With thousands on the streets for Black Lives Matter and increased attention on policing, there was a quiet announcement over the weekend that Priti Patel, the home secretary, was expanding the government’s Prevent programme in its largest shakeup since 2003.
Part of the rationale for this appears to be that there is a growth in individuals engaging with left-wing movements and environmental campaigning. With “counter-extremism” historically being used a tool for surveillance, discrimination and political repression – and Boris Johnson referring to Black Lives Matter protests themselves as being “hijacked by extremists” – now is the time to connect calls to defund the police and making the case to defund and abolish Prevent and the wider “counter-extremism” surveillance apparatus.
Prevent has been criticised since its inception but in its latest iteration, since 2015, it has flagged the drawings of 4-year-olds, trained young people to spy on each other and has been used to crack down on activism relating to the climate catastrophe. Activists in Extinction Rebellion fell into the crosshairs of Prevent, and guidance from regional Counter-Terror Policing teams identified groups with extremist potential to watch, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament.
Indeed, the criticisms above led to the concession of an independent review. But the review, which was due to report to Parliament next month, has not begun, and the government is seeking to extend the review timeline indefinitely.
Just yesterday, Medact released a report looking at the impact of Prevent in the NHS. It revealed that referring individuals to Prevent can worsen their illness, especially those with an underlying mental health condition. This is especially important as it is suspected up to 50 per cent (potentially more) of individuals referred to Prevent have an underlying mental health condition. Stories included a GP referring her “acutely depressed” and “psychotic” patient to Prevent before mental health services, despite no indication the patient posed a threat.
The capture of more and more areas of social life by systems of “counter-extremist” surveillance in Britain – from healthcare to education to social work – also indicate the urgent task at hand for those opposing policing and state violence: we need to both moving towards the abolition of formal policing, and to resist the outsourcing of policing to other sectors.
Understanding the context of policing and state violence in Britain cannot ignore the growth of so-called “counter-terrorism’” over the last 20 years, and abolitionist campaigning cannot fail to tackle this sector head-on.
In the US, organisers responding to the meek #8CantWait model which advocates for a "reform" approach such as banning chokeholds (which are already banned in most places but continue to be used) and requiring a warning before shooting have created an “8 to Abolition” framework, which is gaining ground not just in the US but here in the UK too. Within this 8 to Abolition framework, organisers in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered, have connected the dots from racist policing to racist countering violent extremism programmes impacting communities, including Minneapolis’ Black Muslim community. Under the 8 to Abolition framework, we can link the calls for the defunding of policing to defunding programmes like Prevent and the wider security apparatus which has eroded civil liberties and freedoms for years. In doing so, we can draw upon the work of organisations that have been organising against Prevent and the wider surveillance systems for years.
In the UK, we have seen the absolute withering of funds associated with youth work, the creative arts or bringing communities together, all replaced with Prevent or other “counter-extremist” funding streams, such as the “Building a Stronger Britain Together” fund. This has been made available for communities and organisations in the context of austerity, but comes with the strings of surveillance and monitoring attached for recipients, sowing distrust within communities. As such, many groups and political organisers have distanced themselves from Prevent recipients.
The struggle against Prevent and surveillance is not just about opposing a policy or programme, it entails a systematic rethink of how to rebuild society, and replace ingrained suspicion with solidarity.
If we are to build a world within which state violence is eradicated, we need to take this battle head-on. The near-annual spectacle of new counter-terror legislation being introduced
has done nothing but criminalise more and more communities – similar to the approach to immigration which saw successive pieces of legislation passing year on year creating an impossible maze to navigate – which some would argue is exactly the point.
Many in the UK, especially on the left, have been unwilling to take on arguments on policing and counter-terrorism for fear of being “soft on crime” as the Labour leader’s comments this week show, but this silence has come at great cost to our collective freedoms and civil liberties, and weakened our commitment to anti-racism. Now is the time to reimagine what looking after each other looks like without a punitive system of surveillance and retribution. There is a growing movement imagining what a future without policing looks like. In explaining that policing and prisons have done little for public safety, we must also include the defunding and dismantling of the counter-terrorism industry in the UK, which often, like policing was conceived here and then exported worldwide.