Yesterday, Victoria Derbyshire said, “we don’t use rubber bullets in the UK, we don’t know what they are”. Derbyshire, it seems, is unaware there are communities in the north of Ireland that have a direct, often traumatic experience of the use of rubber bullets by police officers who, for the time being at least, continue to pledge allegiance to the Crown. She also seems to forget that the six counties of the North remain part of the UK and this was the first place the British forces used rubber bullets. What she had probably meant to say, was ‘Britain’. The media regularly misuses the term “UK” when speaking about ‘Britain’, which means the experiences in the North, including policing, are often erased from political discourse. In effect, it provides cover to British forces who brutalised communities in Ireland for centuries.
Victoria’s comment on ‘UK’ policing is emblematic of the British media’s failure to acknowledge the reign of terror that British forces inflicted on Ireland. If that history were included in the conversation then similarities with the USA might be more apparent and solidarity could be more meaningful. The heavy-handed reaction of police departments in the U.S. to protests and the tactics used by British forces in Ireland have obvious parallels. The parallels drawn are based on state tactics and not the systemic oppression that Black people face.
We do not speak for or about racism experienced by Black people and the Black Lives Matter protest should be supported and understood in its own context. This is rather a call for people in Britain to better understand the traditions of militarised policing that was developed in Ireland and have been exported to the U.S. And where the state exports violence, we export solidarity. There has been a long tradition of solidarity against state repression. Irish activists who confronted the army and the RUC were inspired by images from the Civil Rights flashpoints in Selma and Birmingham and the determination of the Black Panthers. Poignant political links developed between those resisting oppression in Ireland and the movement for racial justice in the U.S. and cooperation between the struggles are decades old.
This week, protestors in Seattle erected a placard that read, ‘You are Entering Free Capitol Hill’ in reference to the gable wall that proclaimed ‘Free Derry’ and that was originally a tribute to a similar sign at Berkeley college. The ‘free’ indicated free from state forces and repression. The shared experiences of those who face police brutality are what unites our struggles. Rubber bullets, now a familiar police tactic in the U.S. had their origins in Ireland.
Rubber Bullets in the North of Ireland
Contrary to Victoria’s claim, the use of rubber bullets by British security forces are well documented. They were originally developed rubber bullets to be used to manage crowds and riots in mainly Catholic areas of the North of Ireland during the Troubles. Between 1970-2005 over 125,000 rubber and plastic bullets were fired, and 55,000 of those in the first five years alone. Used by both the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and the British Army, there were 17 murders by rubber bullets including 8 children as well as countless injuries of which blindness was a common result. Sixteen of those murdered were Catholic and civilians.
Despite the claim that these weapons are non-lethal, they were deadly in the hands of the RUC and British Army. Rubber and plastic bullets were used as a substitute for live ammunition and were chosen in order to limit the culpability of police when firing into crowds indiscriminately. The British army and RUC defended the use of rubber bullets as essential for their own protection. The actual effect was crowd control, intimidation and to terrify demonstrators, reducing the number of people likely to attend. This had devastating effects on our right to organise and our ability to resist. Moreover, for the role rubber bullets played in the North, no members of the security forces have ever been charged or convicted.
Rubber bullets, along with water cannon, tear gas, and the deployment of riot police with batons and shields, push the boundaries of policing as a non-lethal force. Clearly the precedent suggests otherwise. It is worth noting that rubber bullets are utilised specifically against those who are protesting against police violence, not just on demonstrators more generally. Both the RUC and the police departments in the United States appear to have resorted very quickly to the use of extreme force and this appears to be out of a desire for the preservation of their power. In both cases, these institutions were reaching desperately for weapons that will help them prove their usefulness to the state. Popular opposition to the RUC, for example, led to its disbanding in 2001. Anger at police departments in the United States may have similar consequences and police chiefs are determined to prevent this by any means necessary.
Of course, we recognise the deep irony that the police in the U.S. are made up of Irish Americans. There are diverse experiences among the Irish diaspora globally. Where Irish migrants in England found themselves at odds with the police and state, others in the U.S. became part of that racist system. Our solidarity should always be with the oppressed, a sentiment expressed by Bernadette Devlin. When Irish Americans presented her with the golden key to NYC in 1969 she immediately gave it to the Black Panthers stating,
“My ‘people’—the people who knew about oppression, discrimination, prejudice, poverty, and the frustration and despair that they produce– were not Irish Americans. They were Black, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos. And those who were supposed to be ‘my people’, the Irish Americans who knew about English misrule and the Famine and supported the civil rights movement at home, and knew that Partition and England were the cause of the problem, looked and sounded to me like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about Blacks that the loyalists said about us at home. In New York I was given the key to the city by the mayor, an honor not to be sneezed at. I gave it to the Black Panthers.”
Global outrage to police violence in the U.S. shows the depth of feeling about the use of force by those who are rarely held to account. In each community, activists are making choices about how to oppose brutality while making links with broader movements. Understanding our history is essential for practical solidarity. Today, just as in the past, we are told that protestors are the violent mob, when it is the police who arrive clad in riot gear and armed with guns, or mounted on horseback, determined to turn demonstrations into riots.
Victoria’s comment shows that even in the supposedly more informed elements of media there is a blind spot about the use of rubber bullets by British Forces within its own borders. This is just one more example of the failure and inability to discuss Britain’s bloody past and present. Increasingly we see people take to the streets to challenge the legacies of empire, such as the statutes in public spaces, forcing the hand of the media to address Britain’s imperial past.
The exporting of rubber bullets from Britain to the US and the use of rubber bullets by the increasingly militarised police forces there must be condemned and resisted. Our solidarity is more powerful than their weapons. From the streets of Derry to the streets of D.C., in a long and proud tradition of unity in our struggles, we stand with you against state repression. Black Lives Matter.
Further reading on Rubber Bullets can be found here.