Making Cops Accountable - What Communities can do to organise resistance


The first thing I want to do is to commend the many people who have done sterling work to expose police corruption and unaccountability both in Ireland and elsewhere in recent years. In particular I want to commend the Wheelock family. One of the worst things that can happen any family is to lose a loved family member in circumstances such as the manner in which Terence was killed. To stand up to demand answers from the organs of the state is extremely difficult in such circumstances. To withstand harassment as a result to the extent that the Wheelock family have done compounds the difficulty. Wilting in the face of such harassment would be understandable. But that’s not going to happen. And that level of strength and courage is an example to all of us.

There have been other families who have had to make the same brave stand in recent years. I’m thinking in particular of the families of John Maloney from Crumlin, Dublin and Brian Rossiter from Clonmel Co. Tipperary. There are many more. Deaths in Garda custody are unfortunately all too common.

And this abuse of power is not unusual. The contributions of the other speakers at this meeting have made that clear. The 5 reports of the Morris Tribunal into the behaviour of the Gardaí in Donegal – published last year - make it clear. Indeed anyone who lives in a working class area of this city doesn’t need to come to a meeting like this to realise that this abuse of power exists – they see it every weekend in the way in which people – and especially young men – in their communities are treated. Similarly anyone who over the past couple of years has attended any of the protests against Shell in Rossport Co. Mayo will have had first hand experience of that abuse of power

Indeed Justice Morris reported that he was “staggered” by the amount of “indiscipline” and “insubordination” that he found in the Garda force, and that this was “not an aberration from the generality”. And, despite the depth of his inquiry, he was only looking at the tip of the iceberg. Within a square mile of this very room, hundreds of people have stories to tell about their mistreatment at the hands of cops.

Standing up to this mistreatment is not an easy thing to do. Giving communities and especially young people the courage, the encouragement and the ability to challenge these power abuses is something which all of us who care about inequalities in society should be trying to do. It is practically impossible for individuals to stand up to this mistreatment. Individuals can easily be portrayed as cranks and, more importantly, can find themselves subjected to even more harassment if they make a stance – just as happened to the Wheelock family when they were forced from their family home of 20 years after a campaign of constant garda harassment.

But it’s a different story if the whole community is empowered to stand up. A community standing together shoulder to shoulder has the strength to protect the individuals within it. It’s when the cops know that if they abuse one person or family the whole community will stand up to them that their ability to continue to abuse and intimidate will be taken from them.

‘An injury to one is an injury to all’. We’ve all heard that phrase, it’s a phrase that calls on us to stand up against injustice wherever we see it. But probably a more important way to look at that phrase would be to change it to ‘A victory for one is a victory for all’. When any one family or any one individual or any one community forces the organs of the state to be held to account it’s a victory for all of us. It’s a victory for all of us because it will mean that no longer can the cops expect to get away with such abuses of their power. It makes them more wary, it makes them more cautious.

More importantly it gives us – the community – the confidence to realise that we are not powerless, that we can stand up for ourselves.

On the other hand, the more they get away with these abuses the more confidence it gives them. When the cops in Mayo can get away with beating people up in broad daylight, that gives the whole force the message that they’ll get away with such behaviour. And if they can get away with it in those circumstances, then they know that what they do in the back of a van on the way to Store Street on a Saturday night is less likely to be held up to scrutiny.

I’m an anarchist so I don’t believe that it’s ever going to be possible to hold the gardaí fully accountable as long as we live in the hierarchical capitalist society that we do.

I want to look at this issue from two perspectives
1. The fact that it is the very act of giving one group of people – the cops – power over another group – ordinary people like us – that inevitably leads to such abuses of power.
2. The fact that the police force is there to protect the status quo and will do whatever is necessary to do so. The cops are ultimately answerable to their political masters. By that I don’t mean the politicians in Dail Eireann but the real political masters – the political masters who are to be found in the boardrooms of multinational companies and the owners of capital.

To look at the first of those contentions – We all know that we live in a hierarchical society. By that I mean that society operates like a pyramid – in a top-down manner. Decisions are made at the top of the pyramid and handed down to the rest of us. Laws are made at the top of the pyramid and handed down for the rest of us to obey. Given that the vast majority of us have no input into the creation of those laws, have no meaningful ownership of the rules by which society operates, it is necessary to have a group of people whose role is to enforce those laws on the rest of us, to make us obey.

Of course it can be argued that cops have responsibility for maintaining the safety of citizens, and this is certainly true. Given the nature of our society and the levels, for example, of anti social behaviour which currently exist it’s not an option to wait for the creation of a free and equal society when much of this anti social behaviour will be done away with. Communities and individuals need and demand that they should be able to live in safety.

It’s not my intention in this talk to discuss the causes and solutions to issues of crime and anti-social behaviour but that’s an issue that deserves discussion. It’s one of the most pressing day-to-day issues facing many individuals living in working class communities so there’s an onus on us to come up with some real answers in the here and now.
What I do want to say is that it is the very fact that society is policed in this top down manner, that – as I said already – cops exist to make us obey, and therefore have to have power over us, that leads to the abuse of that power. It’s as inevitable as night following day. Power corrupts. Give anybody or any group power over others and that power will inevitably be abused. Just look at the way the Catholic Church in Ireland abused the vast power it was given for decades.

So the abuse of police power cannot be viewed as the consequence of ‘a few bad apples’. It’s a waste of time appointing a whistleblower system or a ‘Confidential Recipient’ as the government has done this week. The system will always protect itself. The power structure will always defend itself. The very corrupting effect of power will always circle the wagons and ensure that its armour is not pierced. If a chink was allowed in that armour, if one cop was to spill the beans about what he or she has seen, then that power’s ability to hold the line would be gone for ever.

When the abuse of power taking place within the Catholic Church began to be exposed, suddenly its grip on power was under huge threat. One person talking out gave others the courage to do so and suddenly everyone realised that the power structure wasn’t that powerful after all. I’m not saying that Catholic Church power in Ireland has been destroyed – far from it. But it has certainly been greatly damaged. There is no way that the police force can allow its power to be threatened in a similar way.

And that brings me to the second contention that I mentioned earlier. This situation of the power structure encircling itself is necessary because the ultimate role of the police force is to defend the status quo. And defending the status quo means that policing is inevitably political. In situations such as that in Rossport, the cops will always be there to defend the multinational company rather than to uphold the rights of ordinary people. Anybody who has ever attended a picket or a protest will probably have had the experience of having their name and/or their photograph taken – even though there’s supposed to be a right to peaceful protest.

The state exists basically to ensure the continuation of the pyramidal structure of society that I referred to earlier on. In the very tip of that pyramid are those that have all the political power and the capital. And they’ve built an effective bulwark to ensure that they stay there and that the rest of us down at the bottom of the pyramid are kept in our place. In order to do that, the state has to have a monopoly on the use of force. And in the vast majority of cases the police force is the mechanism by which it is ensured that things continue to be run in the interests of that tiny minority and that tiny minority continue to hold on to the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources.

And for that to happen, the police will ensure that at every level of society people are ‘kept in their place’.

All of that seems very depressing. Basically what I’m saying is that cops cannot be held to account in any meaningful way while a hierarchical society continues to exist. But while I’m saying that I’m also saying that we should all of us be striving to maximise the amount of accountability which we can impose on the cops. As I’ve said already, empowering individuals and communities to stand up for themselves gives us all the confidence to realise that we are not powerless, that we can stand up for ourselves.

Families such as the Wheelocks must be supported in their fight for justice because it’s the right thing to do but also because ultimately it’s by building confident communities capable of standing up for themselves that we can hope to build a free and equal society where the power structures that allow these abuses to continue are done away with.

Text of talk given at Making Cops Accountable - What Communities can do to organise resistance at 3rd Dublin anarchist bookfiar, 2008