The new ‘robocops’ policing the poor

Police militarisation is driven by extreme inequality and it’s a global issue.

Police 'pacified' the protests over the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson in the same manner as they 'pacified' the riots in Brazil, writes Baboulias [EPA]

The images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, of police in military gear riding heavy vehicles into a small town to “pacify” the protests surrounding the shooting of Mike Brown by a police officer earlier in August, bear a striking similarity to images we saw from a rather faraway place earlier in the year.

Before the World Cup in Brazil this summer, riots sparked by an increase in the price of public transport rocked the streets of the country’s major cities. The police brutality recorded against the protesters matched that shown against those who resisted raids in the country’s infamous favelas, carried out in the year leading up to the summer of 2014.

Gentrification and social pressures for safety came in the shape of heavily armed police pitted against the urban poor. The favelas had to be cleaned up and the areas where tourists might venture, had to be made safe. Public transport was the only link the already dispossessed had to the jobs and the means of value extraction available in major urban centres. When that too was to be taken away from them, they rioted.

The violence in the streets of Brazil was met with iron resolve by the police. New gear was made available to them prior to the World Cup, that matched the government’s ambitions: black, 10kg body armours, resistant to fire up to several hundred degrees celsius. This armour, coupled with heavy lethal and non-lethal weapons, was deployed against the protesters.

The rise of the warrior cop

These images of black-clad, heavily equipped police, pop-up across the globe now. In the streets of Athens, the Greek police’s rapid intervention unit (DELTA), riding motorcycles, is stationed in big numbers almost in every corner of the centre of the city. In London, the automatic rifles carried by officers in the Underground “for the safety of the Olympic Games”, have stayed on as a permanent feature after their end. Police militarisation, dubbed by American journalist Radley Barko “The rise of the warrior cop“, is taking place to a varying extent across the globe.

In this increasingly universal image, there is no space for exceptionalism. The drive to turn police from the ‘friendly-neighbourhood-officer’ to something that resembles the latest incarnation of Robocop, needs to be understood for what it is: The transformation of a body of civil servants to an anti-social force aiming to protect the establishment.

In this increasingly universal image, there is no space for exceptionalism. The drive to turn police from the “friendly-neighbourhood-officer” to something that resembles the latest incarnation of Robocop, needs to be understood for what it is:Tthe transformation of a body of civil servants to an anti-social force aiming to protect the establishment.

In his latest book, “Inequality and the 1%”, Oxford University professor Danny Dorling asks a very potent question: Can we afford the super-rich? The arguments against the 1 percent are many and well known by now: The disproportionate amount of wealth they hold compared to the rest of us has a corroding effect on democracy, education, and social mobility, and further exacerbates the dramatic rise in inequality we’ve seen in the past 30 years. But there’s another element to Dorling’s book, that isn’t stressed often enough: The toxic ideology that inhabits the minds of many in the 1 percent.

False myths

Dorling remarks that “a majority has begun to believe that the poor have no right to live near the centre of our most expensive cities, and it becomes possible for prime ministers to claim that cutting benefits for the poorest in society is part of some moral mission”. The mirror of this is the idea that somehow the 1 percent deserve their wealth because they are so much better at what they do than the rest of us. The false myth of the “job-creator” creates the narrative necessary to a theoretical framework for the 1 percent; the police is increasingly making sure those who are being impoverished as a result of this distorted view of the world, are swiftly dealt with when they register their anger.

No expense is spared in this pursuit. Governments have spent record amounts in recent years to purchase tear gas, heavy armour and other equipment for police forces around the world. This market is worth $1.6bn and rising. I asked Dorling about the effect of these realities on policing. He told me: “Today the police increasingly look as if they are kitted out by the same global supplier of helmets and body armour, weapons, and tactics. Policing by consent, of the local community for the local community, is becoming more rare.”

City Lab published an article titled “A History of Police Uniforms – and Why They Matter” at around the same time.

“Research suggests that soldier-like clothing can truly affect the way police carry out their jobs,” it reads. “Soldiers at war operate under a code of domination, not service […] When police organisations look and act like soldiers, a military mindset is created that declares war on the American public. In this mentality, the American streets become the ‘front’ and American citizens exist as ‘enemy combatants’,” according to a study it cites. The description fits with reports from the ground by locals, who said that the policemen walking around in heavy armour, were dehumanised in the eyes of Ferguson. The general feeling was that they sought submission, rather than to restore order.

I contacted Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies to ask about the role of police and how it changes with militarisation. He told me that “stopping crime is only part of the police’s job. And a small part at that. Mostly, what they do, is maintain social order, make sure things run smoothly”. The problem highlighted by Garside’s commonsense comment, is rather plain to see: In order for things to run smoothly in highly unequal societies, we don’t just need to protect property and citizens while they go about their daily routines. We need to make sure that a portion of the population is submissive enough as to not rise up, even when one of its members is shot simply because of their skin colour or way of dressing.

Criminalising poverty

“The more general point,” Garside continued, “that the police disproportionately tends towards policing the poor, and that the more unequal the society, the more punitive the criminal justice interventions might be, has some inherent plausibility I would say… One proxy measure might be the proportionate prison population, which tends towards being higher the more unequal a society, and lower the more equal.”

It’s easy to assume which class prisoners would overwhelmingly come from. Petty crime is often the only source of income for the marginalised of the global south, while at the same time, as Radley Barko commented in a recent interview, “We are increasingly seeing governments willing to use more and more force” to crack down on those petty offences.

What we often neglect is the results of this oppression on the poor and their exemption from safety as a social right. This oppressive presence, the modern police almost as an occupying force, grows alongside a dramatic democratic deficit and debilitating financial inequality, caused by the 1 percent. It’s no coincidence that these problems are present and pre-existing in Egypt, Chile, Greece and so many other countries that have witnessed unrest as a result of social struggles.

Soldiers who’ve served in war zones will tell you that you never point your gun at people, unless you are going to shoot. And yet, police attempting to “maintain peace” in Ferguson did just that. Until we take an honest look at the toxic realities of rampant inequality, the best we can hope for is a tear-gas-democracy in which dissent is purposefully silenced. But we might get something far worse.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and the far-right has been featured in The New Statesman, Vice UK, Open Democracy, LRB, and The Guardian.