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The increasingly extensive brutality of the police

Defy the police, Police domination
VIOLENCE / "Security" is a highly profitable industry in which large French private arms manufacturers are increasingly developing and selling security technologies – stun guns, tear gas, water cannons, lightning grenades and drones. Two new books look at French police violence and brutality.


ACAB: a small four-letter acronym that does not require a long university degree
and a diploma to decipher. On the contrary. The four letters are a worldwide illiterate protest symbol against the state's monopoly on violence – the police – a completely encrypted common reference for millions of prisoners, expelled, brutalized and marginalized worldwide.

ACAB ["All Cops Are Bastards"] is everywhere: it is tattooed on thousands of knuckles, scratched into the walls of the world's detention and prison cells, and is without a doubt the world's most widely used anonymous graffiti tag.. In the digital world, ACAB is also a reference: on Instagram alone, there are approx. 2,2 million postings tagged with ACAB.

Since the brutal police assassination of George Floyd in May 2020, the enigmatic letter combination has also been seen in world press images of Minneapolis' police station in flames: a symbol of widespread distrust – or even hatred – of police in American society.

The George Floyd protests – which have been the most violent clashes between police and protesters since the 1992 Los Angeles uprising following police racist deaths against Rodney King – put the issue of police legitimacy on the global media agenda.

Activists of the Black Lives Matter movement have, in the wake of prominent intellectuals such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, succeeded in creating international awareness of a critical and necessary debate on the social function and legitimacy of the police and prisons.

More extensive brutality

Europe, too, has now begun to discuss the increasingly widespread brutality of the police, and overt racism and statistically cemented readiness for violence. In France – especially in the suburbs (the suburbs) has experienced a long historical course of racially motivated arrests for trifles, systematic discrimination, surveillance, harassment, visitations and searches – now raises a number of important, critical and principled questions about the police as an institution.

We and our children are fed up with news broadcasts, movies and TV series where the police or other authority figures are the heroes.

There are two recent French-language books in particular that are worth reading if one wants to be updated on the European echoes of the American debate on the police: the collectively edited collection of texts, Defeat the police (which can perhaps best be translated as «Discontinue the police»), and the updated and expanded re-release of sociologist Mathieu Rigouste's new classic Police domination, originally published in 2012 and caused a great deal of debate in France.

Both books basically reject that the police only exceptionally exceed its powers: the exception is the norm. The police carry out the violence on a daily basis, which is a necessary condition for the state and the government to present themselves as «civilized». The function of the police itself is to maintain and secure the class society and the privileges that the possessing classes have inherited throughout history. That is the analysis. Therefore, the distribution of socially sanctioned violence is also not evenly distributed among all members of society, but disproportionately affects the lower strata of society.

"Our" protectors

In one of the strongest contributions to Defeat the police takes philosopher Elsa Dorlin – who is also the author of an important philosophical work on violence called Defend: a philosophy of violence (La Découverte, 2017) – live with one of the questions posed by cult film La Haine traveled in a larger public context for the first time: why is hatred of the police so strong in France?

Dorlin's essay is based on the French version of ACAB: the slogan "Tout le monde déteste la police", which means "everyone hates the police" or "All Cops Are Bastards". For a large part of the French bourgeoisie, this is a totally unacceptable slogan, because the police are set in the world to protect the people and ensure the maintenance of law and order: security, above all. We must learn to love those who protect us. All those who hate the police are violent extremists. Or worse, if you do not just crush the police, you are already in a way suspicious.

But the notion of the police as "our" protectors, Dorlin argues, rests on an ideological tour de force that, on the one hand, stages the neoliberal state's intensified and quasi-military security apparatus as a neutral social institution, while on the other presents the police force as a kind of everyday superhero who puts his life on the line to stop terrorists, rapists, kidnappers, and thieves.

We and our children are fed up with news broadcasts, films and TV series where the police or other authority figures are the heroes – cinema news Paw Patrol (2013–), where small cute puppies roam around and clean up and keep order would be an obvious example here – but in the real world, the picture is a bit more muddy. The dividing line between those who love and hate the police is not based on an abstract calculation – with extremists on the one hand and sensible patriots on the other – but exemplifies a deeply divided society. The counterpart of reality to those portrayed in the film La Haine (1995, see photo), often has every good reason to hate the police.

Scars on body and soul

The suburbs brothers, sisters, cousins ​​and cousins ​​have felt the power of law on their own bodies, as Mathieu Rigouste describes it with reference to a series of police-induced murders and brutalizations of his childhood friends and fellow citizens in the Parisian «ghetto» Gennevilliers, where the author grew up: «I am grew up in an area where coercion was bent by class, race, and gender and surrounded by state violence. I have lived side by side with the most exploited and oppressed all while I myself belonged to the upper social strata of the neighborhood, which has often protected me from police violence and has facilitated my path to universities and diplomas. "

Many have scars on their body and soul that daily remind them that they are not «blanc et diplomé» (whites and university graduates) as Rigouste is now. Rigouste's personal angle on an academic analysis of the police as a social institution anchors the book in a contradictory everyday life that for many takes the form of what Rigouste calls an endo-colonialization, an internal colonization that aims to control certain geographical areas. It is hair-raising reading to follow Rigouste's mapping of police brutalization methods from the French colonies to the present day, and how many of the current police anti-rebellion methods were developed and tested during the French colonial wars of the 1940s and 50s in what was then French Indochina and Algeria. The Battle of Algiers (1956-57), a conflict between the French colonial power and the Algerian rebel front FLN, which largely took place in a convoluted casbah, served as late as 2009 as a simulated scenario in the training of French and American police.

From the movie La Haine

In other words, the neo-liberal anti-rebel regime, in which the French police have been a kind of international vanguard, is born out of a nexus of colonialism and oppression. The movie La Haine portrayed first-generation resentment and opposition to this regime. Anger has simmered, and since the 1990s, France has suburbs paved streets for some of the most violent uprisings and spectacular police actions in recent history.

The introduction of the state of emergency in 2005 is a kind of declaration of civil war – a violent intervention against parts of its own population.

The great uprisings that spread from the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in October-November 2005, triggered by the murder of two teenagers by the police, have rightly been described as the beginning of a new era – the era of rebellion. Since 2005, police repression and resistance tactics have developed in parallel, albeit asynchronously, in a continuous process that points towards today's France – and the more recent course with the Yellow Vests. A course of complex resistance which, among other things, also makes it clear that the dividing lines between those who love and hate the police can no longer be drawn between the «maladapted» in the suburbs and the French population more broadly.

Security technologies

The story of 21st Century France is first and foremost the story of the extension of the exception to become the rule. On 8 November 2005, the French Villepin Government, under Jacques Chirac, brought forward a state of emergency, which had not been in use since 1955 and was written with the aim of intervening in Algeria. The State of Emergency Act, for its part, had its roots in a 1938 doctrine that framed the state's powers in the event of war. As Rigouste writes, the introduction of the state of emergency in 2005 is a kind of declaration of civil war, a way for the state to legitimize a violent intervention against parts of its own population.

Between 2001 and 2009 alone, as Rigouste points out, successive French governments passed no less than 17 different laws extending the powers of the police under "security." During the same period, "security" became a very profitable industry, with large French private arms manufacturers, which were previously oriented towards the military, increasingly developing and selling security technologies – stun guns, tear gas, water cannons, lightning grenades, drones, etc. – to the police, who appeared increasingly heavily armed.

From the movie La Haine

Although the security technology market in particular is trying to develop the so-called less-than-lethal arsenal of weapons for the police, and politicians are trying to convey a narrative of a "modernization of police power technologies", statistics on police-induced murders in France speak their own clear language. Rigouste: "Where the police killed between 10 and 15 people a year between 2010 and 2015, the police kill between 25 and 35 people a year from the early 2020s onwards." Statistics on police violence and police-induced murders are a notoriously difficult size. Who and what counts? Who makes the statistics? What exactly is "violence" in such a context?

Serge Quadruppani and Jérôme Floch travel in their contribution to Defeat the police the difficult discussion of violence via the French author Jean Genet, who in 1977 tried to draw a distinction between violence and brutality. Violence, according to Genet, is found in every natural process of life, in «the grain of wheat that sprouts and breaks through the frozen soil, the chicken that with its beak chops holes in the eggshell, the fertilization of the woman and the birth of the child, but no one would invent to charge with violence. "

Genet's controversial point was that while violence in some cases could be seen as an expression of a spontaneous rebellion against societal oppression, the "brutal" act, on the other hand, was always calculated and aimed at suppressing freedom already in its earliest days: "The brutal act is he who smashes a free act ». The question in extension of the Gene may not be "what is violence?" – but rather, who holds the power of definition? And, not least, who has the heaviest arsenal of weapons to substantiate his arguments with?

Dominique Routhier
Dominique Routhier
Routhier is a regular critic of Ny Tid.

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