Policing and Colonialism
The “Terrific Boomerang”

Several police officers helmeted run through a street at a demonstration
Photo (detail): Julien Mattia / Le Pictorium © picture alliance/dpa/MAXPPP

How does contemporary policing relate to practices used in colonial states? Tanzil Chowdhury explains the “colonial boomerang” – a concept that describes how for example forms of violence applied in the colonies were transported back to the metropolitan centres.

By Tanzil Chowdhury

Colonies and post-colonial states have often been key testing sites for Western states to try out “innovative” forms of violence or macroeconomic re-ordering.

In 2005, the Brazilian plumber Jean Charles de Menezes was fatally shot by undercover counter-terror police in London after they described him as having “Mongolian eyes” which were similar to the Arab suspect they were after. This tragedy is no coincidence. Racial profiling and police brutality echo past practices of racialization, criminalisation and policing in the colonies.

 The “Colonial Boomerang”

Practices of how the state creates and develops violence have oscillated back and forth between metropolitan centres and colonies, or now between “developed” and post-colonial states, especially when it comes to the policing of racialized peoples. This is popularly referred to as the “colonial boomerang.” Exploring what the colonial boomerang is, we can also understand why it occurs and how it’s connected to contemporary policing.

The “terrific boomerang” was a term used by the Martinican writer Aime Cesaire. He rejected the claim that Nazism emerged out of a “mass psychosis of the German nation” and posited that Hitler adopted the same logic of dehumanisation and domination European colonisers had exercised in India and African states, such as Algeria. In other words, far from the idea that Europe was a bastion of enlightenment that was progressing out of a dark age that the rest of the world was plunged in, Cesaire revealed the ways in which European-produced colonial violence seeped back into the imperial metropole.
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The oppressive techniques used in the colonies had found their way back to institutions of the West.

Other thinkers also observed this boomerang effect. In 1936, George Padmore, the Trinidadian Communist, described the colonies as “the breeding ground for the type of fascist mentality which is being let loose in Europe today,” while the French intellectual Michel Foucault remarked that the oppressive techniques used in the colonies by European colonisers had found their way back to institutions of the West.

The “Testing” of State Violence on Racialized Populations

Why do former imperial states then, not just enact innovative forms of state violence – like militarised policing, or surveillance techniques – against their own exploited and repressed? Much of the answer has to do with a bloody history of “testing” on racialized populations, ranging from scientific attempts to explain racial difference to experiments carried out on racialized communities. One infamous example was the Tuskegee experiment in which black male sharecroppers were asked to participate in a study treating “bad blood” in return for free healthcare. The experiment in fact however, was to observe the effects of those with syphilis (alongside a control group). Many were denied effective treatment which resulted in debilitating conditions and sometimes even death. The colonial boomerang reproduces this stratification of humanity in which colonized or racialized populations are considered “test-worthy” subjects, exploitable and ultimately disposable.

Policing and Capitalism

What can the colonial boomerang tell us about contemporary policing and capitalism? Critical histories claim the UK Metropolitan Police wasn’t established to prevent crime per se, but to pacify an emergent industrial working class that threatened the interests of a similarly new capitalist class. The French Marxist Louis Althusser writes how the police is a part of the repressive state apparatus’ which functions by violence and is central to the reproduction of capitalism. However, policing in contemporary capitalist states is also very much influenced by the operations that countered insurgencies in the colonies.

Anti-Colonial Rebellion as “Echoes of the Past”

Adam Elliot-Cooper writes how in Malaya and the Colony of Kenya for example, the policing operations that defeated the anti-colonial rebellions created “echoes of the past” that shaped counter-terror policing during the so-called war on terror and the policing of Black communities. Such tactics were rationalised through processes of criminalization – deeming who or what is criminal – which would map on to those racialized populations in the colonies. Subsequently, these militarised policing tactics would be transplanted back to the imperial metropole in the policing of racialized diaspora and migrant communities.

British Malaya was an area loosely based around present day Malaysia and Singapore (rich in tin and rubber resources) that was under British control in the 19th and 20th centuries; and the Colony of Kenya was an east African British Crown Colony. The police would use labels such as “gangs” or “terrorists” against communist rebels in British Malaya, giving the police a pretext to surveillance and collectively punish Chinese Malayans during the British counter-insurgency, also infamous for the brutal Batang Kali massacre in which 24 unarmed villagers were killed by British troops. Similarly, in the Colony of Kenya, the Kikuyu were labelled as suspect communities for their alleged connections to the anti-colonial Mau Mau resistance. As such, the entire community were made targets of mass arrest, imprisonment and resettlement. Like in Malaya, the Mau Mau rebels were labelled as “gangs”, subjecting the Kikuyu to mass interrogation and punishment, as well as the creation of the internment camps.

The Case of “Northern Ireland”

Similarly, militarised forms of policing (such as the use of CS spray, armour and baton rounds) and collective punishment of suspect communities in “Northern Ireland” were influenced by these counter-insurgency practices. The continuing war in “Northern Ireland” deeply shaped police services in the UK. Many senior UK officers visited “Northern Ireland” to learn from the counter-insurgency operations against republicans and the Irish Catholic community. Arthur Wellesley, Sir Robert Peel and Sir Henry Goulborn, key in drafting the legislation that set up the modern police service in the UK, had all served as Chief Secretary in Ireland. Sir Kenneth Newman, formerly an officer in the British Mandate of Palestine and then Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the height of “The Troubles” would then become the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1982. Further, Sir Robert Mark, who was the Met’s Commissioner during the beginning of “The Troubles”, famously said that some of the militarised forms of policing tactics developed by the army and RUC in “Northern Ireland” were adopted by the police forces in London.  

“The Colonies Have Come Home”

As Elliot-Cooper argues, the racism of policing in former colonies and in Britain today, makes racialised suspect communities vulnerable to state violence. The most popular example he cites is that of Jean Charles de Menezes, cited earlier in the introduction. Indeed, these counter-insurgency policing tactics were central to the counter-terror policing operations of “suspect” Muslim communities following 9/11.

The colonial boomerang doesn’t claim a direct causality between forms of state violence in the colonies to the former imperial centre. Instead, it speaks to the ways in which processes of racialization in different parts of the world summon the use of these techniques in different but comparable ways. In effect, the colonies have come home. To complicate the old Churchillian adage that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it; Cesaire in fact suggests that the “echoes of the past” have provided the manual for adapting techniques of state violence in the imperial centres. In this way, we in fact observe how contemporary policing does not represent a disjuncture with classic forms of colonialism but a continuity with it.