 2020. What’s more, 75% of police guilty of gross negligence in their actions relating to sexual assault cases kept their jobs, while nearly half of officers guilty of committing sexual misconduct — including harassment of female colleagues — remain in post.

At least one woman a week comes forward to say her police officer partner is abusing her or her children. Police officers took selfies with the dead bodies of two black women Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry — sexism and racism simultaneously in action. Some of the officers who participated in a racist and sexist Whatsapp group — along with Wayne Couzens — are still in the post while under criminal investigationThe Bureau of Investigative Journalism tells us that police officers and staff across the UK were reported for alleged domestic abuse almost 700 times in the three years up to April 2018, according to Freedom of Information responses — more than four times a week on average. Beyond the number of allegations, the figures suggest reports about alleged abuse by police are treated differently. Just 3.9% in England and Wales ended in a conviction, compared with 6.2% among the general population, and less than a quarter of reports resulted in any sort of professional discipline. Greater Manchester Police, one of the country’s biggest forces, secured just one conviction out of 79 reports over the three years. And, the so-called ‘Spycops Bill’ (Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill) from earlier this year, makes it legal for a police person to rape or murder when undercover in their role. Yet some still wonder why marginalized genders so rarely come forward to the police to report the sexual violence they experience.

Prisons themselves are sites of sexual violence: coerced strip searches by wardens and routine sexual assault among those incarceratedAn 18-year-old pregnant woman was left to give birth alone in her cell, and her baby died.

Our criminal (in)justice system is a violence and death-making machine. Quite specifically, there have been 86 deaths in police custody by the Met alone in the last decade. Yet despite all this evidence, the police have us mainly convinced that safety is dependent on them. The police have policed and patrolled the limits of our collective imaginations such that conceiving of a world without them — despite the violence they enact — is considered impossible. We must demand more for ourselves.

The idea that violence and abuse by the police is exceptional, is false. It is the norm, and it is in fact the purpose of the police in the wider ordering of our social relations. The idea that the police are at the vanguard of an anti-sexual violence revolution is plainly ridiculous. Even engaging with the police can re-traumatise survivors and victims of sexual assault. An institution built on violence cannot and will not end violence.

This is why the Met’s decision to put a further 650 more officers on the street by 2022 to prevent sexual and other violence, as a response to Everard’s murder, is so desperately scary. Not only are more police, not the solution to anything — other than preserving the status quo — but we know that there is also a direct correlation between their presence and the criminalization in targeted ways of specific communities: working-class people, trans people, racialized people, and disabled people.

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Almost all of us who experience and have survived gendered violence (when so many, too many, have not) can because of the healing we have generated outside of the criminal ()justice system.

Imagine if we reallocated resources away from the violence of policing and prisons — that are themselves engaged in sexual violence — to what we know supports survivors? If survivors were a priority in our current system, then it wouldn’t be the case that funding to Rape Crisis centers has been cut, resulting in 6,355 rape and sexual assault survivors in dire need of trauma therapy sitting on waiting lists for up to 14 months, while many others have been turned away entirely.

Survivors need Resources to leave. Support to emotionally heal. Time to physically heal. Security knowing that it won’t happen to them again, by the same or other people.

And if we want to ensure that survivors aren’t at risk of experiencing that violence again then we need the world transformed. Locking up one person, or several does nothing to undo the conditions that make gendered or other violence possible again.

Instead of relying on mechanisms of policing and prisons that so blatantly do not reduce harm, we could free ourselves from this starting point and permit ourselves to ask: what do our communities and our society need to make violence of any type less likely? What do our communities and our society need to make harm less likely? When we start with these questions, we can see that individualizing harmful behavior — by locking people up — is the work of a system of oppression preservation. Systems of oppression continue when we are told to continually scapegoat individuals — rather than examine the wider conditions at the root. Of course, individuals hold responsibility for their actions, but erasing the wider systems that we are implicated in does not offer any of us a complete picture. This is a case of yes/and. As such, until we tackle the conditions that make gendered violence possible we will not be safe. In the UK, sexual violence is being enacted (mainly, but not exclusively, by cis men) at least every 9 minutes. This data alone defies the ‘few bad apples’ explanations. The mainstream logic that there are these ‘few bad apples’, while the rest of us are good, is another deflection technique of oppression. Gendered violence is the very fabric of our society — which is detailed here brilliantly by my colleague Rubie. When it’s the fabric of our society, we are all participating in it, and enforcing it, to varying degrees. Confronting our collective participation in systems of oppression is perhaps the most profound thing we can each do. Instead of turning away — and disposing of those who enact harm — we might better lean in and reflect on how we all have this capacity. The conditions of our society make its activation in various ways more likely than not. To lesser or larger degrees gendered harm is happening in public and in private, knowingly and unknowingly, intentionally and unintentionally, with all of us connected to it — whether we like it or not. With this, we then realize that there is no good/bad binary. Put simply: we can’t lock us all up.

If we wish to divest from disposability and the good/bad binary that policing and prisons insist upon, there needs to be the possibility of something else for those who have engaged in harm. Mariame Kaba is one of many scholars, organizers, and educators in this space. Her book ‘We Do This Till We Free Us’ is a must-read if you want to explore these possibilities further. But in short, divesting from disposability and the good/bad binary means resisting punishment and instead making space for accountability: acknowledgment, a commitment not to do it again, and repair. A previous FF facilitator, abolitionist, and wise human, Indigo Mateo once said, ‘Everyone has a right to their transformation’. Yet, a culture of accountability will never be possible for any of us truly, if we know that we will be disposed of and discarded when we acknowledge what we have done.

While police and prisons might seem very distant from conversations we could have in the workplace, this has profound implications for when our places of work are key spaces of gathering and collectivity. If we are committed to cultures where each person is free from the harm of gendered or other violence, then we are trying to do the work of societal transformation, building something altogether new. There are many entry points for this: accountability circles, reading groups, facilitated learning, and political education. While we might wish for big strides, small steps offer the greatest possibility for building trust between small groups of people, trust that is deeply needed to depart from our current point and to experiment.

What are we working towards on the way to this transformed world? It might look like at the interpersonal level: unlearning the entitlement we feel we have to others’ bodies; practicing consent; every single one of us having the language and skills to communicate our boundaries; every single one of us having the language skills to work through conflict and disagreementunlearning the gender binary. At the structural level, it looks like organizing around and using your resources to advocate for: policies that elevate care work, a dignified wage for all, comfortable housing for all, education for all, high-quality food for all, clean air and water for all, exceptional healthcare for all. All of these can be engaged personally and in the community, as well as in your workplace with colleagues, by orienting your workplace leadership and policymakers to prioritize these wider structural issues in the day-to-day.

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Wayne Couzens is locked up, but the police are still here engendering gendered and other violence. We all deserve so much more than this. Let’s stop the police from policing our imaginations for the society we could have — and take those small steps to build something better.

Thanks to Rubie Clarke

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