On Tuesday 5th May around 100 people gathered at Friends Meeting House, Euston for the public launch of a new initiative entitled the 'United Campaign Against Police Violence' (UCAPV).
A press release issued before the meeting outlined the provisional committee of the campaign as composed of delegates from organizations established by the friends and families of people who have died in custody alongside Socialist Worker Party, Green Party, Labour Representation Committee and Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (London Region) and Public and Commercial Services Union representatives.
The meeting opened with a brief introduction by the chair, a Socialist Workers Party comrade. He noted that the campaign is borne of the police violence of the April G20 demonstrations, at which police officers randomly searched and brutalised protesters, alongside the close scrutiny of police tactics that has followed the death of Ian Tomlinson in London's financial district while on his way home from work.
The role of UCAPV the comrade argued is to act as a coalition of many different organisation to come together over many issues, suggesting that "our strength is in our breadth".
The primary focus for the three week old organisation the comrade stressed is the upcoming demonstration on May 23rd at Trafalgar Square. At this demonstration it is hoped protesters will be able to surround and thus 'kettle' Scotland Yard. A reference to the police tactic utilized at the G20 protests to contain crowds of protesters within a limited areas.
The first speaker from the front table was Deborah Coles, co-director of 'Inquest', an organisation launched in 1981 to campaign against deaths in custody. Deborah noted that this year is the 30th anniversary of the death of Blair Peach, an activist that sustained injuries eventually leading to his death following a police charge during an anti-fascist demonstration. .
The second person to speak was Jenny Jones, member of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) and Green Party London Assembly Member. Jenny suggested the UCAPV initiatives focus should include bring about change within Metropolitan Police Authority organisation, suggesting a sea-change since the death of Ian Tomlinson during which "even the tories" have been "asking difficult questions". Jenny suggested that we should welcome a situation in which people of all political hues were calling for an "end to brutality" and greater scrutiny of the police.
Jones suggested that there were things she could and couldn't say on the Police Authority, she could not suggest that the organisation either sort itself out or disband but she could argue for a review of the general policing culture. These were differences in tone, Jones argued before arguing that the focus of the campaign should be in translating the anger people rightly felt into "tough questions" for the police, alongside other 'critical' voices on the police authority, like the Liberal Democrat representatives.
Martin Smith, national organiser of the Socialist Workers Party spoke soon after. His comments contrasted markedly in focus to those of Jenny Jones, rightly apportioning blame not only to the individual policeman or woman but at the highest level, observing the continued relevance of the Italian proverb that "fish rots from the head". Comrade Smith noted that the role of the function of the police is one that seeks primarily to defend private property, at the expensive of those they are said to "serve and protect". However Martin did not extend his analysis to the implications for the campaign's initial focus; whether the campaign should focus upon reforms within the MPA, for example, is not a topic he touched upon. Surprising given the suggestion within Socialist Worker in November 2007 following the shooting of 27 year old electrician Jean Charles de Menezes that "the Metropolitan Police Authority should be disbanded" .
Following this point Comrade Smith asked rhetorically if anyone in the room had "ever seen the police support a strike?" before noting that the police "represented those in authority". In doing so Martin Smith chose not to dwell upon the the 'illegal' strike action undertaken by the Prison Officers Association in 2007, nor its call for the insertion of support for strike action in an amendment to a composite proposed to the TUC conference of 2008. That the comrade chose not to do so is perhaps not surprising given the divisive implications for the left of strike action among those who are part of the state's institutions of repression.
Comrade Smith mirrored the sentiments of the chair and the material for in the meeting in suggesting the upcoming demonstration would be a chance to put 'thousands on the streets of the capital' in opposition to police violence. In an approach suggesting that, in the words of the leaflet for the upcoming action: "mass mobilisation will be the key to our success". In the context of escalating police brutality Comrade Smith noted the steady "hike in wages" for the police during periods of intense working class unrest, citing the Miners strike of 1984-5 and the General Strike of 1926 as examples of the police being 'brought off' during periods of rising working class consciousness, of which the G20 protests were presumably an example.
All in attendance, both within the audience and on the front table, seemed rightly disgusted by both the brutal and violent policing of the G20 protests and the injustice faced by the friends and family members who had very movingly described the loss of loved ones at the hands of the police. Given both the emotive nature of the question and building press attention on the tactics the police have recently employed, the need for political discussion regarding the future direction of the campaign and the politics it seeks to adopt seems more vital than ever.
Among those representatives of the provisional committee speaking from the front table there are visible differences of focus in the attention the UCAPV initiative should focus upon. These are differences that were not addressed in a meeting that welcomed no contributions from the attendees. While the chair welcomed the breadth of the campaign as one of its strengths, this is a strength only if it is extended to those not within the immediate remit of its current provisional leadership, especially during these critical formative steps.
The kind of politics we need must take the issue of accountability of the police seriously, linking this to wider questions of democracy.That the Socialist Workers Party has within its involvement in previous broad "united fronts" suggested the demand for the armed forces and police to be “dispersed” and replaced with a workers’ militia is a "utopian" far-left demand abstract from 'existing consciousness' belies the way the organisation, like much of existing left, has failed to take the issue of democracy seriously.
While that the suggested success of the campaign could be measured by actions involving "thousands" is clearly problematic. As the 'Grand Old Duke of York' strategy of the anti-war movement suggests, size alone cannot provide the kind of change in society that is so urgently needed. What can is principled politics and a viable strategy for state power that must accompany any suggested rise in political consciousness in confrontations between workers and the police.