At the Blunt Edge of a Cosh: Police Violence & The Student Protests


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The images of the Gardai’s horse charge or their over-zealous use of the baton (knocking a young woman out cold and bloodying the faces of others), being used on peaceful student demonstrations has a chilling effect. We are unaccustomed to seeing our Gardai in the same light as (the very often violent) Italian or French police forces. We are unaccustomed to Garda cavalry charges past the Shelbourne. To me, it brings back the memories of the 2009 Financial Fools march in London and some of the ensuing police violence, which lead among other things to the death of the bystander Ian Tomlinson. After that day, myself and a colleague penned this piece for Critical Legal Thinking. I was asked to republish it here which I think is appropriate.

We must remember as the country goes to hell in a hand-cart, that there is a fundamental rift between the government and the people. When the good times roll, the contradictions of society are seen only by the excluded; those at the butt of racism, the poor or the unemployed. While the Tiger roared, the majority denied the contradictions, both political and economic. The rising tide seemed to lift (almost) everyone. Now, as the contradictions of the Tiger era are rendered in stark view, as the state very clearly demonstrates the identity of the ‘national interest’ with the developers’ financial interests, everyone begins to understand the contradiction between the state and the people. The people must be sacrificed in the name of the market; ‘We have lived beyond our means’ and so ‘we’ must pay…. In this context the people, and here I mean ordinary people rather than the idealised sovereign people of the Constitution, will become increasingly unruly. The tensions demonstrated peacefully on the streets by the students in November will become louder and more insistent. When a section of the people claim to be the totality in order to change the state of the situation and rupture the political situation, it is the job of the police and army to repress these voices.

15/04/2009, London: from Critical Legal Thinking

Much has been made in recent days of the violence of the police at the financial fools day G20 protests. In particular the manner in which police officers struck and pushed Ian Tomlinson and a number of others while policing their ‘kettle’. However, perhaps we are getting it wrong when we try to find the ‘bad apples’ in the police and call for the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate any incidents of violence (Guardian Video Archive of Police Violence). The problem is that we have forgotten what the role of the police is. To jog our memory, we could look to Walter Benjamin’s seminal Critique of Violence, but Antiphon has done this better than we could though in a different context. Perhaps, then, it is better to follow the less well-known text by the French surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille on this issue.

In ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’, Bataille describes two structures or orders in society: the homogeneous and the heterogeneous. Homogeneity ‘describes societies structured by production, rationality, specialization, organization, conservation, predictability, and preservation. For Bataille, these terms characterize modern Western bourgeois society, which excludes anything that does not conform to its homogenous structure’ (Goldhammer, p169). In other words Bataille sees ‘rational’, risk-averse liberal society as fundamentally structured by the ‘making-safe’ of the world (homogeneity). It is clear that we should not read homogeneity in a multicultural sense where it corresponds to ethnic sameness. Rather Bataille’s insight is much deeper. The hallmark of liberal society is the contract which establishes a general equivalence amongst men and things. Thus, commensurability amongst elements of a contract is the key here. ‘Depending on whether the state is democratic or despotic, the prevailing tendency will be either adaptation or authority. In a democracy, the state derives most of its strength from spontaneous homogeneity, which it fixes and constitutes as the rule’ (Bataille, p139).

Homogeneity is to be distinguished from heterogeneity. Where the former is focused around a certain common law or measure under which all are commensurable, the latter is bipolar – combining both repulsion and compulsion. ‘[Heterogeneity] encompasses everything that is unproductive, irrational, incommensurable, unstructured, unpredictable, and wasteful.’ (Goldhammer, p169) Politically, heterogeneity is associated with the disordered, the violent and that which is subject to taboo. Thus, where the rule of law and capitalist forms rely on the possibility of common measure or homogenous order, the heterogeneous is disordered by nature. Importantly for us here, police violence, the ad hoc violence of the fascist mob or revolutionary violence are all heterogeneous. Bataille divides the heterogeneous into two: the imperative and the subversive. The imperative or sovereign heterogeneity is constructed in a hierarchical manner with authority stemming from ‘above’. There are two instances of this imperative heterogeneity: on one side the violence of the police who patrol the borders of liberal homogeneity; and on the other side the fascist or monarchist state which relies entirely upon the whim of the leader/king. We need not delve  into the fascist use of imperative heterogeneity, nor the revolutionary ideas of subversive heterogeneity, we only want to see Bataille’s idea of police violence. He argues that modern liberal states set the heterogeneous violence of the police and army to work defending the boundaries of the rational homogeneity. The boundaries of the commeasurable must by policed, but this policing is by its nature external to that homogeneity. Sovereign violence hides behind the rational/legal façade of liberal states. We must not forget the true meaning of the definition of the state as that which holds the ‘monopoly of violence’ in the territory. The truth of ‘the monopoly of violence’ is landed at the blunt end of a police baton or cosh.

When we condemn one or other police officer for excessive use of force on the financial fools day protests, we define police violence as the exception. We try to pick out the bad apples. However, the reality of the police is exactly the opposite. Heterogeneous violence is the precisely the mode of the police. Their violence is the rule not the exception. The problem then is that of normalisation of oppression. Whilst the death of Ian Tomlinson has thankfully caught the unflinching eye of the national media (something that would not have happened a decade ago, before the advent of video camera-equipped mobile phones) it presents the police with an obvious scapegoat within their own ranks. It will be interesting to see what happens to the officer in question, and it should not be surprising if he is hung out to dry whilst we are told the problem has, therefore, been solved. But the problem remains. There is nothing exceptional about the assault on Tomlinson.

We should not forget the words of Commander Simon O’Brien, a senior officer within the Metropolitan Police, in the run-up to the protests: “we are up for it”. This is the almost tribal language of mob thuggery, emanating not from a lone rogue, but from a senior member of the force who carries considerable responsibility. Evidence of a more deeply rooted and planned agenda of violence has also been indicated by suggestions in the media that the police employed a ‘designated hitter’ system. This entails one officer (who conceals his identification number and possibly also – as in the case of the assaulter of Tomlinson – his face) being charged with the task of the most aggressive and violent tasks, minimising the chances of successful complaints being made subsequently.

In a pre-eminently biopolitical move we have interiorised the logic of state. We accept surveillance as a matter of course, increasingly the idea of detention without trial for 28 days, and ID cards are being normalised. At some point the slow creep of the limitation of rights bring us to what, nearly thirty years ago, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthes called soft totalitarianism. Zizek too has written on the phenomenon of post-political totalitarianism. He warns of the risk that we only associate totalitarianism with the historical artefacts of Stalinism and Nazism whilst failing to recognise our own political impotence in a society that evangelises consumerism and ‘choice’. Is it too melodramatic to use the word totalitarianism, what precisely is a police state?

I was there on April fools day. Frantically pushing away from the police as they herded us towards some side street, the sweaty fist of an officer in my back, the lash of a baton across my leg. This was police violence. This was unexceptional police violence. If these were just ordinary citizens then it would have been a grievous assault. What made this entirely unexceptional was the fact that it was the police. The police are authorised to be violent. They are authorised to protect the boundaries of homogenous society. This is what we must learn from the Greek insurgency of the last few months. The murder of Alexander Grigoropoulos before Christmas in Athens sparked riots not because it was one bad cop with an over-eager trigger finger. The Greek students and kids saw what we cannot, that police violence is all around us and we should not, must not stand for it.

If we find a number of bad apples in the police, then they are independently to blame – the solution is easy. However, if the problem is with the police themselves, if the issue is the very authorisation of violence at the hands of the police, then the solution cannot be simple. The problem is societal. In fact the problem is society itself and this would demand radical analyses and radical solutions.


Bataille, G ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism,’ in Visions of Excess (Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 1985)

Goldhammer, J, The Headless Republic, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2005)


2 Responses

  1. William Wall

    November 9, 2010 8:39 am

    Commander Simon O’Brien, a senior officer within the Metropolitan Police –’We are up for it’. And last night, watching Risteard O Dómhnaill’s beautiful film The Pipe (about Shell to Sea) I watched a senior Garda officer pace up and down between the sit-down protest of unarmed peaceful local farmers, teachers, fishermen and the lines of his own baton-wielding heavy gang and bravely declare ‘Neither I nor my men will be bullied here today’. The Pipe shows the structural violence of the state at its resplendent best – hundreds of police, police helicopters, the navy, private security companies, the government itself and the corporation all hand in armoured glove against a handful of people who refuse to be bullied.