From social control to urban control? Urban protests, policing, and localization in Germany and England (1960s to 1980s)

  • Klaus Weinhauer


In England and in Germany, until the 1960s the policing of public protests (as a special field of policing public disorder) aimed at an all-encompassing social control. A strong focus was put on completely controlling a defined physical territory as well as the movements of persons or groups, leaving only very few pockets for independent spatial appropriations. The violent clashes of the 1980s deeply challenged this model of social control as regards protest policing.  

In both countries, urban localization was an important factor which can explain these challenges: Local citizens self-confidently claimed the right to protest on their streets in their neighborhood and present their aims, thus using local urban space as a multifold power resource for identity formation, for envisioning the future of the urban, for protesting for local political issues, and also for consumer needs. Implementing an alternative model of protest policing could have helped to avoid or minimize violent confrontations in urban settings. Such an urban control protest policing would have had to be based on interventions that were decentralized in focus, sensitive to space and local issues, and understood the repercussions police interventions could have on street protestors, especially regarding the potential escalation of physical violence.

In England as well as in Western Germany, the hermetic internal culture of the police (with its inherent pattern of masculinity) was the biggest obstacle which worked against abandoning the concept of completely controlling a physical territory and the movements of people in it. In Germany, the abstract state-centered thinking common among policemen ("seeing like a state") and the strict separation of day-to-day routine policing on the one side and the policing of protests which were labeled 'political' on the other side worked massively against establishing an alternative model of protest policing. In England implementing new models of policing was obstructed by a self-image of the police as a neutral mediator of social tensions as well as by the institutional racism of the police.