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The Return of the Police Riot

By Jane Duncan

Banner at Oakland, USA demo:
Fuck The Police - banner at Oakland

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.

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This article was originally published at under a Creative Commons License


13 Responses to The Return of the Police Riot

  1. pgg804 August 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    The article said “Last week, the world was confronted with the horror of South Africa’s first post-apartheid massacre.” I’m sorry, that’s simply not true. There have been massacres of white farmers going on for years.

    • who_me August 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

      poor whitey, they get so much abuse from those “evil darky minorities”, like those poor jewish settlers in the west bank…

    • who_me August 20, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

      “The U.S. has opened a military command for interventions in Africa, and a correlated agit-propaganda campaign is expectable. With reference to the murder of nearly four thousand ethnically European farmers, the term “White Genocide,” is currently being applied to the situation of white farmers by the U.S. based Project South Africa. Its website features an ugly racist quote by Albert Schweitzer (b. 1875) to present an agenda of small U.S. demos protesting treatment of the white farmers while ignoring Afrikaner poor and the greater numbers in poverty of their non-white countrymen. The focus on crimes against white South Africans as a separate group re-kindles grievances ‘resolved’ by South Africa’s independence. The term “white genocide” taps into racist, extremist and neo Nazi support,3 noted by a Feb. 27th demonstration in Sacramento California where Project demonstrators and police were met by “Occupy Oakland” and accused of Klan influence.”

    • who_me August 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

      meanwhile, afrikaner white supremacism is still alive and kicking:

      “Andre Visagie, who briefly led Afrikaaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) for a short period after the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, and current head of the Geloftevolk Republikeine (Covenant People Republicans), delivered a chilling message on how racist sentiment still thrives in South Africa.

      In a video statement on March 28, Visagie says after a meeting of the group, “People were very radical, in the sense that they want to go over to action.

      “They want to prepare for war. They want to set an ultimatum: for every single one of our people who is killed by a black person, 30 black people should be killed, because we are 30 times fewer than they are.”

      The gathering (which they termed a “nood volksvergadering”, or “emergency meeting of the nation”) was held in Bloemfontein.”

    • who_me August 20, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      according to the white supremacist far right, black are running amok committing genocide of whites in south africa (if you believe the bigoted hype at rense or stormfront). the reality is blacks have a somewhat larger share of being victims of murder, comparing percentages murdered with percentage share of population. one can see the statistics here:

      On race and crime in SA

      these 3 articles i posted show 3 different aspects of south african racial problems and crime.

      1. the real racial inequalities still persist, in spite of the end of apartheid and the involvement of non-whites as active participants, rather than as disenfranchised slaves or serfs only. whites still own most of everything and the country still is run for their benefit. non-whites still have little real power over their own lives. this is not directly due to race, like it was in apartheid, but due to economic reasons of rich vs poor, ie: oligarchic capitalism. whites had the wealth, the system ensures they keep that wealth, so the rest of the country remains as they were, in spite of having “rights” now.

      2. white racism never disappeared in south africa, it went under ground somewhat. it’s still a major problem that will probably take a few generations to dissipate.

      3. there is no genocide of whites in south africa, whites suffer fewer murders in proportion to their numbers than non-whites do. this “genocide of whites” is white supremacist horseshit.

      there really is no difference between a jewish supremacist and a white supremacist. they’re both of the same bottom rung, knuckledragging species.

      • who_me August 20, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

        claiming whites have been massacred in south africa, like the way 40+ miners were a few days ago, is a gross distortion of reality and an example of buying in to white supremacist bs.

  2. pgg804 August 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    I have never been there and I’m not an authority, but I believe a lot of educated people may have left South Africa in the last 20 years. That might account for the untrained police. I have heard it was once a beautiful country (yes, with an apartheid gov’t), but it is not very beautiful any more.

    But, I believe they did a good job with the World Cup that was held there a few years ago and that takes organizational skill.

    • fool me once... August 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

      “I have never been there and I’m not an authority,”
      Does that mean we should accept whatever Cosmo says about Palestine/israel because he lives there?
      “a lot of educated people may have left South Africa”
      Are you referring to the white people who rinsed the place.
      “That might account for the untrained police.”
      They have the same MO as the apartheid police.
      “I have heard it was once a beautiful country,”
      It was before the colonisers moved in, then it went down hill, to uglyville.
      “(yes, with an apartheid gov’t)”
      No –
      “but it is not very beautiful any more.”
      It takes time to recover after hundreds of years of abuse.
      We’ve had this discussion before about israel’s “beauty” – it don’t wash here.
      “But, I believe they did a good job with the World Cup that was held there a few years ago and that takes organizational skill.”
      Sooprisin coz dee blick min ken ownly mek mudhuts. – That was a surprisingly piss poor comment pgg804, try again!

  3. who_me August 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    the cops are tools used by corporate poligarchy to stay in power. this article doesn’t really address that fact except in the most vague of terms. it comes across as portraying the increases in repression as something the cops initiated on their own, as if the hired enforcers are deciding war strategy.

  4. Rehmat August 22, 2012 at 1:09 am #

    Under the Apatheid South Africa, Israelis used to train the South African police to control ANC roits. The US police beating the hell out of the Occupy Wall Street is also trained in counter-terrorism by Israelis. After all, pro-Israeli Jewish groups have labelled OWS protesters ‘anti-Semitics’.

    On December 2, 2011, Al-Akhbar English published a research piece by American Jewish author, writer and blogger, Max Blumenthal. In the article, entitled ‘From Occupation to Occupy: Israelification of American Domestic Security’ – Max claims that the high-handed tactics used by American security forces against the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and American Muslims, were taught to them by Israel Occupation Force (IOF) officers.

    • pgg804 August 22, 2012 at 2:07 am #

      I wonder if they consider that something to their credit? Whether truthful or not, Jews had a miserable reputation as soldiers before WW II. They were widely considered to be unpatriotic (dual loyalty), lacking in numbers at the front and those that did serve didn’t have a particularly good reputation.

      Its generally said they wanted to change the perception of Jews as weak to being strong with the creation of Israel, but they were certainly never weak when it came to political power. As part of that process, Jews in the American media (and I suspect other western countries) have written things often over the years claiming that Israelis have the best Army in the world, the best trained special forces in the world (they made at least 2 or 3 movies about a “rescue” of Jews from Entebbe airport years ago by Israeli “special forces”), the best trained this, the best trained that, however when they were killing a Palestinian family they always did it in the most humanitarian method possible. According to Jewish Zionist journalists, Jews are the best killers and also the most humanitarian people in the world, all at the same time.

      Over the years the Jewish media has claimed that Israeli’s trained the German “special forces” (this is so funny when you consider the reputation both these people’s had in the past and how it was reversed with this claim), trained American forces, etc. etc. etc. It used to be popular for Americans to say “send the Israelis in, they’ll take care of it”. All this is bullshit created by the “Jewish supremacists” that think their shit doesn’t stink. Although overwhelmingly outgunned, Hezbollah threw the bastards out of Lebanon in 2006. We then got a better picture of how “brave” and “skilled” they are. But, they certainly have much more in firepower than their enemies.

      I have not heard anyone say “send the Israelis in” in a long time. I suspect that is part of the general downward trend in their reputation.

  5. who_me August 24, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    what’s up with the germans? they give subs to israel so israel can use them to launch nuclear tipped cruise missiles at iran, they lead the pack trying to extract the last drachma from greece and send that country into deep poverty, and now they try to steal a musician’s antique violin in broad daylight. have they become totally jp’ized organised criminals?

    “The Belgium-based musician who has worked in Europe for three decades was transiting through Frankfurt Airport after performing in Japan.

    As she tried to walk through the green gate for visitors arriving in the EU with nothing to declare, customs officers stopped her saying she had to pay 190,000 euros duty on her 18th Century violin, Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported.

    On top of this reportedly came the fines, bringing the total cost to 380,000 euros, said the Tokyo Shimbun daily.

    “I have used Frankfurt Airport many times and never had problems like this before. I don’t know why this happened,” the musician told the Yomiuri.

    Horigome has performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.”

  6. who_me August 25, 2012 at 2:50 am #

    the jewish run media goes to incredible stretches to support police violence. in the following story, not only does the jewish writer invent absurd levels of bs to excuse these pig cowbois, the disgusting sod attributes the injured’s seeking compensation or justice as that of a sleazy con artist:

    “He apparently wasn’t able to fire before police killed him, one firing off seven rounds and the other nine. Bystanders suffered graze wounds, and some were struck by concrete gouged from buildings by the bullets, authorities said. At least one person said he was actually hit by a bullet.

    If bullets fired by police or fragments struck civilians, then the officers were also lucky to be alive, since bullets could have boomeranged in their direction, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.”

    yeah, right. the chance would be as slim as the bullets striking an over flying airliner. the cops lacked professionalism and started firing wildly in panic. the jewish run media seek to cover that up.

    i mean, what are the chances somebody “important” might get injured by these mercenary cowbois? cops protect those in power from the great unwashed. and who are in power in the usa right now? this is why the corporate media cover up police crime.