Policing gangs by building working-class power

by Mar 28, 2014Magazine

by Jeremy Vearey

The mission of ‘people’s policing’ in Mitchells plain, and the notion of community policing in general, seeks to correspond to community needs and priorities mandated by grassroots community structures such as street committees, neighbourhood watches and civic organisations. These are mobilised in solidarity under a united front called the Community Police Forum (CPF), which is engaged in a mass-action-driven struggle against crime and the material and socio-economic conditions which generate it. It is this approach that informs both the content and form of a consensual relationship between the police, the broader community and the working class in particular.

Street committees have been the most practical and multilaterally representative form of organisation to drive grassroots-level mobilisation against crime. They have not only ensured more localised community agency but also a wider distribution of participation and power in decision making on mobilisation strategy and tactics.

1) They enable better decentralised grassroots and localised community representivity and accountability in both content and form.

2) There is equitable spatial distribution of power and influence, driven by multiple interests that are individualised according to street needs and not aggregated as they would be in broad campaign imperatives and broad front issue-based agendas.

3) There are multiple independent sites (i.e. streets) of joint police/community operational action ,as opposed to centrally driven campaigns that are informed by aggregated interests and generalised concerns.

3) There is multiple activity- and structure-patterned omnipresence, rather than a single control point from which mobilisation is directed and resourced.

4) Community activity and action sustains street committee existence rather than bureaucratic conventions.

5) Structures are circles of multiple user-determined street formations, rather than hierarchical structures governed by centrally directed aggregated agendas.

6) Street committees are driven by networks and relationships.

7) Participants are organised around the skills and capabilities they already have and can use, instead of being reliant on external training, funding and programmes from another centre of power or advocacy.

8) Street committee communities are created and mobilised around local interests with sustained, targeted collective action, which is informed by local collectivised self-interest and street-level aggregated private concerns.

In all of this, street committees represent a more sustainable and democratic model than NGO/civil society, which is dependent on donor funding and often lacks any sort of grassroots base to which it is accountable.

As a people-driven bulwark against spatially bounded crime, such as gang turf-related crime, street committees have proven effective in fortifying and sustaining collective territorial control in crime flashpoint nodes. For example, community-driven social ordering, such as group patrols that target loitering or gang corner posturing, which are less reliant on the police as an enforcement agent.

Gangsterism and organised crime seeks to illegally privatise social control over shared public space, such as schools, roads, parks, public amenities,etc., (the ‘commons’) for profit-making criminal activity. This could be regarded as a legitimate terrain of class struggle against social relations of criminal production and value extraction, which seeks to destroy communal use and appropriation of value from the ‘commons’, and in so doing, monopolise the commons for private criminal purposes. The role of the police officer in working-class areas therefore extends beyond security functions to social activism, which seeks to mobilise and build community solidarity, organised collective capacity, and ultimately class power, to confront crime in the ‘commons’ so as to regain public control over its communal use and shared social value. It for this reason that forms of organisation such as street committees represent a defence of the commons against this threat of privatisation by criminal elements.

It is in this sense that the words of Jock Young, a Marxian police scholar and criminologist, bear much more functional relevance to practical policing than failed narrow reactive ‘law enforcement’ and the force-display posturing of routine visible policing:

‘It is not the “Thin Blue Line”, but the social bricks and mortar of civil society which are the major bulwarks against crime. Good jobs with a discernible future, housing estates that tenants can be proud of, community facilities which enhance a sense of cohesion and belonging, a reduction in unfair inequalities, all create a society which is more cohesive and less criminogenic’

Perhaps it is time we revisit our unfounded and deterministic abstract paradigms about the state, and the police in particular, as being a mere instruments of state-directed social control and repression to protect the interests of the ‘ruling class’. They definitely do not fit the material reality of community policing.

However, as signified by the launch of a new political party (The Patriotic Alliance) that involves gang leaders as a defined political constituency, we are probably entering a new dimension of class struggle against gangs and organised crime: a struggle to protect the ‘political commons’ from institutional corruption by criminal entrepreneurship re-engineered as a political constituency with its own ‘sectoral’ interests. Dealing with this political threat will require a much more robust joint police-community counter-mobilisation at street level to prevent the private appropriation of the political commons by gangs and organised crime for criminal accumulation.

The infiltration of the political commons by gangs and organised crime opens up new areas for criminal accumulation that provide formal access to municipal and state tenders as a means to launder criminal proceeds. It also formalises political legitimacy for organised crime and institutionalises gangs as structurally constituent to civil society. Lessons are offered by the rapid transition to market economies of Russia and other ‘developing’ countries, in the absence of a natural historical progression where proletarian, middle, capitalist classes evolved out of class struggle-driven progression from primitive forms of accumulation to capitalism. In these contexts, artificially imposed rapid accumulation, primarily as a result of the accelerated privatisation of state assets and ease of access to tender processes, has produced ‘lumpen’ criminal middle and capitalist classes whose access to state power has become institutionally entrenched against a working class whose survival depends on criminal patronage and corrupted service delivery from the state.

As for politicising gangsterism to the extent that they are projected as a political interest group with its own ‘leaders’ in the areas they unilaterally expropriate as their ‘turf’, perhaps it was this type of political expedience that the Roman historian Tacticus tried to alert us to when he warned about the danger of the criminal-political nexus: ‘Crime once exposed has no refuge but in audacity.’

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