Rise in police violence a symptom of social ills

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Last week, the world was confronted with the horror of South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre. Over thirty striking Lonmin mineworkers were killed by the police, who turned semi-automatic rifle fire onto the workers after claiming that they were shot at first.

Time will tell whether this was the case, but even if it was, it did not justify the mass killing of so many workers. The available information points to the police having used inappropriate, excessive force to quell the protest.

Why did this happen? Policing commentators have blamed the re-introduction of the military ranking system, which existed under apartheid, which they argue has brought back a more authoritarian policing culture. Other commentators have noted a de-skilling of the public order police, who lack basic crowd management skills, and as a result quickly resort to violence when confronted with protestor violence.

If steps were taken to de-militarise the police again and re-skill them in less confrontational crowd management tactics, how likely is it that the police will return to the rights-based, facilitative policing of protest action that was favoured after the transition to democracy?

The shift towards more repressive policing is not confined to South Africa. Earlier this month, the police used automatic rifles to gun down Sudanese anti-austerity protestors. Chilean students who occupied schools to demand educational reforms were forcefully ejected and arrested by the police. In May, the police used disproportionate force to quell anti-austerity protests by Spain’s ‘Indignados'.

A report released last month by a network of US-based universities, entitled ‘Suppressing Protest’, found that the police had used excessive force against Occupy Wall Street protestors, routinely violating protestors' rights to free expression and assembly. Globally, hardly a week goes by without significant police violence against protests.

Since anti-globalisations protestors closed down World Trade Organisation negotiations in Seattle, and the events of September 11, 2002, protest policing has undergone a sea change. Increasingly, public order police have relied on confrontation rather than negotiation, and the onset of the world capitalist crisis in 2008 accelerated this change.

Escalating police violence is a symptom of a growing social crisis. In expansionary periods, the police can afford to project an acceptable face and facilitate the rights to assembly and expression.

In the most recent expansionary period of the 1990's, the dominant mode of democratic protest policing involved a negotiated management of protests, where the police facilitated the protestors’ assembly and expression rights and emphasised communication with protestors. Political elites could rule by consent fairly easily, as they could afford to offer reforms to workers to stabilise the system. The political risks of the use of force, arrests and harassment to maintain power outweighed the political benefits.

South Africa's transition to democracy took place when this negotiated mode of protest policing was ascendant, leading to it becoming the police's guiding philosophy. Protests were conducted as a negotiated ritual between the government, the police and protestors, in terms of the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

But in recessionary periods, the ruling elite find it more difficult to afford reforms, and they often implement austerity measures. Protestors find that the negotiated protest rituals of the previous period no longer work to stem the decline in working and living conditions, and seek more effective strategies. As a result, the ruling class find it increasingly difficult to maintain their wealth and power through democratic and peaceful means. They turn increasingly to paramilitary tactics, and actively promote the 'law and order' aspects of the state.

In response to the Seattle protest, the police increased their powers over protests. Rapidly, confrontation replaced negotiation as the dominant policing style and police ‘command and control’ of protests came back into vogue.

Increasingly, the police sought to control protests more effectively by setting the ground rules for them and punishing even the most minor infractions of the law. In the earlier phase of this shift, the police devised ingenious micro-techniques to repress dissent without resorting to lethal force, such as the strategic incapacitation technique where the police targeted and harassed protests leaders rather than the whole protest.

Proactive, intelligence driven policing also became more prevalent, where the police infiltrated organisations to identify and isolate ‘troublemakers’. Public spaces were also more tightly policed. Containment strategies such as ‘kettling’, where police herded protestors into an enclosed space and then attacked them, became more commonplace.

Instead of reducing conflict, this over-policing of protests has often escalated conflict. On occasion, the police used this escalation to their advantage to justify the use of excessive, even lethal force, on the grounds of self-defence. Since 2008, the police have on many occasions dispensed with the niceties of incapacitation techniques, and relied more on brute force to quell dissent.

The South African state is being buffeted between these two apparently competing public order policing philosophies, but there is growing evidence that the authoritarian philosophy is gaining ground, although this shift is uneven and contested internally. Largely, the South African media have done a dismal job in tracking this shift and explaining its significance.

Another problem pointed out in the ‘Suppressing Protest’ report is the increasing number of accountability and transparency failures when protestors complain of police violence. South Africa's experience with formal accountability systems is also not a good one. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and its predecessor have been largely ineffective in stemming growing police violence.

But if the mooted judicial enquiry into the massacre is to get to the root of the problem, then it will need to recognise that authoritarian policing practices are on the rise globally, which makes the problems South African grassroots movements face more intractable. When viewed in its correct global context, arguably the rise in police violence should not be attributed to a de-skilling of the police in crowd management, but a re-skilling in the new authoritarian policing practices. If this is the case, then police riots are likely to become more commonplace. While this is a gloomy assessment of recent events, it may also be the most realistic one.

On the upside, anti-repression activism is also on the rise globally. Increasingly anti-austerity movements are co-ordinating responses to arrests, including medical and legal support. An array of academic and legal support organisations are monitoring civil liberty violations, demanding information about policing practices and pursuing prosecutions.

In South Africa, where many protests have turned violent, including at Lonmin, the police and even the media have used this violence to delegitimize the protests, which has made it easier for the police to use violence in response. What is often ignored is the fact that overwhelmingly, the instruments of violence remain in the hands of the state, and that the primary violence that gave rise to the protests is the structural violence of the system.

When activists co-ordinate responses to defend democratic spaces against police violence, they are often highly effective because the police are susceptible to political pressure. Such responses have not really coalesced in South Africa yet, but have the potential to. The Lonmin massacre has galvanised important initiatives to organise against police violence.

But unless such initiatives are linked to a political movement against austerity and inequality, their effectiveness is likely be limited. In the wake of the massacre, and police violence elsewhere, the building of such linkages is an urgent political task for social justice movements, globally and locally.

Picture credit: "Fuck the Police" protest, Oakland, USA. glennshootspeople/Flickr

Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

  • This article appeared on Daily Dispatch. It was first published on South African Civil Society Information Service website