A night of rioting in Bristol.
Yet another set of grim and deeply depressing headlines.
Police officers with broken bones and punctured lungs. Police vehicles overturned and in flames. Police buildings under sustained attack. Extreme violence and endless vitriol directed yet again at the brave women and men who stand on the thin blue line.
What the hell is going on?
I don’t know whether I’m actually capable of a coherent answer to that question, but I do know that it’s about more than a single night of criminality in a single urban neighbourhood.
It’s about much more than that.
At this particular moment in time, it feels as though police officers are being attacked from every side:
At this particular moment in time, police officers feel damned every which way.
Somehow we have allowed policing to become a sort of punchbag for the rest of us – an outlet for so much of our frustration and rage. As a society faced with a huge set of desperately serious challenges, we appear to have settled on the police as the ones to blame.
Perhaps it suits us to think that way. Because it means that we don’t actually have to think about – much less do anything about – what’s really going on.
Let me try to explain.
I. We are living in a divided society
British society feels to me more divided than at any previous point in my lifetime.
Shouting has fast become the only means of communication that some of us know and the distances between us are continuing to grow.
People are angry and they’re looking for someone to blame.
None of it is the fault of the police, but we ask them to stand in the gaps that have opened up between us – and to hold the line.
II. We are living in an unequal society
British society feels to me more unequal than at any previous point in my lifetime:
Research published by Oxfam in January 2021 suggested that the wealth of the world’s ten richest men has increased by half a trillion dollars since the Covid pandemic began.
Meanwhile, the queues at Foodbanks continue to grow. Research published by the Trussell Trust tells us that:
Poverty and inequality have far-reaching consequences that can take whole lifetimes to overcome. Given that fact, perhaps it’s not surprising that people are angry and in search of someone to blame.
None of it is the fault of the police, but still we ask them to hold the line.
III. We are living in an unjust society
Far too many people in this country are facing forms of injustice that are both societal and systemic. If that hasn’t been your experience, then you are one of the fortunate ones.
Last year, people took to the streets to protest about the injustices of racism.
Last week, people took to the streets to protest about the injustices of misogyny and male violence.
And their causes were just. They were calling attention to some of the most urgent challenges facing this generation.
People are angry and in search of someone to blame.
But blaming police officers for the existence of racism and violence makes about as much sense as blaming doctors for the existence of disease.
IV. We are living in a traumatised society
Far too many people in this country are facing unimaginable levels of trauma.
The trauma of:
And so the list goes on.
Like poverty, trauma has consequences that last a lifetime.
People are angry and they are looking for someone to blame.
V. We have defunded the police
Though none of challenges set out above is the fault of the police, the fact remains that policing stands first in line to respond to the consequences of all of them. It remains the agency of both first and last resort.
The problem is that the Government of the last decade has done untold damage to both the operational capacity of the police service as a whole and to the professional confidence of individual police officers.
From 2010-2018, politicians cut 44,000 officers and staff in England & Wales alone. And this happened in the face of almost every single piece of expert advice. The Government was warned repeatedly that their short-term cuts would have severe long-term consequences, but they went ahead regardless.
And look where we are now.
None of this is the fault of the police, but still we ask them to hold the line.
VI. We have defunded every other part of the public sector too
The harm done by austerity is not unique to policing.
All of it has been stripped to the bone.
None of this is the fault of the police, but still we ask them to hold the line; to pick up the pieces that everyone else has left behind.
VII. We are led by politicians who repeatedly offer the wrong answers to the wrong questions
It frequently seems that, whatever the question facing society (whether about Covid or protests or violence or anything else), there will always be some politicians trying to tell us that the answer lies in a combination of:
Politicians call for more of these things because they think that it makes them appear tough. And it affords them the appearance of doing something while actually achieving almost nothing of real and lasting substance.
VIII. We are led by politicians who are desperate to distract us from the truth
There is plenty going on at the moment that the people in charge would prefer us not to be thinking about:
Which is why they are so desperate to confect rage about statutes and flags and whatever else comes to mind. And some in the media seem only too happy to help them.
It suits them for the focus of our rage to remain on police officers. Because it keeps us looking in the wrong direction.
So where do we go from here?
I don’t how well I’m managing to make my point here. I’m still trying to make sense of it all myself. Nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind about the urgent need to start doing things very differently.
Of course, we need to demand better from our police officers too. We should continue to hold them to higher standards than we do anyone else. Precisely because they are the police.
But, at the same time, we have got to stop blaming them for things that have got nothing to do with them.
We need to stop blaming them for things that are not their fault.
And we need to stop blaming them for the failure to fix things that are beyond their control.
This is not on them.
It’s on us.