The appalling scenes of police violence dealt out to women protesters at Clapham Common is shocking, but it should not be surprising.

Our rulers claim cops only exist to protect ordinary people, but the police force developed with the rise of capitalism and empire in the 19th century. Their system depended on the repressive power of the state to cement its rule and keep in check a growing working class. 

Throughout the 19th century, working class women were subject to arbitrary arrest, punitive sanctions and corporal and capital punishment. They were targeted when they participated in movements for political and economic reform or when their communities were subjected to authoritarian control. This is not a question of “bad apples”. The police are institutionally sexist, because the system generates sexism and abuse and the police’s role is to protect and defend that system. 

However, when people organise to challenge the status quo, the idea that the police protect us is exposed as a lie. As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg observed, “Only those who move feel their chains.” Whatever stereotypes exist about women being weak and in need of protection, they are jettisoned as soon as women collectively organise against the system.

Over 200 years ago, women were targeted when they fought alongside men for their rights. On 16 August 1819 a crowd of tens of thousands of men, women and children, gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to demand the right to vote. They marched in disciplined formation, accompanied by pipes and drums, carrying ­colourful banners embroidered with slogans such as, “Unity and Strength,” and, “Liberty and Fraternity.” Large numbers of women joined the crowd, some in their own contingents. The women reformers of Oldham carried a banner with the slogan, “Let us die like men, and not be sold like slaves.” The women of Royston demanded, “Annual parliaments and universal suffrage.”

By midday the huge crowd was anticipating speeches by radicals including Henry “Orator” Hunt and Mary Fildes from the Manchester Committee of Female Reform. When Hunt stood up to speak, the 40,000 to 50,000-strong crowd roared its approval. But at this moment magistrates issued a warrant for his arrest. The mounted Salford and Manchester Yeomanry, special constables armed with truncheons, and hussars who also used their horses as weapons, attacked the crowd. They sliced indiscriminately at men, women and children. The Manchester Guardian newspaper described how “the women seemed to be the special objects of the rage of these bastard soldiers”. Fildes was slashed by a sabre after her dress caught on a nail as she tried to escape. Within a few minutes at least 17 people were killed, including six women, and 700 seriously injured, among them many women and children. The campaign for basic civil rights has always been met with repression and violence from the authorities.

Yeomanry and special constables were adequate to protect the rich from sporadic rioting and local uprisings. The working class, however, was emerging as a national force with interests diametrically opposed to those of the ruling classes. This class found its political expression in the Chartist Movement of the 1830s and 1840s, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of working class men and women to demand increased political rights.

The response of the state was to create a modern police force in the northern cities of England. Special constables and army battalions were not sufficient to defend the rights of property against the working masses who, once out of the factory and the mill, appeared to evade all forms of social control. The mandate of the police was to detect and prevent crime, which meant maintaining constant surveillance on working class communities, their political organisations and trade unions. As the revolutionary Frederick Engels remarked, “Whatever power the new policeman’s truncheon might be invested with would sure to be ‘wonderfully soothing’ to the bourgeoisie but for ‘the working man quite otherwise’. 

Working class communities saw the police as an engine of political repression throughout the 19th century. They were known as “blue devils” and dubbed “a plague of blue locusts”. And there was a series of sustained anti-police riots, which involved working class women and men across the mill towns of Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

The women of these working class communities confronted the police, as women organised and fought for their right to vote at the end of the 19th century. The suffragists of the working class mill towns of the North have been marginalised in histories of female suffrage. Their fight for the vote was fundamentally linked to their fight for better wages and a range of social reforms, and the women understood that they would have to defy the law to achieve change. 

Police hostility to the suffragettes went beyond protecting the law and property. There were frequent reports of women being beaten, sexually abused and deliberately trampled by horses. And yet, women kept on confronting them. One of these courageous women was Dora Thewlis. Thewlis was born in Huddersfield in 1890 and began working in the local mill at the age of ten. On 20 March 1907, 16 year-old Thewlis answered a call by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to travel to London by train and march on parliament. The women, dressed in clogs and shawls, were confronted by 500 policemen. The campaigners repeatedly rushed at the doors of parliament, but the police held the line and Thewlis was arrested. In court, the fearless teenager was told by magistrates to go home. She replied, “I don’t wish to go back, sir. I shall remain here as long as the WSPU want me.” 

Another defiant suffragette was Adelaide Knight, a working class woman born in Tower Hamlets, east London, in 1871. Knight was disabled and walked with crutches. In 1895 she married a black sailor, Donald Adolphus Brown, who took her name. She had six children, three of whom died of smallpox. In 1905 she joined the WSPU in Canning Town, and the following year Knight was arrested trying to obtain an audience with the prime minister. Given a choice between prison and keeping the peace for a year, she chose to go to prison. The suffragettes shared an understanding that unjust laws were there to be broken, and repeatedly faced down police brutality. 

The cops often used violence to intimidate suffragettes, but a serious escalation of police violence occurred on 18 November 1910, known as Black Friday. Around 300 women marched from Caxton Hall, east London, to parliament. The prime minister broke his word and refused to see them. Some 200 women were trapped and assaulted for hours, as police officers grabbed their breasts and lifted their skirts to expose their underwear to watching crowds. 

Suffragette Jessie Stephenson recalled, “For hours I was beaten about the body, thrown backwards and forwards from one to another until I felt dazed by the horror of it.” Disabled suffragette May Billinghurst was thrown out of her wheelchair, lifted back into it and wheeled down a side street where a gang of men waited for her. 

Two women died of the injuries they sustained that day. Mary Clark, sister of Emmeline Pankhurst, was present at Black Friday and was arrested and force fed in prison. She died on Christmas Day, 1910, aged 48. Henria Williams recounted her experiences on Black Friday. “One policeman after knocking me about for a considerable time, finally took hold of me with his great strong hand like iron just over my heart,” she said. “I knew that unless I made a strong effort he would kill me.” She died of heart failure on the 2 January 1911, two months later, aged 44. 

Calls for a public inquiry into police brutality were rejected by the then home secretary Winston Churchill. The Times newspaper praised the policemen who “had kept their tempers pretty well”, but the violence they meted out that day was a turning point. The experience of Black Friday encouraged thousands of women to turn from peaceful protests to militant action. For years women were arrested, abused, forced fed and tortured in prison simply because they wanted the right to vote. 

Wherever women have participated in collective struggles, the police have treated them with brutality. Today, the Battle of Cable Street of 1936 is revered as a great moment in Britain’s fight against fascism. At the time, however, the police were prepared to beat up and to arrest those who opposed Oswald Mosley’s fascist march through London’s Jewish East End. 

On 4 October 1936, 6,000 police tried to force a path for Mosley down Cable Street. Local resident Joyce Rosenthal was only 12 years-old, but she was in the thick of the action. She later recalled, “The police were just hitting everyone. There were women going down under the horses’ hooves.” Another demonstrator, Jack Shaw, recalled being in the police charge room where he saw “a huge policeman drag in a young woman, rip off her blouse and hold his truncheon as if to strike her in the face.” “She stared straight at him,” he remembered. “And, with defiance in her voice, said, ‘I am not afraid of you.’ As the room went quiet, the policeman called her a Jewish bitch and put her in a cell.” Of the 79 anti-fascist protestors arrested that day, eight were women.

Periods of working class struggle have always inspired new groups of workers to join the trade union movement—and the police have always confronted any such organisation. In the 1970s, the Grunwicks dispute in north west London was led by Asian women who were traditionally seen as docile workers. 

In August 1976, Jayaben Desai walked out in support of a co-worker and was called a “chattering monkey” by a manager. She replied, “What you are running here is not factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips. Others are lions who can bite our head off. We are the lions Mr. Manager.” 

The dispute escalated and became a huge focus for the trade union movement. The police responded to mass solidarity pickets with their habitual violence. On just one day in November 1977, some 8,000 turned up to picket. 243 pickets were treated for injuries, 12 had broken bones and 113 were arrested. The Asian women won their right to be taken seriously as trade union militants, despite the intimidation of the police.

These instances from history demonstrate how the authorities exist primarily to defend the status quo—and that they have been prepared to use violence and sexual abuse to intimidate women into quiescence. The police use sexist violence to maintain law and order, but that is not the whole picture. There is also something about the hierarchal, bullying structure of the police force itself which makes its members more likely to abuse women than the rest of the population.

In May 2019 figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 1,500 accusations of sexual misconduct had been made against the police over six years. They included coercing vulnerable rape victims into sexual relationships. Some 371 complaints were upheld, and 197 officers were either sacked or resigned from the force. 

The figures also revealed a deeply ingrained sexist culture among officers, with numerous complaints by colleagues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. A survey of 1,800 Unison union members working as civilian police staff found that 12 percent had witnessed or been the subject of unwanted touching, kissing or hugging. Of 663 complaints made by the public, only 62 were upheld while out of 829 internal complaints, 310 were upheld. This picture suggests that it is much easier to dismiss abuse perpetrated against ordinary women than it is to brush aside complaints made by serving officers. 

Such attitudes shape how the police deal with female complainants and their attitudes to questions of rape and domestic violence. Over the last five years, the number of rapes reported to the police have risen to nearly 60,000, but the proportion making it to court has slumped to an all-time low, an effective decriminalisation of rape. One case around domestic violence saw three police Met Police officers found guilty of gross misconduct in March 2019 because they failed Linah Keza who was stabbed to death by her abusive partner in front of her two year-old daughter. Keza had been in frequent contact with the police but they failed to protect her. The officers were not sacked—they received final written warnings, to the great disappointment of Keza’s family. This sexist culture also flows from the cops’ role in upholding a system that generates and perpetuates women’s oppression. It exists to defend property and privilege and to prevent mass opposition to the rule of capital.

Last Saturday the mask slipped once again on Clapham Common—and the real face of systematic police brutality was broadcast across the TV and social media. The police cannot be reformed. They must be dismantled as part of building a socialist society free from oppression. 

Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).