Sexism, the police and abolition

Issue: 176

Sheila McGregor

Policing in England is in crisis.1 The Metropolitan Police was put into “special measures” on 28 June 2022; the total number of forces in special measures is now six.2 Although the police in Britain have always been a repressive force, care has been taken in the past to maintain an image of “consent”, at least among parts of the population.3 However, the whole concept of “policing by consent” has been increasingly undermined by the systematic targeting of young black men in stop and search operations, the deaths in police custody highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, more aggressive policing of environmental protesters, and the spotlight shone on misogyny in the police following the murder of Sarah Everard.4

Instead of “bad” experiences at the hands of the police being confined to discrete parts of the working class, there is now a more generalised perception of the repressive, racist and misogynist nature of policing. A YouGov poll in June 2021 indicated that more people (48 percent) lacked confidence in the police than had confidence in them (43 percent).5 Similarly, the 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales noted a downward trend in confidence in the police, from 62 percent in 2017 to 55 percent in 2020.6 If, in the past, white middle-class women might have expected the police to be their protectors, the murder of Everard on the evening of 3 March 2021 by Wayne Couzens, at the time a serving police office, changed all that.7 The attack on those attending a vigil on Clapham Common ten days later further undermined this view, as the image of protester Patsy Stevenson being pinned to the ground by two male police officers went viral.8 Everard’s murder and its aftermath acted as a lightning rod for anger about the police and the rotten, sexist and misogynist culture in its ranks.9

The starting point for this article is that police are an institution of the capitalist state that came into existence to enforce the priorities and values of the ruling class and safeguard its property.10 The policing of women is shaped by their oppression as women, as black women and as working-class women. The subordinate role of women is rooted in their responsibility in the family for the reproduction of the working class. The family is the foundation of the inequality, rigid gender divisions, hierarchy, violence and abuse that translate into sexism and misogyny in wider society.11 Police officers themselves grow up in and live in relationships shaped by the family. This contributes to the “non-policing” of domestic violence and the trivialisation of sexual harassment and rape. When women participate in protest movements and working-class struggles deemed to be unacceptable by the establishment, they are subject to the same police violence as men, often with a sexist twist.12 The Suffragettes, who campaigned for the vote in early 20th century Britain, became only too familiar with the repressive tactics of the police. Today, institutional racism shapes black women’s experience of policing, and migrant and trafficked women are subjected to repressive migration laws.

Such experiences raise the question of whether the police can be reformed or should be abolished. It also poses the question of whether we should seek to strengthen laws and police powers in relation to sexism and racism or whether that would simply reinforce the capitalist state that creates these problems in the first place. This article will outline how the police were created in Britain and, more briefly, the United States, exploring some of the early experiences of policing women. It will argue that, under capitalism, the ruling class prioritise certain kinds of crime and determine how the population should be policed. I will also show how the crisis in policing is throwing up different strategies for dealing with the extent of sexism and racism in police forces. One important intervention in these debates, the recent book Abolition. Feminism. Now., by US campaigners Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie, helpfully locates policing in the context of neoliberal global capitalism.13 It argues for intersectional struggle against the sexism and racism of the state rather than anything that might strengthen police powers. I will engage with the arguments in this book and ask if it goes far enough in confronting the state.

The prison-industrial complex

One great strength of Abolition. Feminism. Now. is that it locates policing in a global economic and social context. The authors use the term “prison-industrial complex”, pointing to the systematic growth of prisons and policing as well as the targeting of specific communities that have accompanied the global spread of neoliberalism over the past 40 years.14 This prison-industrial complex stretches its tentacles to all parts of the globe, from South Africa to Palestine. Ruth Wilson Gilmore links the rise of this “carceral” side of the state to the disappearance of well-paid blue-collar jobs and cuts to welfare, services and subsidies for poor and working-class people.15 This is the flip side of the neoliberal theory of “the small state”, the emergence of what she calls the “anti-state state”.16 Along with these domestic factors, the global impact of neoliberalism, along with imperialist wars, has led to mass migration and, in turn, further border policing. This, together with the expanding powers of incarceration and deportation, is particularly marked in the US, Britain and the European Union. Security is a growth industry. For instance, G4S, part of Allied Universal, is a global security business, operating in 80 countries with 800,000 employees, making it one of the world’s largest private employers.

Although primarily developed by North American authors, the analysis applies to Britain. The increased use of incarceration and longer sentences have led to a crisis in prisons. According to researcher Georgina Sturge:

The prison population of England and Wales quadrupled between 1900 and 2018, with around half of this increase taking place since 1990. The Scottish prison population almost doubled since 1900 and rose 60 percent since 1990… In 1900, there were 152 male prisoners per 100,000 men in the population. This rate increased to 327 per 100,000 in 2020.17

Currently, 28 percent of the prison population in England and Wales are from a non-white background, twice the proportion in the population at large (13 percent). Similarly, 13 percent of inmates are categorised as “black” or “black British”, despite these groups making up just 3 percent of the population.18 The focus on policing terrorism after 9/11 is reflected in the increasing proportion of Muslim prisoners, from 8 percent in 2002 to 18 percent in 2021.19 There are also increasing numbers of prisoners on remand. In 2017, 58 percent of those on remand did not end up in prison; nonetheless, the “psychological effect can be devastating—remand prisoners constituted only 13 percent of the total prison population in 2014, but 46 percent of suicides”.20 Sentences in England and Wales are getting longer, and prisoners older. By 2021, 44 percent of prisons were overcrowded.21

Social support, which might prevent people ending up in prison, is also in crisis. From 2010 to 2017-18, there was a real-terms cut in funding for youth services of 70 percent.22 This has meant a loss of 760 youth centres and 4,500 youth work jobs since 2012.23 The national education system’s failure of black children is seen in the numbers who end up in so-called pupil referral units (PRUs), producing what the MP Diana Abbott refers to as “the pipeline from PRU to prison” for young black men.24 Provision for women facing domestic violence and rape has also been systematically cut since 2010 under austerity measures. In 2021, Farah Nazeer, chief executive of the Women’s Aid charity, pointed out that refuges and community services needed £393 million but were allocated just £165 million.25 In addition, there are cuts in legal aid and local authority grants for Independent Domestic Violence Advisor Services, ranging from 23 to 100 percent.26 Added to this is the overall impact of lack of housing and the pressures on doctors’ surgeries and other elements of the National Health Service.

Misogyny and policing: lifting the lid

The problem of misogyny and sexism in the police is an important dimension of these wider problems. Such sexism is deeply rooted, notwithstanding the fact that a third of Britain’s police officers are women. Over the past 12 years, police officers have been responsible for the murders of 15 women, mainly homicides of partners.27 Five officers from Hampshire’s serious organised crime squad were sacked in 2021 after making racist, sexist and homophobic remarks: “Women were called or referred to as ‘whores’, ‘sluts’, ‘sweet tits’ or ‘sugar tits’, ‘Dorises’ and ‘a fucking Doris’.” At one point officers were recorded asking themselves if a person using the Tannoy system was “getting any cock”.28 Cases have also emerged of up to 20 undercover police officers who, in the course of infiltrating various groups and campaigns, embarked on sexual relationships with women, up to and including having children, with the tacit knowledge of their supervisors.29 Officers involved made “gross and offensive jokes” about their relationships in front of managers.30 This was, in other words, state-sanctioned rape.

By March 2020, the Centre for Women’s Justice had recorded 666 reports over three years of domestic abuse incidents and offences perpetrated by police officers, community support officers and other staff from 30 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales.31 Sue Jones, former chief of Nottinghamshire Police, interviewed in the Guardian, detailed the sexism directed at her, from inappropriate touching to having to wear “see-through” shirts.32 Worse, she described a culture where male police officers routinely visited vulnerable women for sex. She introduced the recording of misogyny as a hate crime in 2016. However, when she tried to persuade the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to do the same in 2018, she claims “Sara Thornton [then NPCC chair] and Cressida Dick [then Met commissioner] were two of the most instrumental people in making sure it didn’t happen”.33 The “toxic masculinity” in police forces is reinforced when the likes of Boris Johnson, while prime minister, himself opposed making misogyny a hate crime.34

The police’s record of dealing with violence against women is woeful. During the past five years, reporting of rape cases has risen sharply, but the number of prosecutions has halved, while convictions have dropped to a record low. The section on rape in Vera Baird’s Victims’ Commissioner Report 2019/20 is headed: “Rape victims denied justice”. The report states: “It is a shocking and unacceptable fact that in 2019 only 3 percent of rape complaints result in a suspect being charged”.35 In analysing these figures, Baird points to advice given to drop any cases that seem weak and unlikely to get a conviction, and to the practice of taking the phones from rape victims, which led to many victims deciding not to pursue their complaints.36 Baird concludes her second report for 2020-1 with the verdict that the government’s action plan on this issue had “a distinct lack of urgency and ambition”. She notes: “Just 1.6 percent of rapes recorded in 2020 have so far resulted in a charge or summons. This is shameful”.37

The figures for domestic violence are no better. The 2019-2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that 2.3 million adults aged 16-74 suffered domestic abuse, of whom 1.6 million were women. The police (excluding Greater Manchester Police) recorded 758,941 cases of abuse, an increase in 9 percent from the year before, but prosecutions fell by 19 percent, from 98,470 to 79,965.38 To date, one police force has fully completed training on domestic abuse.39

One particularly poignant case combining racism and misogyny was the fate of the sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, murdered on 7 June 2020, whose bodies were found as a result of searches by the family and not the police. This negligence was reinforced by the disgusting behaviour of Constables Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis, who shared photos they took of the bodies of the two women they were supposed to be guarding. They were subsequently jailed for two years and nine months.40 The record of racist and misogynist policing was compounded by the case known as Child Q—a 15 year old black girl subjected to an intimate body search, while she was menstruating, by Met officers.41 No responsible adults were present and her parents were not informed.42 Subsequently, it emerged that 9,088 children aged between 10 and 17 were strip searched in custody by the Met officers in the period between 2016 and 2021.43

Liberal Democrat peer Brian Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner in the Met, called for Everard’s murder to be treated as a “Stephen Lawrence moment”.44 However, Johnson, prime minister at the time, sought to avoid any inquiry that could lead to a verdict of “institutional sexism”, particularly after the 2021 Sewell Report—in a reversal of the Macpherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence—had concluded there was no institutional racism in British society.45 The then home secretary, Priti Patel, announced a non-statutory public enquiry, without the powers to force witnesses to attend, unlike the Macpherson Inquiry. Cressida Dick initially refused to resign as Met commissioner, claiming there was always “a bad un” in reference to Couzens.46 Yet, further revelations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, involving 14 officers at Charing Cross police station, sealed her fate.47

The capitalist state and the police

To understand the nature of the police, we have to understand its role as a part of the capitalist state. Rather than being a neutral body standing above society, the state, as Lenin put it, arose historically as the “product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class contradictions”.48 Marxist theorist Colin Barker described the capitalist state in the following way:

The typical organisational form of the state is bureaucracy, with a centralised power and a hierarchy of state servants: army, police, judiciary, civil servants. Its form is significant; it is organised so that its personnel are dependent for the rules that control their actions on those above them, rather than on the people. It, of course, needs armed force as part of its structure, to protect its monopoly; no state could survive without its “armed bodies of men”… Police, army, judiciary, secret service, civil service…maintain their areas of “autonomy” from parliamentary scrutiny and control. By far the largest part of the state is not subject to election, nor to direct control by any agency outside itself. This applies to the entire massive “executive” of the state, which includes the army and police branches.49

The police are a relatively recent addition to the forces of the state. The rise of industrial capitalism saw the creation of a modern working class and the development of resistance in the form of strikes and demonstrations. The latter included the famous gathering in Manchester that resulted in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where protesters were charged by cavalry. Fears of riots by the urban poor, with successive waves of unemployment and high food prices due to the Corn Laws, which restricted cheap imports, contributed to the sense of unrest. Four million out of a population of 19 million were reliant on “poor relief” in 1819. Developing working-class resistance led to repressive laws and the outlawing of trade unions. Strikes influenced by Chartist agitation and demonstrations demanding the vote were central preoccupations of the ruling class by the 1840s.

Initially, the government relied on the army to deal with protests, but it rapidly became clear that it was impossible to have the army stationed in every town. Could it be relied on to deal with workers in revolt? Moreover, if it did, would it respond with excessive violence, as had happened at Peterloo, risking escalating disorder? Much better to set up a special force throughout the country, separate from the army and dedicated to maintaining law and order.50

Initially, “policing by consent” was a key principle. This was a new force that had to gain acceptance if it was going to be effective. As historian Stephen Inwood argues, far from cracking down on every aspect of working-class life, particularly in the streets, “Their aim in general was to establish minimum standards of public order but not to provoke social conflict by aspiring to unattainable ideals”.51 By avoiding provoking riots, Inwood argues, the permanent presence of this new force led to the poor gradually adapting to increased police control of the streets. Hawking goods in the streets could take place on Sundays, provided such activities ended by 11am; prostitutes could ply their trade, as long as it was done discreetly. “During these formative decades, the Metropolitan Police developed a practical compromise between middle-class ideals and working-class realities and learned to live with the popular culture that some of its advocates had expected it to destroy”.52

Alongside these regular forces, a special “counter-terrorism” unit was set up within the Metropolitan police in 1883, known as the Special Irish Branch. This was aimed at countering the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was fighting for Irish independence. Later, “Irish” was dropped, leaving us with the Special Branch we know today. William Harcourt, the then home secretary, set up the unit to counter “politically motivated violence” and develop techniques of infiltration.

Policing and the US

The British model of policing is highly centralised, despite the numbers of different forces, because funding is allocated by central government and can only be used for policing. By comparison, the US has a decentralised model, so campaigners can aim to divert money from the police to alternative projects, hence the idea of “defunding” the police. There are five major types of police agency, ranging from federal and state levels to county, city and village levels. However, federal and state officials can conduct investigations into offences over which they have jurisdiction.53 There are several important historical features of US policing. For one thing, there are specific ways in which US policing has been intertwined with racism. The first unofficial policing was in the “slave states” in the South, where slave patrols were responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. Cruelty was inherent in this “policing”, which operated as a weapon to discourage slave revolts.

Even after the US Civil War, which would end slavery in the South, as US writer Kala Bhattar argues:

Cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units [the former slave patrols]. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labour, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labour of the newly freed populace…through the prison system… Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of laws were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of colour. In part due to the loophole in the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centred around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow laws… Ironically, the loophole provided by the 13th Amendment gave rise to today’s prison-industrial complex.54

Segregation in the South was legally enforceable until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Meanwhile, policing in the North was established in key urban centres in the 1840s and 1850s in response to social disorder:

The emerging commercial elites needed a mechanism to ensure a stable and orderly work force, a stable and orderly environment for the conduct of business, and the maintenance of what they referred to as the “collective good”. These mercantile interests also wanted to divest themselves of the cost of protecting their own enterprises, transferring those costs from the private sector to the state.55

In addition, many states gave private industry the right to establish their own private police forces to break strikes and deal with labour unrest. The most famous was the Pinkerton agency established in 1850.56

The militarisation of the US police started under President Ronald Reagan in pursuit of the “war on drugs” from the mid-1980s, with the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments across the US. This policy was formally recognised by Congress in 1996 as the “1033 Program”. The American Civil Liberties Union has established that, since then, “The US military has given roughly 10,000 law enforcement agencies $7.4 billion worth of equipment including grenade launchers, batons, combat vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of rifles”.57 The impact of these weapons falls disproportionately on black people.

Capitalism creates criminals

Central to the project of “policing with consent” is appearing to solve crimes that affect working-class people. The problem is that capitalism itself generates crime. Friedrich Engels documented the sharp increase in day to day crimes such as theft, fights, domestic violence and the like, comparing the steep rise in England at the advent of industrial capitalism with the situation in its continental neighbours.58 He noted that these crimes were committed by working-class people against other working-class people.

Some 170 years later, little has changed. Former police officer Iain Donnelly compares London with an onion: “There are layers stretching outside of the centre where there are greater levels of urban deprivation and poverty, which create many of the conditions for higher levels of crime and disorder: drug dealing, urban street gangs and more serious violence involving guns, weapons and knives.” His experience in the West Midlands led him to conclude that the high murder rate was related to drugs and that a “vast amount of crime is driven by drug addiction and committed by a relatively small number of people”. His time as an officer dealing with child abuse led him to observe: “Many of the parents we dealt with led chaotic lives blighted by physical abuse, drugs, alcohol and mental illness… It was a toxic and dangerous mix for children”.59

In other words, policing, as Engels pointed out, is about controlling certain effects of capitalist society that are defined by the ruling class as crimes—as opposed to seeing these as inevitable consequences of a society founded on exploitation, oppression and alienation. The drive to maintain respectability and uphold family values leads to the criminalisation of drugs and prostitution. Alienation and poverty can lead to dependency on drugs and gambling to deal with the pain of life. Categorisation of certain drugs as illegal creates criminals and criminal gangs, leading to certain kinds of policing of communities and imprisonment. The simple fact is that people do not steal what they already have or can readily buy, and so it is poverty itself that drives much crime. Meanwhile, the creation of the poverty that stunts people’s lives, along with other consequences of production for profit, is not defined as a crime, so the capitalist class can avoid being policed and prosecuted.60

Engels and Karl Marx understood the police to be an oppressive force that should be abolished. Marx noted of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers of Paris briefly held power, “Instead of continuing to be the agent of the central government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune”.61

Getting the prostitutes off the streets

Keeping the poor off the streets to make them “safe” for the upper classes had been a preoccupation of the elite for centuries. This led, for instance, to successive laws on vagrancy, which would also become an important tool for forcing people into work as Britain industrialised. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 included references to prostitutes and indecent exposure. The 1838 Vagrancy Act added “indecency”; the 1875 Vagancy Act, gambling and playing cards on the street; the 1898 Vagancy Act, male prostitution, enabling the harassment of gay men. The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawed all homosexual acts short of “buggery” (which was already illegal) and raised the age of consent from 13 years to 16.

The vagrancy laws affected working women who had to use the streets to get to and from work as well as those for whom it was a workplace; they empowered the police to arrest a woman for “suspicious loitering” or because she was wearing the wrong kind of clothing.62 Police not only tried to keep women off the streets, but themselves sexually assaulted women.63 Views on prostitution were divided between those who considered it necessary and others, particularly middle-class women, who increasingly campaigned against it. Historian Judith Walkowitz argues:

It was during the religious revival of the 1850s that prostitution was enshrined as the great social evil. Hand in hand with the tremendous expansion of evangelical rescue homes in the metropolis came police crack downs on the night haunts of prostitutes and their open solicitation in the West End.64

The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1868 and 1869 focused on policing prostitution and driving a wedge between “respectable” and “disreputable” women. The military and naval establishments became concerned about the extent of syphilis within the armed forces when it transpired in 1854 that one in three cases of sickness in the army were due to venereal disease. The medical establishment blamed prostitution and was confident that controlling it would solve the problem.65 The Contagious Diseases Acts initially applied to garrison towns and ports, with proposals to extend them to the north of England:

Under the acts, a woman could be identified as a “common prostitute” by a special plainclothes policeman and then subjected to a fortnightly internal examination. If found suffering from gonorrhoea or syphilis, she would be interned in a certified lock hospital (a hospital containing venereal wards) for a period not to exceed nine months… When accosted by the police, a woman was expected to submit voluntarily to the medical and police registration system or else be brought before the local magistrates. If brought to trial for refusing to comply, the woman bore the burden of proving that she was virtuous—that she did not go with men, whether for money or not.66

Policemen were known to climb in through windows to apprehend suspects. These laws revealed a profound class misogyny involving the demonisation and hatred of young women in dire economic straits who usually turned to prostitution when all other means of securing a living had failed. Typically, young women in their late teens in the areas round the naval ports would spend several years working as prostitutes before settling into other professions.67 Before these acts, they could live together in lodgings in poor areas without being stigmatised. Subsequently, young women were forced to place themselves under the protection of “pimps” and were set apart from the working poor of their town. Ultimately, the acts were repealed in 1886 as a result of campaigning by a coalition of middle-class feminists and working-class radicals who opposed the intrusion into working class women’s lives.68 The misogynist character of the Contagious Disease Acts is captured by the testimony of one woman working as a registered prostitute:

It is men, only men, from the first to the last that we have to do with! To please a man, I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hand on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored and messed on with. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayers and reads the Bible for us. We are up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die.69

After the passing of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the closure of brothels accelerated dramatically, with women and children thrown out onto the streets, losing the only home they had, only to be picked up under vagrancy laws or subject to the Prison Acts. Landlords became wary of renting out accommodation to women for fear of being classified as keeping a brothel. Women involved in the temperance movement, evangelical movements and the National Vigilance Association developed closer links with the police while campaigning to clear the streets of prostitutes.70 One such campaign in Aldershot in 1888 led to 400 women and children being turned out onto the streets.71 Increasingly, racist views took hold that blamed prostitution on migrants, increasing support for the 1905 Aliens Act.72

Sexism and the police

The subordination of women in the family was codified in law, framing the police’s relationship to women. Reforms were won only slowly. Until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, married women had no separate legal status from their husbands. A husband’s use of corporal punishment was made illegal in 1891. However, it took almost another century until the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act in 1976 allowed women to obtain a court order against an abusive husband and for a man to be ordered out of the matrimonial home without initiating divorce or separation proceedings. Rape within marriage was still legal until 1994, and coercive control became a crime only in 2015. One consequence of women’s subordination within marriage and the family emerged in a recent inquiry—resulting attitudes to illegitimacy during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s led to 185,000 unmarried mothers being forced to give up their babies for adoption. The pressure to do so came from parents, churches and social services.73

One former female detective, Jackie Malton, argued in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder that the police “don’t come from another planet, they come from society”, implying that they simply reflect society’s values.74 However, an Independent Office for Police Conduct report into Charing Cross police station revealed a level of homophobia, misogyny and racism going far beyond typical attitudes in wider society. MPs debating this report argued that such attitudes were known to be widespread in police stations across the country.75 Moreover, it would be a mistake to reduce the problem to individual racist and sexist attitudes among officers or factors such as “male bonding”. As the authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now. argue, “Policing can be driven by structural racism even when the majority of police are black people”.76 The same applies for sexism. Several factors militate against the police taking domestic abuse and violence against women seriously. In Crime, Class and Corruption: The Politics of the Police Audrey Farrell argued: “The incidence of violence in the street has been greatly exaggerated by the police in order to justify their role and presence there. By contrast, they also have an interest in downplaying the threat in one of the real battlegrounds of our society—the home”.77 This is because the family is a key institution of capitalist society. The capitalist class depends on unpaid work in the home, undertaken mainly by women, to ensure family members are fit for work, to bring up children and, increasingly, to care for grandchildren, the sick and the elderly.78

A further problem is the structure of policing as a hierarchical organisation, where obeying orders unquestioningly is a prerequisite, embedding a subservient attitude to those at the top of the force. Furthermore, police officers exist to preserve the status quo of a ruling class that venerates crown and country, the former glory of the British empire, law and order, family and conventional attitudes. The ethos is of being part of one big family of law enforcers versus law breakers. Finally, a culture of target-setting common to many public sector organisations militates against police pursuing cases of an interpersonal nature.79 Far easier to engage in “stop and search” or be involved in a car chase, hunting down “real” criminals.80

Assessing Abolition. Feminism. Now.

The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought with it arguments about abolition and defunding the police.81 Baird’s description of the lack of policing of sexual violence, which amounts to a decriminalisation of rape, similarly points to debates about the reform or abolition of the police.

The official response has been to pledge to address these issues while also preserving the status quo. So, the NPCC has offered a policy entitled “Policing Violence against Women and Girls—A National Framework for Delivery”.82 Mark Rowley, former NPCC counter-terrorism lead and now the head of the Met, argues:

Our mission is to lead the renewal of policing by consent, which has been so heavily dented in recent years as trust and confidence have fallen… We will fight crime with communities—not unilaterally dispense tactics.83

Rowley will doubtless seek to re-establish “neighbourhood policing”, whereby local sources of information, “founts of knowledge”, help guide police operations.84

Even the Labour Party’s radical 2019 manifesto, written under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, focused on bolstering police numbers: “Our communities were endangered when the conservatives took 21,000 police officers off our streets.” The message about the inadequacy of police numbers was restated at the 2021 Labour Party national conference.85 The manifesto also defended “proportionate” stop and search. Acknowledgement of the criticisms of the police were confined to its proposal to review the Prevent programme, ostensibly an anti-terrorism initiative, due to its ineffectiveness “and potential to alienate communities”, and a push for improved training for the police in handling domestic abuse cases.86

An academic article by criminologists Jennifer Fleetwood and John Lea reviews more radical demands to “defund the police” emerging from the US and considers how they might apply in Britain. They claim that the defunding demand does not fit in a British context, partly because of differences between the two countries and partly because they believe there is a continuing role for the police. They see abolition as a long-term project and focus instead on minimising and restricting the role of the police. They want an end to stop and search and for the police to no longer be the “first responders” in emergency situations. The police would only be involved if called on by a specially appointed public official they call “the controller”.87

This stands in contrast to the approach taken in Abolition. Feminism. Now. In light of the radicalising effect of Black Lives Matter, the authors of that work are keen to assert how the roots of ideas about abolition are also entwined with feminist traditions: “Yet, as abolition becomes more influential as a goal, its collective feminist lineages are increasingly less visible, even during moments made possible precisely because of feminist organising—especially that of young people of colour, whose pivotal labour and analysis is so often erased”.88 They return to the 2001 abolitionist feminist statement “Gender Violence and the Prison-Industrial Complex”.89 This statement spells out the political principles of the thousands of activists who contributed to debates about abolitionism:

We call on social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state and interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women. Currently, activists and movements that address state violence (such as anti-prison, anti-police brutality groups) often work in isolation from activists and movements that address domestic and sexual violence. The result is that women of colour, who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence, have become marginalised within these movements.

It is critical that we develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist and homophobic criminal justice system. It is also important that we develop strategies that challenge the criminal justice system and that also provide safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. To live violence free lives, we must develop holistic strategies for addressing violence that speak to the intersection of all forms of oppression.

The statement also acknowledges the importance of the movement against violence against women:

The anti-violence movement has been critically important in breaking the silence around violence against women and providing much-needed services to survivors. However, the mainstream anti-violence movement has increasingly relied on the criminal justice system as the front-line approach toward ending violence against women of colour. It is important to assess the impact of this strategy.90

The fundamental argument in the statement, continued in Abolition. Feminism. Now., is that violence against women (and particularly violence against black women) must not be erased or individualised and that strategies based on policing, punishment and imprisonment do not stop interpersonal violence. Instead, such approaches increase violence against marginalised communities including LGBT+ youth, trans people, sex workers, people with mental health issues and others. Farrell’s much older work makes a similar point: “Domestic violence cannot be stopped by an increase in police intervention.” She adds: “Problems with economic, social or psychological origins cannot be solved by a dose of outside force. Escape from violent relationships requires financial provision, alternative accommodation and childcare. The state is willing to provide none of these”.91 Moreover, successful prosecutions of officers, such as with Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard, are important in forcing the state to acknowledge that such police behaviour is unacceptable. Sadly, however, they do not bring a halt to the institutional racism and sexism in policing that lead to such murders.

Central to Abolition. Feminism. Now. is an insistence on linking the campaigns against the racist capitalist state that particularly affects black men and their families with campaigns against violence against women—while not allowing the fight against violence against women to be lost or submerged in the fight against the carceral state. The authors are mindful of the need for support for those facing individual violence. However, they look to direct campaigns primarily against the causes of violence and seek practical measures to support women that do not strengthen state power or the capacity of the police to intervene.92 This includes funding for women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and counselling services, free childcare, alternative housing, and higher wages and increased benefits, to name but a few.93 Such reforms would relieve some of the economic pressures and stresses on households that contribute to abuse and violence, as well as providing women with a means to escape. By contrast, focusing simply on harm done to individual families and victims, while appearing to offer greater justice, actually obscures the social causes of individual behaviour. The authors of this work rightly insist that capitalism itself is at the root of racism and sexism, and they argue that campaigns for reform have to unite the oppressed in challenging the capitalist state.

The kind of demands outlined above would fall into the category sometimes called “non-reformist reforms”, a concept explicitly invoked in Abolition. Feminism. Now.94 This concept also appears in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation and Patrisse Cullor’s An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World.95 It has recently been taken up by the US publication Jacobin.96 The concept was originally developed by André Gorz in the 1967 work Strategy for Labour.97 Gorz was writing during the post-war boom, when the economic position of most workers in Western Europe was rapidly improving, leading him to believe that revolutionary processes, which he saw as driven by economic immiseration, would no longer arise. Nonetheless, he maintained a radical critique of capitalism, arguing it could not satisfy a wide range of human needs. Hence, Gorz stressed the importance of “non-reformist reforms”, that is, anti-capitalist reforms that highlight the inability of capitalism to satisfy human needs. For Gorz, struggle over these reforms could strengthen the working class relative to the ruling class.98

Fighting for reforms, such as improving conditions for prisoners and their families, opposing increases in prison sentences and fighting for proper resources for those affected by rape and domestic violence, are clearly rooted in human needs. Campaigning against the building of yet more prisons, the extension of police powers and the militarisation of the police challenge the ruling class’s punitive approach to the social problems created by exploitation and oppression. It presents a perspective that people may do bad things but are not inherently or inevitably bad, contrary to “common sense” ideas about human nature.99 The importance of such arguments and the impact of the movement for abolition should not be underestimated, both in the US and now among activists in Britain. The authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now. are right to insist on “intersectionalising” struggles; they also seek to deter Black Lives Matter activists from incorporation into the state through acceptance of government funding, partnerships with sections of the state, and the like. Simultaneously they confront “carceral” feminism with the harm that relying on the police and the state does to the position of working-class women, black women and marginalised communities.

This campaigning work is important in its own right. However, the authors of Abolition. Feminism. Now. specifically reject what they refer to as a “road map”, arguing that what is needed is action now.100 Nevertheless, for many activists fighting institutionalised racism and sexism, there are questions about how to bring about systemic change. The experience of the Paris Commune led Marx to conclude, “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.101 This implied a broader strategy in which systemic change means a transfer of power from the ruling class and the capitalist state to the working class, based on new organs of direct workers’ democracy. Marx was confident that during momentous revolutionary struggles, workers would develop such alternative forms of direct democracy, as had the working class of Paris in 1871.

Is there today a road map for such revolutionary change? Yes and no. Yes, in terms of identifying a revolutionary subject. Marx and Engels looked to workers and what they called the self-emancipation of the working class.102 This was because the source of capitalist profits is the exploitation of the working class, which places workers in a favourable objective position from which to confront ruling-class power. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare society’s reliance on workers, and every strike illustrates the power of workers. Oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia—intensify exploitation, affecting wages, working conditions and the jobs people are forced into. This comes on top of “stop and search”, homophobic, sexist and transphobic insults, state-sponsored Islamophobia, and so on. Climate crisis and pandemics disproportionately affect poor and working-class people, and economic and social crises destabilise the lives of workers most acutely. This leads to a range of struggles over economic and social injustices. The challenge is to link these to workers’ potential to confront the system.

Each struggle—whether it is teachers pushing to remove police from schools, women fighting for abortion rights, workers fighting for a pay rise, anti-racists trying to stop deportations—needs to be connected with the others and made as effective as possible. Moreover, it must be connected to a strategy of workers’ struggle and revolutionary change. As Barker argued:

In practice there is no reinforced concrete wall between reform and revolution. Fighting for reforms is not the same as reformism. The struggle for reforms can tip into revolution. Battles for reforms are vital preparation for social revolution.

He added:

The real proof of the necessity of revolution doesn’t arise as an abstract question within a mass movement, but always as a particular, real issue. It does not arise directly in every struggle. But situations do arise in which the possibility of social revolution appears. They are the moments for which everything else is but preparation and training. At such moments, reform and revolution intertwine.103

Yet, no—there is no road map that can predict precisely which issue will trigger struggles that deepen and spread through ever wider layers of the working class, bringing society to the brink of revolutionary change.

Nonetheless, the inability of global capitalism to solve the intersecting economic and climate crises, as well as pandemics and the drive to war, is creating conditions for revolts and revolutions, in which the working class can no longer live in the old way. This is what happened historically in Paris in 1871, in Russia in 1917, across much of Europe 1917-24, in Portugal in 1974-5, in Iran in 1979 and in Poland 1980-81. Since 2011, there have also been major upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa.104 In many of these situations, the working class began to create alternative democratic ways of organising.105 In each of these struggles the question of whether workers can take power is posed. However, the transition from one form of society to another is not guaranteed since other, reformist forces will seek to set limits to the struggle. At such points, the existence of a workers’ revolutionary organisation committed to fighting all forms of exploitation and oppression and bringing about socialist revolution will be crucial. Building such organisation needs to be part of any road map.

Sheila McGregor is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.


1 Thanks to Sally Campbell, Joseph Choonara and Judy Cox for suggesting an initial draft was not convincing, and to Anne Alexander and Jacqui Freeman, whose suggestions have hopefully made this revised draft more successful.

2 The other five are Greater Manchester, Cleveland, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire and Wiltshire.

3 See Foot and Livingstone, 2022, on the strategies developed under home secretary Willie Whitelaw after the Brixton riots in 1981 for semi-militarised policing. They present evidence showing how these plans have been implemented since. Police powers have been further enhanced with the latest Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. On “policing by consent”, see Harman, 1982.

4 Those with memories of the 1984-5 miners’ strike will remember the “policing by occupation” of mining villages as well as the control of movement of pickets round the country. See Foot and Livingstone, 2022, chapter 2.

5 Mann, 2021.

6 Mynenko and Ditcham, 2022.

7 This was point was made by Gary Younge in conversation with Esme Choonara at Marxism 2022— It was particularly chilling knowing an officer used his warrant card and his status as a police officer to arrest and handcuff then rape and murder Everard. Couzens could have been arrested for exposing himself on two occasions, the last of which happened three days before the murder. Other details have followed these revelations, including that he was part of a misogynist WhatsApp group with other armed officers.

8 Unbelievably, 50 police officers contacted Patsy Stevenson via the dating app Tinder after the photo of her arrest was circulated.

9 The anger over Everard’s murder was compounded by the murder of Sabina Nessa, a primary school teacher, on 17 September at 8.30pm on the way to meet a friend. Thousands turned out to a vigil, not far from where she was murdered in Kidbrooke, South East London, and to other vigils held in her name. Nessa’s murder compounded the fears of many black and Muslim parents for their daughters’ safety just as they embarked on university courses and returned to work after the Covid-19 lockdown.

10 See Harman, 1982, for an analysis of the changing role of the police.

11 Orr, 2015, chapter 4; Cliff, 1984, chapter 14.

12 At a mass picket in support of the 1976-8 Grunwick dispute, a police officer leaned out and grabbed one of my breasts as I was walking down the road with a male comrade, to the great hilarity of his fellow officers. I was later arrested.

13 Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022.

14 Early manifestations of this process were documented by Stuart Hall and others in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978). They documented how the concept of “mugging” was introduced to Britain, sparking a panic around street theft in order to justify targeting unemployed, and therefore mainly young and black, men for with stop and search. On this, see also Harman, 1982.

15 Gilmore, a geographer and co-founder with Angela Davis of the Critical Resistance organisation, is acknowledged to be the person who literally mapped the building of prisons onto an economic and social framework. See Gilmore, 2022.

16 Gilmore, 2022, p27.

17 Sturge, 2021, pp5-6.

18 Sturge, 2021, p14.

19 Sturge, 2021, p15.

20 Atkins, 2020, p233. There was a surge in the use of remand after the riots in 2011—see Sturge, 2021, p9.

21 Sturge, 2021, p6.

22 YMCA, 2020.

23 Unison, 2019.

24 This expression was used by Abbott at the Conference for the Black Child on 11 June 2022.

25 Nazeer, 2021.

26 Family Law, 2011.

27 Femicide Census, 2021. In October 2020, a former Dorset police officer was cleared of the murder of his long-term lover and found guilty of manslaughter instead. He “accidentally” strangled her, pushing her out of his car.

28 Sabbagh, 2021.

29 Evans, 2021.

30 Reported to the Undercover Policing Inquiry by former undercover officer Graham Coates. The Inquiry was set up by then prime minister Theresa May in March 2015 and is due to report in 2023. See

31 Wolfe-Robinson and Dodd, 2021. In the US, family violence is two to four times higher in the law enforcement community than in the general population—see Friedersdorf, 2014.

32 Saner, 2021.

33 Saner, 2021.

34 Saner, 2021.

35 Baird, 2020, p16.

36 The outcry this caused has forced the police to agree to return a victim’s phone within 24 hours apart from in exceptional circumstances.

37 Baird, 2021, p12.

38 Office for National Statistics, 2020.

39 Wilkinson and Das, 2022.

40 Dodd, 2021.

41 The four officers are currently being investigated for gross misconduct.

42 News of the case, which took place during the exams period in 2020, only emerged in March 2022.

43 Francis, 2022.

44 Quoted in Police Professional, 2021. Stephen Lawrence was a black teenager murdered by racists on 22 April 1993. His death, and the subsequent police mishandling of the investigation, shone a light on institutional racism within the Met.

45 “Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities… Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.”—Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 2021, p8.

46 She was supported by prime minister Boris Johnson, home secretary Priti Patel, London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour Party leader Kier Starmer. Patel announced her enquiry less than 24 hours later at the Conservative Party conference.

47 See Walker and Blackall, 2022.

48 Lenin, 1992, p8.

49 Barker, 1985. Foot and Livingstone, 2022, document the “‘autonomy’ of policing from parliamentary scrutiny and control”.

50 Farrell, 1992, chapter 4.

51 Inwood, 1990, p140.

52 Inwood, 1990, p144.

53 Banton and Brodeur, 2022.

54 Bhattar, 2021.

55 Potter, 2013.

56 Kelling, Walsh and Brodeur, 2022.

57 American Civil Liberties Union, 2021.

58 Engels, 1987, pp127-158.

59 Donnelly, 2022, pp85, 240, 243, 202-203.

60 Farrell, 1992, chapter 1.

61 Marx, 1977, p542.

62 The notion of “suspicious loitering” is referenced in Clark, 1987, p74. Women working as prostitutes wore bright clothing without bonnets and shawls in order to attract clients. See Walkowitz, 1980, p26.

63 Clark, 1987, p122.

64 Walkowitz, 1980, pp41-42.

65 Walkowitz, 1980, pp192, 49, 65. The medical establishment did not understand the disease, never mind entertaining the possibility that the male soldiers and sailors might have spread it. A reliable cure for syphilis was only developed in 1943 with the discovery of penicillin. Most of the sickest hospitalised prostitutes were in fact suffering from gonorrhoea.

66 Walkowitz, 1980, pp2-3, 149. Doctors used the newly invented metal speculum (dubbed “the steel penis”) to perform internal examinations on women, often in front of crowds of medical students. The word “lock” in lock hospitals comes from the French word “loque” meaning rag. These were hospitals for the poor set up to isolate leprosy sufferers.

67 Walkowitz argues that rates of prostitution were lowest where there was greatest stability of employment for men and also women in textile areas—see Walkowitz, 1980, p22.

68 According to Jeffrey Weeks, the campaign involved the publication of 520 books and pamphlets, 900 public meetings and 17,367 petitions with 2,606,429 signatures—Weeks, 1981, p20.

69 Walkowitz, 1980, p128.

70 The Women’s Temperance Movement was set up in 1876 and had 570 branches and 50,000 members by 1892—Bland, 1992, p404. In London this included the Watch Committee of the London Public Morality Council, to which belonged Millicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

71 Bland, 1992, p402.

72 Bland, 1992, p403.

73 Kennedy, 2022.

74 Wolfe-Robinson and Dodd, 2021.

75 Hansard, 2 February 2022, volume 708, column 301.

76 Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022, p25.

77 Farrell, 1992, p15.

78 See Orr, 2015, chapter 4; Cliff, 1984, chapter 14.

79 Donnelly, 2022, p170.

80 For a description of the adrenaline rush that goes with policing, see Donnelly, 2022, p82.

81 Sayed, 2022.

82 National Police Chiefs’ Council, 2021.

83 Quoted in Dodd, 2022.

84 Donnelly, 2022, p168.

85 Scott, 2021.

86 Labour Party, 2019.

87 Fleetwood and Lea, 2022. This work does not directly address issues of police sexism and domestic violence.

88 Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022, pxi.

89 The statement was the product of a conference held in 2000, “The Color of Violence: Violence Against Women of Color”, organised by Incite!—Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Trans People of Color Against Violence.

90 Critical Resistance and Incite!, 2003.

91 Farrell, 1992, p16.

92 For instance, they point out that the US Violence Against Women Act 1994 that was passed alongside the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, was seen as a victory. In reality, however, it increased powers for the police to intervene in people’s lives to the detriment of poor women, black women and other marginalised groups—Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022, pp105-107.

93 The case for linking the different struggles would be reinforced, in my view, with an analysis of the family and the essential role this plays under capitalism in shaping oppression.

94 Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022, p51.

95 Cullors, 2022, p202; Gilmore, 2022, p502. The editors of the collection of Gilmore’s essays, Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano, explain the use of the concept in their introduction—Gilmore, 2022, pp32-33.

96 See Engler and Engler, 2022.

97 Gorz, 1967, p7. See also Brooks, 2010, pp149-154.

98 In later years, Gorz abandoned altogether the idea of the working class as a revolutionary subject. He went on to publish Farewell to the Working Class: An Essay on Post-industrial Socialism in 1980, an analysis of structural changes that, he contended, fatally undermined workers’ ability to change the world. He argued that their place had instead been taken by social movements. The attraction of Gorz is perhaps not surprising in contexts where levels of working-class struggle in workplaces are low but anti-capitalist and broader social movements have been on the rise.

99 Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022, pp46-48.

100 Davis, Dent, Meiners and Richie, 2022, p166.

101 Marx, 1977, p539.

102 See Marx, 1864.

103 Barker, 2004.

104 See Alexander, 2022.

105 See Sherry, 2017; Barker, 2008; Alexander, 2022.


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