In mid-October the Occupy movement that started on Wall Street in the US, spread to Australia. Protest camps were set up in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, and other cities and towns across the country. This peaceful movement, which has encouraged people to gather and discuss issues in public spaces, was violently smashed by the police in both Melbourne and Sydney. This has led to discussion within the movement about the role of the police.
In Melbourne, riot police armed with shields and helmets surrounded occupiers. Brute force was used to drag people away from the square. Tasers, pepper spray, police dogs and horses were all used. Protestors were picked out of the crowd and thrown violently to the ground, resulting in dozens of injuries. A number of officers were filmed punching protestors. There are also reports that Indigenous people were singled out and that women were groped by police officers.
For many older people the police violence on display was not so surprising. Many remembered the brutal bashing of unarmed, peaceful protestors by the Force Response Unit during the S11 protests outside the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne in 2000. But in the aftermath of the eviction, a range of ideas about the police were discussed. Some said “they’re just doing their job”, others argued that “they should be joining with us, the Victorian government is planning to suppress their wages along with the rest of the public sector.”
These are not trivial points – many police officers come from working class backgrounds and some join the force wanting to do good in society. But this is just one side of the story. Under capitalism the police play an important role in the protection of the ruling class’s property and profitability. At the end of the day, rank and file police must answer to a superior officer. These senior officers are directed by governments who represent the interests of the big business elite.
A contradiction exists between the background of many police officers and the interests they represent, but they can not just be looked upon as normal workers. The level of tolerance they display toward protests is controlled by orders from above. When workers strike and picket their workplace, in an attempt to win a decent standard of living, the police can be mobilised within minutes to break the strike on behalf of the employer. We must confront these attacks with discipline, with no illusions about the reason the police are there.
Bosses want a force that can disrupt picket lines, attack protesters, and enforce anti-union legislation. For them, the safety and security that regular people demand from the police is secondary. When an ordinary person has their car stolen or their home broken into, the police can often take hours to visit the scene. Contrast this with the overwhelming police response against protests and picket lines, where police frequently place ordinary people in dangerous situations, and have been known to disregard almost murderous behaviour by strikebreakers and scabs.
When you have an armed force separated from the will of the community, it becomes a breeding ground for the worst attitudes. Police in Australia are known to harbour racist elements, and, as we have seen recently, violent and thuggish individuals. This leads to the victimisation of people based on race, violent overreactions by police, and has even been the immediate provocation for riots.
It’s not average peoples property that police are intended to safeguard – it’s the property of big capitalists. The dangers we face from crime are a result of the system that police are hired to protect. In a democratic socialist society, with collective ownership of the economy, there would be no need for a repressive force to protect large scale capitalist property. Petty crime, motivated by poverty and desperation, would be undermined at its root by the enfranchisement of all people. This is our ultimate goal, but such crime will continue to be a problem for as long as capitalism exists.
In the meantime, we call for democratic control over the police. All senior officers should be elected, and the community should be able to control the types of work the police do through elected committees. This is the only way to ensure a police force acts in the interests of the majority. If nothing else, what the Occupy movement has already shown is that a proper analysis of the police is crucial if we are serious about taking on the power of the 1%.
By David Elliott