The actions of the police at the Occupy protests say a lot about their role in our society, argues James Supple
AFTER A week of peaceful occupation, police in Melbourne and Sydney moved in to violently break up the Occupy movement and clear out protesters. Occupiers were punched in the face, grabbed by the throat, pepper sprayed, dragged across the ground and assaulted, in operations involving hundreds of officers.
A video on YouTube shows a Sydney occupier’s arm bent backwards by police while he screams in pain, begging them to loosen their grip.
The mass use of force overwhelmed the occupiers. Close to 100 were arrested in Melbourne and 40 in Sydney, though most were released without charge.
Victoria Police were cheered on by Melbourne Lord Mayor and former Liberal opposition leader Robert Doyle who congratulated them on “a magnificent job” and called occupiers a “self-righteous, narcissistic, self-indulgent rabble”.
Police told straight out lies about the operation, claiming in Sydney that Occupiers had received plenty of notice to leave, despite entering the occupation at 5am in the morning with less than a few minutes warning.
They also accused Occupiers of violence, saying police encountered “varying levels of resistance” but had acted “very peacefully”. Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan joined them in accusing the protesters of “instances of violence”.
But it is clear that the police were responsible for the violence, launching pre-meditated, vicious assaults to disperse the Occupations. One person was arrested in Melbourne simply for taking photos of police who had removed their nametags to avoid identification.
An occupier in Sydney was given a bloodied nose by police, but disgracefully, has been charged with assault.
Police come to demonstrations armed with guns, batons and pepper spray to contain and demobilise them. Resisting police violence by linking arms or even mass marching on police lines when they are blocking a march route is not violence, it is an assertion of our right to protest.
More than that, it is absurd to talk about violence from protestors when police are defending an extremely violent system that leaves people to starve, wages wars for profits and leaves 300,000 homeless across Australia every night.
Capitalism and the state
The Occupiers are not the first protesters to face this. Police have a long history of violent attacks on protests and strikes. The reason they are so brutal towards protests has to do with the role they play in our society.
We live under capitalism, a world system where a tiny rich minority, the 1 per cent, seek to control and live off the work of the other 99 per cent of us.
And as the rich and powerful are only a small number in comparison to the people they exploit, they have created the police and the army to protect this wealth and power. These “armed bodies”, the police and the military together with institutions like ASIO, the courts, prisons and government departments, make up the state as we know it.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought home with terrible clarity the continuing strength of states.
It was not General Motors or Shell that hurled F-16s and cruise missiles onto Iraq. It wasn’t Ford or Exxon that planned the war on Afghanistan. It was the US state and the other states it attracted to its murder gang.
Karl Marx wrote that this state apparatus came into being when social classes emerged. The exploiters needed some organisation to apparently “stand above” the battles between classes, while in reality helping one class to crush another.
Once the state is created, the economically dominant class, the one that owns and controls the factories, banks and so on, becomes the politically dominant class. The state creates “order”, an order that enshrines the right of the rich and powerful to exploit the vast majority of society, of the government to launch imperialist wars against the wishes of the majority, of the courts to imprison people who refuse to be evicted from their homes.
Marx therefore described the state as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, the capitalist class.
In extreme situations the state has been prepared to physically eliminate governments when the interests of capitalism are threatened—such as when the military overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973.
The state is much more permanent than any government. Parliamentary majorities change. But the state machine goes on regardless of the views of voters.
The origins of the police go back to the early days of capitalism. The ruling class realised they needed such an organisation as the new urban working class gathered strength.
In 1848 the Chartists, the first mass working class movement in the world, faced down London’s Metropolitan Police. They are generally considered the first modern police force and had been set up less than 20 years earlier.
Some 150,000 workers wanted to march from London’s Kennington Common to parliament to present their six million signature charter, but the government used 100,000 special constables to stop the march.
Protecting wealth doesn’t just mean making sure we don’t steal from the rich, it means making sure their authority isn’t challenged by large numbers of people. It means propping up the existing system.
Throughout history, ordinary people have marched against injustice only to be met with violence, even when their demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful.
During the Vietnam War a peaceful crowd outside the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 faced a savage police beating. Tear gas canisters were fired directly into the crowd, some protesters shoved through restaurant windows, and others pushed to the ground and kicked repeatedly. Four students were shot dead by police at Kent State University in the US in 1970 for protesting against the Vietnam War.
The police’s defenders argue that they are simply “workers in uniform”, and that any violence is perpetrated by a few “rotten apples” or in response to a hostile and violent crowd.
But police violence is a result of the force’s role in society. They are not some kind of neutral “referee” between the movement and the ruling class; they are the arm of the state used to oppress the working class.
Some police recruits may be from working class backgrounds, but once they become police they are no longer workers. They are taught to hate working class people and protesters and are systematically used against us.
New recruits are trained to “keep order”—meaning protect the existing system—and given weapons to do it with. And they are protected from accountability for their actions.
We’re told that the police are there to “fight crime”. But their real purpose is to fight us.
At the S11 anti-capitalist protest in Melbourne in 2000, 30 people were hospitalised following vicious police assaults on the non-violent blockade of the World Economic Forum, a gathering of some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and government leaders. Then Victorian Trades Hall secretary Leigh Hubbard called it “the worst savagery by police in 25 years”. Police were prepared to act illegally, removing their name badges to prevent identification and using baton handles as a weapon to assault protesters.
Yet the rich and powerful were incredibly pleased with their performance—having threatened to cancel the meeting unless police moved in to defend them. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, summed up their attitude: “The police action was excellent. They gave the protesters a chance at the first day to behave in a civilised way, they charged when it was necessary to restore law and order.”
Then Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said that the police “did a sterling and outstanding job” and that protesters “got everything they deserved”.
There were similar scenes of police thuggery in defending the APEC meeting in Sydney in 2007, another gathering this time of world leaders including George Bush, Hu Jintao and John Howard. Reporters were thrown to the ground, a middle-aged accountant was punched and aggressively restrained while trying to cross the road, and again police refused to wear identification badges at protests.
But when workers and students unite, our side can win. The police may have batons and helmets and horses—but a mass movement can beat them back and win victories for us and future generations.
The key to this is building a movement large enough to stare down the police.
The APEC protest was a tremendous example of this. Activists faced a sustained campaign of police intimidation, with the introduction of a set of special powers to keep people and protests out of large areas of central Sydney and establishing an “excluded persons list” of activists.
Police made it clear they did not want street marches during the summit.
But 10,000 people defied the police intimidation to join the anti-APEC protest and the police had no alternative but to allow the march to take place. It was a major victory for the right to protest and the police were seriously embarrassed.
Fighting against the repression of the state must be part of a fight against capitalism as a whole—to beat back the armed guards of the rich minority and win justice for the vast majority of people.
With material from Socialist Worker UK