These are troubling times for the police. The march against cuts by 30,000 off-duty officers in May took place against a backdrop of widespread revulsion at police involvement in News International's illegal phone hacking operation, a scandal which has already led to the resignation of two of the Metropolitan Police's most senior police officers, Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates.
The Leveson inquiry has revealed the scale of collusion between police officers, government ministers and News International staff, providing ample evidence of police complicity in a deliberate cover-up of illegal hacking. It would generally be considered unusual for the police to wine and dine with suspected criminals. Yet Paul Stephenson met with News International chiefs 18 times in the course of the "failed" investigations into hacking. Stephenson also employed a former News of the World executive, Neil Wallis, as his PR officer and accepted five weeks hospitality at a luxury spa that Wallis worked for.
Part of the club
Top police officers have been seen to be just as much part of the rich club as David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and the rest of the Chipping Norton set. At the root of the cover-up, however, is a web of institutional ties that go beyond personal favours - a revolving door of jobs between News International and the Met, and cash payments to the police for information and the peddling of police stories in the Murdoch press - from the Sun's disgraceful smears levelled at football fans caught up in the Hillsborough tragedy to the lies disseminated about Jean Charles de Menezes following his execution by police in 2005.
The same force which policed Rupert Murdoch's union busting operation at Wapping in 1986 has been deploying brutal and cynical measures against people protesting against cuts, from the G20 protests where Ian Tomlinson was killed to the students opposing tuition fees who were batoned, kettled, horse-charged and then dragged through the courts on trumped-up charges of "violent disorder".
Despite the exemplary sentences of up to 36 months imposed on many students amid media panic about criminality, violence and "feral youth", juries in recent months have been acquitting students in trials that have begun to expose a pattern of systematic police violence and intimidation.
The Hilliard brothers, for example, were accused of pulling a police officer from his horse on the 9 December 2010 demonstration outside parliament as MPs voted through the hike in fees. Cameron publicly declared that the boys responsible "belonged in jail".
Their trial, however, revealed them to be the victims of police abuse, including by the mounted officer himself. Apparently affronted by their V for Vendetta masks, he ripped them off and pulled one of the brothers' hair so hard that the hapless officer slipped from his horse, having failed to secure his saddle properly.
Alfie Meadows was hit on the head by a police baton on the student protests, ending up in hospital with very serious injuries. He is now facing his second trial for violent disorder after a jury at his first trial failed to come to a verdict.
Marcia Rigg's brother Sean died in police custody. As she says, "Thankfully, Alfie is here to tell the tale, but sadly people like Blair Peach and Brian Douglas are not. They have been silenced with no accountability."
One death a week
Determined campaigning is beginning to build much wider awareness of the scale of deaths in police custody - almost one a week since 1990 according to the charity Inquest.
Sean Rigg and Christopher Alder are names synonymous with a violent and racist police force. So too is Mark Duggan, whose shooting by the police was burned into public consciousness by rioting across Britain last August.
The riots also lifted the lid on rage at continual police harassment, racism and stop and search tactics in working class communities - a daily reality which exploded into the headlines again in April following the release of a recording made by black teenager Mario Demitrio, stopped by police just days after the riots on the streets of Newham. He was subjected to a tirade of racist abuse and told, "The problem with you is you will always be a nigger." The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) after initially dismissing the case is now investigating 11 fresh cases of racism in the Met.
Concern is mounting at the top about public perceptions of the police. At the height of the 2010 student protests the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, warned of a growing perception of "cops acting as an arm of the state". This must be responded to, he went on, by insisting that the police are "operationally independent", adding, "As long as that is maintained we can rebut any allegations that we are doing what we are told by our political masters to advance a political agenda." Otherwise, "the police become the focus of people's anger".
The cumulative effect of current scandals is a crisis of legitimacy for the police that looks set to deepen.
Doreen Lawrence has called for a second public inquiry into the police following the revelation that an internal review by its "anti-corruption command" of an officer involved in investigating the murder of her son, Stephen, was not passed on to the Macpherson inquiry. As if to underline the web binding malpractice together, the officer in question, Ray Adams, went on to work for a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corporation after leaving the police.
Such interconnections between scandals make it harder for the establishment to dismiss them as the product of a few "rotten apples". Just before the News International scandal broke, an EU survey showed a third of people in the UK thought corruption in the police was widespread. It is now 13 years since the Macpherson report promised action against institutional racism, and over a decade since the establishment of the IPCC promised a new era of accountability. The emptiness of such promises is underlined by the catalogue of dismissed cases of racism, and an IPCC which substantiates only a tiny minority of complaints, despite a year on year increase in complaints from 15,000 in 2002-3 to 33,654 in 2009-10 - 22 for every 100 police officers.
A thread of greed, violence, corruption and utter lack of accountability runs through police activity. Such factors have already created a crisis of confidence in other major institutions, from the banks to parliament.
The engine of this crisis is the global economic collapse which is generating deep bitterness and anger towards those at the top of society and bringing into sharper focus the class nature of institutions central to running it. The weakness of the Tory government is one consequence of this.
This is part of a wider process that has seen a crisis in the capitalist economy spreading into a crisis of capitalist democracy, as the gulf between pro-austerity governments and their populations grows.
The role of the police sits at the heart of this because they are being used to intervene with force where the fight for public consent has failed. This is something Chief Superintendent Derek Barnett was very keen to remind the Tories of when speaking out against police cuts: "We face a period where disaffection may arise... We need a strong and confident force."
In the case of students, for example, the police were used to reassert public order in such a violent and visible way - turning Parliament Square into a huge kettle and meting out mass collective punishment - because they wanted both to teach the students a lesson and to deter those who supported them. Yet this backfired precisely because the generalised nature of the attacks means those resisting draw far greater sympathy with a much wider resonance when attacked. Despite this, the pressure to clamp down means the police continue to attack protesters in a way that risks generating disquiet far beyond the activists involved. Hence the heavy-handed response to UK Uncut's Fortnum & Mason occupation, which police memos show was designed to "draw a line" under increasingly popular protests against tax evasion, the violent clearance of Occupy and the continual warning sounds about using or introducing new methods of repression, including plastic bullets.
When it came to the riots, however, the police and the government had far more success in winning support for their crackdown. A poll of Londoners one month after the riots showed over 70 percent supported the future use of water cannon and curfews. Yet the scale of subsequent repression has created unease over the kind of exemplary sentencing that has seen two young people jailed for four years over entries on their Facebook pages.
Nevertheless, although real anger exists towards the police, many people still hold illusions in them.
This is mainly because the police's monopoly of force is legitimated by a much wider set of ideas about their role in protecting public safety and fighting crime. In practice, however, the British Crime Survey shows that the police are responsible for resolving under 2 percent of reported crimes. It also reveals that trends in crime have much more to do with the wider economic and social climate than policing. So, for example, between 1971 and 1981 the police force doubled in number, yet clear-up rates for crime actually went down.
This is because "crime" is primarily defined in terms of those committed by the poor against property. They arise from structural inequalities and poverty that force people to take desperate measures. When it comes to protecting people from physical harm, crimes such as murder or sexual violence are predominantly committed by people known to the victim and take place not on the street, but in the home.
They are complex social products of an oppressive, frustrated and alienated society.
The fundamental problem is that much of the theft and violence that impacts on everyday life, from tax and bank swindles to deaths and injuries at work or cuts in social and health provision, is rarely treated as crime. Contrast, for example, the convictions of London rioters for "looting" trivial items such as ice cream, frozen chips and bottles of water, with the failure of the police even to submit to interviews with the IPCC over the killing of Mark Duggan.
The primary purpose of the police is to maintain a public order defined in terms of the interests of those who rule. It is this fact that lies behind the force's cosy, corrupt relationship with the rich and their oppressive and racist policing of working class communities.
It is also what drives police repression of those who resist. The modern police force was first established in 1829 in response to the rise of novel forms of resistance centred on mass demonstrations and strikes by an emergent working class. Since then police numbers and tactics have primarily developed in response to levels of social unrest and class struggle rather than recorded levels of crime.
During the mass strikes and union drives of the 1880s police numbers rose by 9 percent. They grew by another 20 percent during the Great Unrest that preceded the First World War. Police numbers doubled during the strike waves of the 1970s, when for the first time a national coordinating centre was established along with riot squads equipped with CS gas and plastic bullets and trained in methods developed by British troops occupying Northern Ireland.
During the 1984-5 Miners' Strike up to 8,000 police were deployed on a daily basis, making around 9,000 arrests and turning mining communities into occupied zones.
Following the collapse of various miners' trials in the wake of the strike, the Public Order Act was revised to give police even greater powers. These powers are currently being used to charge protesters with violent disorder - the second most serious of five categories under the act and which carries a sentence of up to five years.
Brute force by the police has always been an indispensable means of containing resistance and dissent. How far that force is deployed, and its effectiveness, has also been shaped by other factors - including the level of confidence of those resisting and the extent of support for them. That is why violence has always been combined with efforts to politically isolate those under attack and a wider strategy which seeks to bind others ideologically and economically to the status quo.
Force alone is very ineffective for any minority class seeking to maintain a stable system that runs against the collective interests of the majority. David Lloyd George, who as prime minister faced the highest level of working class radicalisation of the last century in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, once remarked that "to govern millions of hard hands...it must be done by force, fraud and good will".
The last time the Tories were in government Nicholas Ridley, the prime architect of Margaret Thatcher's war on the unions, warned against "proposals to make strikes illegal and an idea of having a strike-breaking corps of volunteers to run mines, train or power industries. In strikes in industries which have the nation by the jugular vein...the only feasible option is to pay up."
The course the Tories have set themselves on today, however, leaves little room for manoeuvre, either in terms of persuading people that what they are doing is in their interests or in brokering compromises.
At the same time, the drive to restructure society along neoliberal lines and to cut public spending is also creating conflict with the police, such that at a recent Police Federation conference home secretary Theresa May was forced to address the audience in front of a massive backdrop reading "Cutting police by 20 percent is criminal". The motivation behind these cuts appears to be both ideological, justifying wider public sector attacks, and part of an ongoing restructuring operation to "improve efficiency" in the police by diversifying, privatising and outsourcing some functions while maintaining a strong core of officers that can be mobilised on a national level to deal with public disorder.
The discontent that this is stirring among the police should be a warning to the Tories. Last time there was any serious dissent in the police was in 1918 and 1919 - when some struck over pay, conditions and the right to a union. The government of the time responded by giving the police a 13 percent pay rise while sacking all 2,500 striking officers and smashing any union organisation. Since then successive governments have been very careful to maintain police privileges, including improving wages and conditions at points of heightened disorder. In return the police have proven absolutely reliable.
Weakening the government
Rumblings of discontent are not at the point of jeopardising the Tories' ability to count on the police, but they can further weaken the government.
However, recognising this is very different from supporting police demands. Although the cuts are real we should not forget that police officers can retire at 50, most on a full pension and that their special privileges represent a pay-off in return for police repression of dissent. Police Federation posters featuring young black and white men wearing hoodies with guns under the heading "Cuts are a crime" indicate how a successful fight against cuts by the police could further embolden them to crack heads on protests or in the back of vans.
Put simply, it is not the role of the left to increase the confidence of the police. Their predicament is part of a crisis of the ruling class. We want this to intensify.
Campaigns against injustice can make a contribution to this process - as do calls for an inquiry into police violence and corruption. Any ounce of accountability won can hinder the government's ability to use the police against us. There have been over 2,500 deaths in police custody since 1969, yet not a single officer has ever been prosecuted for manslaughter or murder. One prosecution would not only deliver some justice for victims, but would begin to inhibit what the police think they can get away with. The recent campaigns in defence of student protesters have played an important role in preventing the Crown Prosecution Service and police from getting away with victimising and imprisoning students but they are also part of pushing back a broader agenda of repression and criminalisation of those resisting austerity.
These fights can also help to build solidarity and forge unity between the different struggles taking place, linking the fight against police racism with resistance to the wider austerity agenda and uniting students, workers and young people kicking back. This can also increase people's confidence to stand up against further attempts to use the police and the law against us in the battles ahead.
The calls by ministers to introduce more repressive trade union laws in the wake of the pensions strikes are just one example of what such attacks could look like.
But our battles will not be won on their terms. During the early 1970s defiance of the law and confrontations with the police were an intrinsic part of struggle against the Tories. One defining moment was the victory of five dockers imprisoned in Pentonville for breaking the anti trade union laws.
Within days over 250,000 workers had walked out in their support, with 100,000 on all-out unofficial strike. Labour and trade union leaders attacked the action but rank and file activists spread it, going from workplace to workplace. "Five trade unionists are inside, why aren't you out?" read their leaflets. Printing presses closed, rail services and flights were cancelled, and factories and council offices stopped running. Faced with this the Law Lords were wheeled out to present a legal pretext for the release of the dockers, leaving the government humiliated.
Police violence, racism and corruption are exposing the force's role in protecting the rich and powerful. This weakening of illusions in state institutions is feeding a growing backlash against the proponents of austerity across Europe.
Engaging with rage at police injustice and strengthening the channels for its expression can help build a much bigger fight against a system that requires uniformed thugs for its defence. As the Clash sang in 1979, "Let fury have the hour, anger can be power. D'you know that you can use it?"
Hannah Dee is chair of Defend the Right to Protest (www.defendtherighttoprotest.org)