Nina Power contributed a brilliantly visceral piece on dissent for our inaugural winter 2012 issue, so when The Revolver Issue rolled around, we asked her to give us something on protest. This searing, scream-of-conscious polemic on the police, the public and the rediscovery of hate is the result…
The Public, The Police and The Rediscovery of Hate! by Nina Power
The police are the public and the public are the police’ said cop-founder Robert Peel in 1829. What a noble sentiment! A delightful idea! ‘I know, we could get people to run themselves, it’d be great, all we have to do is split them into two groups and just make sure everyone knows they’re on the same side, brilliant, yeah’ …and thus the modern police state is born, with those in uniform facing those they are supposed to still be a part of, yet somehow beating them up when they dare to do ‘public’-type things, like have fun on the streets, or voice their opposition, or do anything other than scurry anxiously between school, (non-)job and the shops.
As we know, of course, the police never were the public. That much is true and it’s reinforced by the way being ‘a police’ is often a family matter, with police streets, police towns, places where they cluster together like violent squirrels, hiding from everyone else. They were always just police.
But what has happened to the public? The public that cheered when officer Robert Culley was killed after police violently attacked a meeting organised by The National Union of the Working Classes in 1832, when the judge described it as ‘justifiable homicide’ and medals were anonymously sent to the jury; the public that the police never were but have spent almost a hundred years crushing, killing with impunity and now, as the recent anti-fascist action in Tower Hamlets showed, kettling, mass arresting (286 at the last count) and loading onto buses commandeered especially for the purpose… from no-longer-public transport to the jail…
The public – that living body of astute passions – has been squeezed out of existence. No more public space, only public order. This phrase has been going around my head for about a year and a half – when I think about the immense efforts put into guarding every tiny piece of land, of the private ownership of virtually everywhere you can think of, where is the public to go, what is it to do? When people chastised rioters for not going to the ‘right’ places – to burn down Parliament, perhaps, or to attack poshos in Kensington – they missed the point: there is nowhere else to go, and attacking Parliament would have missed the mark entirely (not to mention the cops with machine guns that hide just inside). When all streets are just iterations of richer or poorer versions of themselves, what does it matter where you riot? It’s the same shit everywhere, after all.
Public order is what the police in their crude way ‘protect’ when they beat protesters back, or cart them off to police stations all over the city, or harass black youth. But ‘public order’ – or, really, the ordering of the public – transcends the police. It is every CCTV camera, every potential ‘have you seen?’ poster, every ‘dob in your scrounging neighbour’ leaflet posted through your door, all the bored security guards whose uniforms are indistinguishable from the cops’ own. Any counter-idea of the public depends upon there being a space for that public to go – a ‘realm’ – but any attempt to find this magical realm, perhaps filled with communist unicorns, results in being ‘moved on’, incarceration or a quick baton to the head.
The public is a bad joke whose punchline is whispered in every piece of ‘public art’, in every attempt to ‘engage the public’, in every ‘public consultation’. Whenever the public is desired it vanishes into thin air – and when it turns up it gets quickly turned into something else: an unruly mob, a violent crowd, a riotous assembly. But why kill off the public? If the public has been killed off, what has taken its place? What more malleable entity can you try to get people to think they are? Think of the rise of the consumer, the client, the stakeholder… the one who has a vested interest, but no rights beyond that of getting a replacement chocolate bar. This is the social being that decades of inequality wants to bring about, whether as student, employee, or unhappy individual desperately looking for remedies.
The attempt to smash the public by making the public private has its counterpart in the invasion of the private by the public. A different kind of public in this case – this is the public of enforced sociability, the sunshine ray of self-presentation, all the while the death mask of the big other glares on (whilst not actually existing, of course). All the time you used to have that wasn’t colonised by very much, perhaps a radio, perhaps a book, perhaps the TV, is now 24/7 party-central, and any room you enter you can buy something if you have your smartphone in your pocket. While the domestic ideal was also a pile of dangerous nonsense, the bright glowy public/private melange of perky group photos is just as bad, and further indicates that in order to have a real public, you need a real private to think about it.
If they’ve tried to kill off the public, they’ve nevertheless managed to create vast numbers of negative collectives – groups forced by the wrong done to them to unite around negations: the unemployed, the dispossessed, the marginalised, the excluded, those not included in the ‘happy young people having a good time’ photofit. Not content with creating these groups in the first place, they then force them to suffer the further indignities of being made the multiple objects of hate and derision: you’re poor and crap! You can’t work and we hate you! You don’t have anything but I want to take it all from you anyway! Like all good fascisms, the logic of victimhood is inverted: those with everything must nevertheless have more by hating those who have less, or ever less than that. As if hating added a vinegary sauce to an otherwise tasty meal: the sour faces, the bitter spitting out of misplaced loathing.
In the name of the public sullied by decades of splitting, we need to reclaim back this hatred, from those who would seek to turn it against those who instead deserve to wield it. We need to divide hate into two: the victorious, joyful hate of protesters, of those who break out of kettles, who escape arrest, who fight back against the police, of the true public who want everything taken from them back; against this, the dead-eyed suspicious hatred of the cops that treat them like they might be an alien species crossed with a whack-a-mole machine.
The police are not the public, and never were; public space, it turns out, is never ours and public order hangs like a ghostly shroud over all social life. The hate that rightfully belongs to the public must be reclaimed by force, before it kills us all…The public is dead! Long live the public!
Nina Power is a senior professor of philosophy at Roehampton University, co-founder of Defend the Right to Protest, journalist and author. One Dimensional Woman available on Zero Books.
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