Cymraeg

To protect and serve: Police pinkwashing and positive image work

Georgia Day

Part I: A Turbulent History

At 3AM one bitterly cold January night in Cardiff, my partner and I were woken up by a barrage of knocks on our front door. There was yelling outside. As students in a very student-y area, hearing drunken yelling on a Saturday night is not uncommon. Knocking so violent on a window you worry it might break? Less common. As it turns out, my housemate was trying to get back into the house after a night out, while an acquaintance was suffering a psychotic breakdown.

We got my housemate and the acquaintance safely into the house, offering the latter a glass of water and trying to calm him down – to no avail. He was screaming at the top of his lungs. So, we called an ambulance. Someone is having a mental health crisis and is a potential danger to themselves – you call an ambulance.

Right?

Two hours later, with no ambulance in sight, and the acquaintance getting louder and more violent, we decided to call the police. As a group of visibly queer and trans students, this wasn’t our natural instinct. We didn’t exactly feel like getting hate-crimed at five in the morning. But, with the ambulance nowhere to be seen, we called.

Less than five minutes later, a whole van of cops showed up. I don’t think I realised how narrow that hallway was until six or seven police officers muscled in to take the screaming man away. They were remarkably calm, even as this guy was shouting and spitting at them. And it was hardly their fault that they happened to be nearby and responded first. But the scale of the situation strikes me, even now. We call an ambulance, and there isn’t one for several hours. A young man having a mental health crisis isn’t a priority for services already so overstretched. We eventually call the police, and suddenly a whole van of them are trying to cram themselves into our student house, with plenty more outside.

I’m not an expert, but that doesn’t seem right to me.


As a queer person in Wales, the towering institution of policing and its historic relationship with our community is fraught with complexity. Despite my personal feelings about the police being used as agents of institutionalised homophobia (without even beginning to mention violent white supremacy), there are well-intentioned people who are a part of these forces – and a lot of queer people among their ranks, too. Regardless, we need to be able to critically assess the history of the relationship between police and queer communities and how their image work today impacts on these communities.

The object below is an ostensibly uncomplicated leaflet promoting South Wales Police Force’s Gay Staff Network. On the surface, the existence of a Gay Staff Network might appear to be a good thing, considering there always have been and always will be queer-identifying people who are part of the police force. Isn’t it good for gay staff anywhere to have a safe network of people to express themselves in? But with the context of decades of police forces being oppressors of queer people and expression, the issue becomes much less clear cut.

You do not need to look very far to understand the antagonistic relationship between queer communities and our police forces. After all, the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality only occurred in 1967, and we still struggle daily against a conservative hegemony that refuses to let us thrive. We’ve been dogged by centuries of arrests and violence for threatening the normative body politic, from the Buggery Act of 1553 to the ‘grey and furtive atmosphere of surveillance and arrests’ in the 1950s,1 the police raids on 80s gay bars, the rampant transphobia today – the list of injustices inflicted upon queer people under the guise of maintaining a heteronormative status quo goes on, and queer people who are doubly or triply minoritised bear the worst of it by far.

At every turn, police forces have met queer joy and resistance with violent arrests and discrimination, and have played an active hand in shaping a nationwide culture of homophobia. “Police harassment, dear”, remarks the fictionalised version of queer rights activist Jonathon Blake in Pride (2014), “I could set it to music.”


A violation that is so routine that it becomes mundane – this has long been the experience of queer people at the hands of police. But surely this has nothing to do with the network this leaflet is promoting?

A Gay Staff Network in a hyper-masculine institution with a history as homophobic as this functions mainly as performative image work. It is about promoting a tolerant image of the force, and it isn’t a step forward for equality, but a ‘means of legitimising past policing practices with the aim of overcoming poor and antagonistic LGBT-police relations.’2


Can’t a Gay Staff Network play a positive symbolic role, though, if nothing else? A shining beacon of how far we’ve come – the progress towards equality that’s been made even from our most toxically masculine institutions? Or: does it simply allow police chiefs to wash their collective hands of the whole gay thing whilst still perpetuating the same environments and behaviours that oppress the most marginalised? When white and middle-class LGBTQ+ people (usually cis gay men) gain a crumb of social and political capital in any sphere, there is a tendency to think that it’s a job well done. Congrats, we’ve got equality. Look, we’ve even got a staff network! But the perceived progress of the least marginalised people in our community does not end the story. For those whose minority statuses overlap, the police are never a comforting presence. Especially for queer people of colour (QPOC), police officers are acutely threatening ‘due to heightened points of contact and homophobia and transphobia’.3 These heightened points of contact are, of course, due to the institutionalised racism that rots away in the heart of any police forces – a racism has become synonymous with the South Wales police recently following the ‘unexplained’ deaths of Mohamed Hassan and Mouyied Bashir after police contact.

On the queer front, tension between real progress versus positive image work tends to reach fever pitch during Pride parades. Unfortunately, it appears to be widely accepted that a contingency of uniformed officers marching happily in a parade they once routinely brutalised is a thing to be celebrated. Queer police officers could easily attend these clothes in civilian clothes, as private citizens, but instead they’ve fought to be able to march in uniform. This leads to a strange visual juxtaposition between the uniforms of oppressors and the smiling faces that wear them. But it looks like progress! And that’s all that matters, right?

In terms of positive image work, it’s brilliant – it portrays the police as protectors of LGBTQ+ rights, ‘despite the continuation of practices that contradict this image’, and it normalises the continued policing of queer spaces wherein we are supposed to be grateful for their perceived tolerance even as the ‘overarching conditions of unequal power remain fundamentally unchanged’.4


Part II: The Role of Police Forces

If you asked an average person what the function of the police is in today’s society, they would probably say something along the lines of “to protect and serve.” But for those who are queer and otherwise minoritised, it begs the question: protect whom? Serve whom? People, or the moneyed interests of the state? Materially, how do police officers protect or serve queer people?

It is well-known that hate crimes are chronically under-reported, with an estimated 81% going unmentioned to authorities in 2017.5 This could be attributed to a range of factors, but the main one is simply that when queer people do report these crimes – or any that they have been a victim of – the overwhelming response is that their concerns are not taken seriously by police officers. ‘[They] said that we need to be more resilient’; ‘the police did not take it seriously’; ‘I was even deliberately misgendered’ – these are just some of the experiences of the small minority who did try and report the crimes committed against them.6 Even when victims are believed and action is taken, hate crime legislation effectively just moves the onus of discriminatory behaviour onto individual agents, smoothing over structural and systematic oppression.7 Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine many queer people facing an impossible decision: do they ‘report specific acts of violence to the police, an arm of the state that consistently inflicts traumatic violence, or do they keep silent and hope to stay safe?’8

One surprising thing about the leaflet pictured below is the uncritical legitimacy freely given to South Wales Police by Stonewall UK, a leading LGBT+ charity. Proudly displayed on the leaflet below the logo of South Wales Police is one proclaiming them to be amongst Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers of 2011. This seems especially staggering given that Stonewall is a charity named after a series of riots by working-class queer and trans people against the police. Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers of 2011 list features fourteen police forces in total, with one (Hampshire Constabulary) coming in fourth place.9 These kinds of endorsements of an institution oppressive to society’s most marginalised is dangerous, and begs the question of what a charity like Stonewall is actually for. It’s an example of them presenting themselves as more palatable to powerful people so that they can gain more legitimacy in a heteronormative political field. But the consequences of this is a clear erasure of our community history, and it leads to having these leaflets and networks around, completely uncritical of the role of police forces in our historical and continued oppression.


But, equally, what are the alternatives? To not have these networks at all? Not have police forces at all?10

Would that be so bad?


Part III: There Are No Easy Answers

My dad was a police officer. I know that there are individuals within these oppressive organisations with good intentions and good hearts. I grew up being fed cop stories over the dinner table – the time he pursued a guy trying to escape in a three-wheeled car; various outrageous stories of drunk guys; that job of his that made it onto Crimewatch. Although he certainly had his gripes with the force, and he (literally) counted down the days until his retirement, he loved being a police officer.

And yet I do, sometimes, wonder. Despite the good that I know he’s done in his roles over the years, how much has he contributed to the systematic and institutional oppression of my community?

A young green PC, fresh out of the academy, desperate to find his tribe and his place in the world – how involved was he in the over-policing and discrimination of people like me? A cop in the early 90s… the height of Thatcherism and AIDS-induced anti-queer hysteria. How could he not have been involved?

When I was younger, I thought my dad’s job was the coolest thing in the world. And I believe he absolutely has made some positive difference. But does this weigh up against the collective bad that police forces have contributed to?

When we imagine a different future for policing, when we join our voices together to say “defund the police” or “abolish the police,” we are asking these questions. Why are vans of cops being sent to deal with a man having a mental health crisis? Why are queer communities so consistently overpoliced, here in south Wales as, it seems, everywhere else?

Isn’t there a better way?

South Wales Police Gay Staff Network leaflet (recto)

South Wales Police Gay Staff Network leaflet (verso)

Georgia Day (they/them) is a third-year student at Cardiff University studying Religious Studies and English Literature. Their interests include queer history, baking, gardening, and reading. To contact Georgia, email georgiaday8@gmail.com.


Notes

1 Peter Ackroyd, Queer City: Gay London From the Romans to the Present Day (London: Vintage, 2017), p. 211

2 Emma K. Russell, ‘A “Fair Cop”: Queer Histories, Affect, and Police Image Work in Pride March’, Crime, Media, Culture (vol. 13, no. 3, 2017) [accessed 24/02/21], p. 278

3 Molly Nevius, ‘The First Pride Was a Riot: How Queer Activism Has Partnered with Police to Hurt the Community's Most Vulnerable’, Hastings Women's Law Journal, (vol. 29, no. 1, 2018) [accessed 24/02/21], p. 127

4 Russell, ‘A “Fair Cop”’, p. 288

5 ‘LGBT in Britain: Hate Crime and Discrimination’, Stonewall UK (2017) [accessed 27/02/21], p. 12

6 ‘LGBT in Britain: Hate Crime and Discrimination’, Stonewall UK, p. 13

7 Nevius, ‘The First Pride Was a Riot’, p. 139

8 Nevius, ‘The First Pride Was a Riot’, p. 139

9 ‘Stonewall Top 100 Employers 2011: The Workplace Equality Index’, Stonewall UK (2011) [accessed 24/02/21], pp. 6–7

10 For more information about alternative policing, see https://defundthepolice.org/alternatives-to-police-services/


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