The virus is the police

The virus is the police

James Trafford 

As Britain prepared for lockdown amidst a discourse underpinned by militarised nationalism, we witnessed calls for hugely expanded police powers from across the political spectrum. This desire for increased policing was backed-up with police hotlines and “snooper” forms overwhelmed by over 200,000 reports.

Yet as the police responded to new powers under the Coronavirus Bill with force and discrimination they fast came under criticism. Whilst many rightly pointed out how these decisions privilege security differentially (by race, class, and property-ownership), and argued about the appropriate calculative matrix for making them, I want to make a more fundamental argument.

Now, as in previous “crises”, coercion and consent or security and liberty are squeezed into a zero-sum game – the balance between them dependent upon the supposed severity of threat. But the balancing-act itself relies on a myth of policing by consent which is maintained by its manufacture through the pervasive spread of policing across the population, and coercion against those seen as deserving of its force. I’ll show how both rely on framing threats as insurgents – as an invisible enemy – and the redeployment of imperialist forms of counterinsurgency on the streets of Britain.

Post-colonial policing
In 1979 the landmark Police Against Black People reported that with popular morality defining black people as an “alien wedge”, the police had come to re-create, reinforce, and arbitrate on that morality to determine black people’s chances in life. Doing so involved strategies for crafting social order that were readily drawn from models developed in the colonies and in Northern Ireland.

Colonial policing involved armed forces, mercenaries, and paramilitary groups, and was honed in mid 20th century struggles to maintain colonies against uprisings – particularly in the Malayan and Kenyan “emergencies”. These became “test-cases” that developed counterinsurgency (COIN) in continuation with colonial small wars. The fundamental aim was political – with population control and incentivised collaboration supported by a network of intelligence collection posts, cordons, frequent stop and search, detainment, and pseudo-gangs.

In a historical moment that was characterised by spatial intimacy with post-colonial immigrants, these techniques became central to British policing. Policing under the rule of colonial difference was translated into a Britain that was differentiated, with migrant people figured as the enemy by Enoch Powell and Thatcher, and reproduced as a colony within the nation. This threat was consolidated in the public imagination through the 1981 uprisings in Brixton and across Britain, following years of relentless violence and targeting. Whilst Lord Scarman’s subsequent report superficially pointed to discrimination within the police force, strategies of policing against Black people were ramped-up under the newly appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner Kenneth Newman.

Newman, who thought of Jamaican people as constitutionally disorderly, had previously experienced colonial policing in Palestine, and later as chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. There, in the footsteps of Frank Kitson, he had developed a militarised approach to surveillance and public order policing that relied on information collection and community infiltration. New regulations instituted similar practices across Britain, bringing social services under the banner of community policing, expanding surveillance powers across public bodies, and legitimating extensive stop and search.

The Association of Chief Police Officers worked closely with their Director of Operations of the Royal Hong Kong Police to write a public order manual and train a domestic haute police underwritten by the expertise of military personnel who had served in the colonies. Under Newman, there was a rapid take-up of the command and control structures familiar to colonial policing and military defence, providing the basis for new police support units, riot suppression units who were armed and flexibly deployed, and street patrols. This training and structure prepared the police to face future uprisings by combining (provocative) military and (undisciplined) police discretion within one institution.

Active citizens
Whilst many have focused on the paramilitarisation of policing in this era, following the doctrine of COIN, as much emphasis was placed upon “softer” community policing. Crucial to generating political legitimacy in an era of race and class-based struggles was the development of seemingly innocuous projects like Neighbourhood Watch. Emerging from strategies used in Northern Ireland and white communities response to civil rights in the U.S., Newman made Neighbourhood Watch integral to his multi-agency reorganisation of policing. Alongside Crimestoppers and Crimewatch, the movement implicated many into routine and formalised low-level intelligence gathering.

The seemingly antagonistic drives toward individual acquisition and community action were made interdependent in service of marshalling differential power over space, property, and the means of accumulation. In the 1960s and 70s, white residents had abandoned inner-city areas, leading to neighbourhoods populated by majority migrants of colour whilst the white middle class self-segregated to monocultural suburbs. The suburbs needed their middle-class self-defence league to embed surveillance into everyday life and continue to draw distinctions and limits within and between communities.

Anticipating David Cameron’s Big Society, Douglas Hurd would go on to use the scheme to exemplify Active Citizens, whilst in 1984 Thatcher proclaimed that Every citizen has to help. No-one can opt out. If you want our country to be safe, you cannot afford not to get involved. However, this sort of community political-policing crossed political divides in the period, becoming embedded in a shared common-sense. The uptake of neighbourhood watch schemes was not divided by partisanship but by wealth, property-ownership, and proximity to the urban wastelands.

Whilst consent and coercion are played-off against each other, both are fundamental to COIN through the manufacture of insurgency. For instance, information collection through the scheme was used to justify passport raids, raids on black clubs and meeting places, and arbitrary arrests by Special Patrol Groups. Conscription into policing – where no-one can opt out – was both justified by and coupled with this coercion against communities rendered suspect in the process.

Whole-society policing
The mass expansion of CCTV, burglar alarms, the insurance sector, security industries, punitive incarceration, and migrant detention is the legacy of this transformation of policing into counterinsurgency. But now, inner-city areas that were produced as waste through racial cheapening have been remade for the return of the wealthy. Privatisation, enforced decline, and redevelopment have appropriated land and subsistence to force people into dependency, precarity, and hyper-exploitation. The accumulation of capital has become increasingly reliant on the intensification of separation – of precarious bedsits, multiplying rents, and luxury flats both proximate and separated. Given popular justification by claims that isolated racial communities are literal black holes, as Trevor Philips put it, policing is increasingly concerned with the management of proximities between divided groups of people.

The separation of high-wage tech, information, and management work from a low-wage service sector has the effect of tightly coupling both together. As lockdown under COVID-19 has confirmed, the wealthy are reliant on service workers, cleaners, childminders, and Deliveroo riders, but ‘need these people to live somewhere else please, somewhere offstage and out of sight’. This spatialised intimacy and separation calls to mind Fanon’s analysis, of which Paul Gilroy writes, ‘their common racialization ensured that they were bound to each other so tightly that each was unthinkable without the proximity of the other’. The juridical order required to manage this viscous proximity relies on the naturalisation of contingent classifications of people as other, foreigner, migrant.

For instance, low-grade information is coupled with our involvement in systems like Prevent, co-opted community groups, charities, and social work. So now, in the context of counter-terrorism, gangs, and violent crime, the collation and combination of bits of knowledge under network analysis, risk prediction models, and kinships are used to target pre-criminal spaces where suspicion is the foundation for intervention. These spaces don’t just pre-empt crime, they institute in procedure that not policing yourself as efficaciously as the police is criminalised for suspect communities. The roadblocks, fines, checkpoints, random stops, and seemingly arbitrary use of powers and disruption of movement that many are experiencing under lockdown are their mainstay.

With its increasingly whole-society approach, policing doesn’t simply reflect and reinforce popular morality or political aims, it actively crafts and arbitrates on people’s lives – differentiating the relative viscosity and peril of living through education systems, healthcare, welfare, services, employment, and communities. Schemes like Met Patrol Plus, Amazon ring doorbells, and our massive private security industry consolidate partnerships between local authorities, policing, and private companies, whilst criminalisation is underpinned by routine military-style presence, raids, and mass arrests.

Agencies of policing across the state, as Mark Neocleous puts it, regularly seek injunctions and containment measures like checkpoints, curfews, and the removal of driving licenses. What has resulted is a distributed and decentralised mode of policing at the nexus of capital, politics and security working not only to confine and territorialise people, but to manage proximity through the ‘illusion of being territorially separated’.

Coercion and consent
Catastrophically on Easter weekend in Anderlecht, Brussels, 19 year old Adil was killed during a police chase as he fled in fear of being fined. Soon afterwards, graffiti painted across the region stated: “le virus c’est la police”. It is indisputable that policing has shaped lockdown as crisis – fining the already poor; spurious arrests that force people into contact; restricting access to parks, exercise, necessary services; enforcing incarceration in already overcrowded and virus-ridden prisons.

However, approaching policing lockdown on the terms of abuse of powers, increased authoritarianism, or prejudiced application, risks hiding the normalisation of COIN as our primary mode of control. The problem with the zero-sum game of consent and coercion isn’t just that it’s differentially applied, or that it is so often misused. It is that it occludes how policing is itself generative of consent and how our socio-political order has been maintained through logics of insurgency.

Bringing this into view might help us understand the cross-political demand for excessive policing together with its immediate critique; how we have processed COVID-19 through the lens of threat and the protection of citizens and national economy; how we not only acquiesce to police but also desire to police others and ourselves – with mass snitching encouraged by the police and crimestoppers through the use of existing police lines, the creation of online portals for reporting people, local facebook and whatsapp groups, and Nextdoor.

Thinking security beyond this framework of insurgency – to ask how we can better care for one another – would require us to see the vexed dilemma between coercion and consent itself as an engine of dispersed repression, to question who we think of as neighbours, who we are more prepared to police, and how pervasive policing has become instrumental in crafting movement, livelihoods, and differential value – the virus is the police.


James Trafford is Reader in Philosophy & Design in the School of Fine Art, Photography, and Visual Communication at the University for the Creative Arts. He is author of The Empire at Home: Internal Colonies and the End of Britain (Pluto Books: July 2020).

Image Credit: Saskia Vanderstichelen