Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Worst Outcome of G20 Policing

As awful as it has been for those whose lives have been turned upside down, the worst outcome of the deplorable, authoritarian policing at last year's G20 summit in Toronto was not the targeting of a few dozen militants plus some random people for (often pre-emptive) arrest and heavy duty charges. Yes, from where I sit and without knowing the ins and outs of every case, it appears to be a mix of malicious and opportunistic targeting -- targeting, that is, of a mix of people who are effective and vocal organizers with a particular tactical orientation plus some people who are not those things but who are vulnerable to the kinds of charges they wanted to lay. I'm not aware of any in this group who are even alleged to have done harm to any human being, though I may be mistaken in this. And it seems to be based on investing immense effort and resources in portraying that subset of the targeted people who actually are a threat to established power in a long-term sense because of their skills, their ideas, and their determination, as a very different kind of threat, a kind of threat which they are not -- as a threat to ordinary people, as a threat to life, as a kind of free-form demonized something with a black hoodie and a circled A emblazoned on their foreheads. You don't have to agree politically with the targeted folks on every point -- I don't necessarily, and they don't always agree with each other either -- to appreciate that they have been ill-used by the cops and the courts.

But that's not the worst outcome of the policing.

As shocking as it must have been for those who found themselves swept up in a whirlwind of oppressive blue, the worst outcome of the policing at the G20 summit was not the hundreds of uninvolved or passively involved or just observing or sitting quietly people who were arrested, generally for nothing in particular, some of whom were treated with physical harshness, and many of whom were detained under deplorable conditions. The sketchy nature of the arrests even by the system's own oppressive rules is shown by how many of them have had their charges dropped, or were detained without charge to begin with, and it is good that people are indignant about this. It is a little wearying that a certain segment of the liberal indignation at the policing has, with little broader analysis, focused so heavily on the experiences of privileged people whose bodies are read as innocent by default and who can legitimately claim to have been 'uninvolved,' but the fact is they should be mad and we should support them.

But that's not the worst outcome of the policing.

If the crescendo to which this piece is building were not so awful, the treatment of those who were detained would certainly be the worst outcome of the policing -- not just sleep deprivation, inadequate conditions, denial of counsel and phone calls, and insufficient food and water, but rape threats, threats of assault, and sexual harassment of women and queer people. I can hear the right-wing uncles of the world harumphing about "allegations" and "unsubstantiated" and "a jail is not a hotel," but I have seen enough police behaviour in the context of protests and have heard enough about everyday police treatment of people who are poor, of colour, gender non-conforming, sex workers, or otherwise vulnerable to know that the substance of the descriptions in the piece linked above rings true, true, true. Rape threats? Sexual harassment? I believe it, and it disgusts me.

But even that, I think, is not the worst outcome of the policing, if only because the scale of what is the worst is so vast.

The Worst

The whole world continues to reel from the crisis that hit in 2008. After averting a total collapse by giving away huge amounts of money to people and organizations that are already rich and powerful, the governments of the rich countries have been taking their previously dominant political orientation, called "neoliberalism," and putting it on steroids. They have engaged in slashing to an unprecedented degree any expenditures which go to benefit ordinary people, often at the same time as cutting the taxes paid by the rich and corporations, turning as much as they can from being administered for the common good to being run for some rich person's private profit, and further slashing rules and regulations which put limits on the dangerous and nasty things that corporations can do to make a buck. Last year's G20 meeting in Toronto was, in fact, precisely about the world's most powerful states arriving at a (more or less) united front in implementing this kind of "age of austerity". They are attacking ordinary people who have the good fortune to have unionized, public sector jobs. They are attacking the services that ordinary people pay for through taxes and that ordinary people depend on to live -- health care, welfare, disability supports, public pensions, programs to fight poverty, education. They are attacking us, causing us pain, in order to benefit a few.

In Canada, though a pre-crisis neoliberal agenda had been pursued avidly by Liberal and Conservative governments alike since at least 1995, the newly amped-up version so aggressively implemented the world over has been much less visible. This is due to a number of quirks in the local political situation, not the least of which being that precarious minority governments ruled the country since 2004. However, less than a month ago, the most right-wing Prime Minister since the Second World War won a majority government, so that reprieve is over. If you don't believe me, then see what Tony Clement, the new government's Minister of Slashing and Burning, has to say about it. Lurk around Canadian lefty news and analysis sites and look over their content from the last month or two and you'll find plenty of sound analysis pointing towards similar things, with additional attention to the likelihood that the socially conservative Harper will continue his practice of specifically targeting women, queer people, and indigenous people for attack.

In the U.K., in France, in Greece, in Spain, even in Wisconsin in the good ol' U.S. of A., ordinary people have been on the streets and taking actions of all different sorts to oppose these attacks. Even the uprisings in the Arab world, though they are responding to local conditions with rather a different trajectory as well, are also connected to this nascent global wave of struggle -- and, in many important ways, lead it.

In 1995, when Ontario Premier Mike Harris began to shift the small steps made by the preceding NDP government towards neoliberalism and turned them into huge strides, hundreds of thousands of people in Ontario acted in response. It didn't stop Harris and it didn't stop his agenda, but it was impressive, and I would bet that when the archives are declassified decades from now historians will find that this action by ordinary people set limits on what the Tory thugs thought they could get away with. A lot has changed since then, including the larger attacks on political mobilizations in North America under the banner of the "War on Terror" and the erosion for other reasons of the coalitions that grew in the 1980s, thrived through the anti-Harris campaigns, and energized the local manifestations of the global justice movement. But I think a big reason behind the G20 policing was to make extra sure that nothing like what happened back then puts obstacles in the way of Harper's attacks on ordinary people.

The worst thing you can do to someone who is being attacked, violated, oppressed, abused, is to convince them that they can't do anything about it and they shouldn't even try. That is often a key element both of interpersonal abuse and of more obviously social instances of violently enforced power-over. And as much as the policing at the G20 had lots of other purposes as well -- making Harper look like a Big Man and a Tough Guy who can preserve order (and deliver the goods to elites when called upon); legitimizing the transfer of massive resources to police and security services; intervening in electoral politics at the local and federal levels in the Toronto area; and probably others -- one central reason for how it went down was a form of deliberate public pedagogy.

The worst thing about the policing at the G20 summit was that it delivered both a symbolic and a material message to keep us passive and inert precisely in anticipation of this moment when a majority Harper government could begin amping up its attacks on ordinary people. The messages were "protesters are dangerous" and "protest is risky." The brutality then was to encourage as many people as possible now to stay home. Elites want us to mistrust the people who are saying, "We can do something about this if we do it together." They want us to look at the billy clubs and the tear gas and the sexual harassment and the rape threats and all the rest of the nastiness from the cops and say, "Yeah, this Harper stuff sucks, but I don't want that to happen to me."

What We Can Do

Well, for one thing, we can take heart in the fact that at least some people will resist anyway, even if we can't see it and even if it takes different forms than we might want. It's inevitable.

But even so, while I think the G20 debacle may have stiffened the resolve of a radical few, it also was successful (from the standpoint of state relations) in creating additional barriers that will make it harder for many people who are not already active but who are going to bear the brunt of the coming attacks from finding ways to give their individual impulse to resist a collective and confrontational expression. Of course it isn't acting on its own, either, but as part of a fifteen or twenty year arc in which dissent has been increasingly criminalized and those seeking justice and liberation increasingly dealt with via the so-called justice system. It also exists in tight relation with an environment shaped by state-manipulated fears of terror and enhanced power given to the national security state since 9/11. And, seriously, given what went down at the G20 -- even what actually happened, as opposed to the distorted media narrative that dominates the public mind -- who can blame people for being wary?

There is no magic answer. We didn't create this particular constellation of obstacles so we can't just make them disappear. However, I think there are ways that we don't do ourselves any favours, and we could make some better choices at navigating these circumstances.

Certainly one element is, as I've argued before, that we have to focus on the hard, slow work of making movements legible as a more plausible path towards change in the minds of North Americans. The steps listed in that link are also relevant here. However, I can also think of two other things that people doing movement-oriented social change work could do.

The first is that we need to place a higher priority on connecting with people outside of the political bubbles we inhabit. This means more on-the-ground organizing that is basebuilding in its orientation. And it means thinking things through politically in ways that are genuinely responsive to the concerns of those not in our immediate orbit, even sometimes when that means making choices we don't really like. I think, in a way, doing political work in a small city like Sudbury makes the importance of this more visible than for those who do it in Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto. Not that any groups that I'm involved with at the moment do a good job of actually following this advice -- far from it. But in the big cities, it isn't that hard for people who identify as radicals to construct a personal and political environment that gives the impression that we have much more relevance to and potential connection with most people than we actually do, whereas out here in the boonies our isolation is starkly clear simply because there are so few of us.

In a way, Lesley Wood's brave reflection on the G20 organizing made a similar point. I'm paraphrasing and speaking more bluntly than the article does, and it has been awhile since I read it so I may be losing some nuance, but it seemed to me that Wood -- a core organizer in the anti-G20 work in Toronto -- was wrestling with the fact that though the organizers had the language of mobilizing oppressed communities, a desire to do so, an analysis of past summit protests that pointed towards doing so, and a solid analysis of how the G20 will indeed have a huge impact on many already-oppressed communities in the city, in many ways this desire and good language ended up creating an exaggerated sense among organizers of the extent to which they were actually doing it. Which doesn't mean that some groups and individuals involved in those protests don't do awesome work on a regular basis that involves grassroots, basebuilding mobilization. But I think, overall, the activities didn't match the rhetoric. (I encountered at least one instance in the lead-up to the G20 protests in which that solid work that has happened on an ongoing basis by a couple of groups was rhetorically used in a way that distracted attention from where that kind of work wasn't happening.) Anyway, I don't raise this to bash the organizers, who made valiant efforts in really tough conditions, but to draw attention to the fact that far too many of us, including myself and the things I'm involved with, don't do enough to connect with and orient ourselves to those who aren't in our political orbits.

The other suggestion I have may appear to be a bit more obscure, but I think it is still important. Right now, I would argue that the idealized person at the centre of our movements -- an ideal which flows from and organizes our practices in important ways -- is a barrier to dealing with the post-G20 environment, and we need to cultivate a different imaginative centre for our movements. (I'm speaking specifically of the white-dominated, movement-oriented left. Mileage may vary for other corners of resistance.) There are a couple of aspects to this. One problem is that in some spaces, the imaginative centre valorizes certain lifestyle choices that have nothing directly to do with struggle, and this can really alienate people who don't share those same lifestyle choices. The point isn't "don't do those things;" the point is don't smugly elevate them beyond their deserved status as one set of reasonable choices among many.

However, I think a broader problem is that many of our groups and spaces, even those not oriented around a particular subcultural niche, default to valorizing people who can take lots of risks and people who can devote unhealthy amounts of time to movement-building. Now, I would say that people who can do those things have very valuable contributions to make to movements, though I might recommend that they be careful and judicious in how they do so in the name of staying healthy and sustainable. But I think having those ideals at the centre can end up excluding the vast majority of people who can't do those things. The centrality of these two characteristics is a manifestation of what I have seen called "the cult of the militant." This imaginative centre gives us a very narrow and distorted view of what it means to act, and I think that gets in the way of solid strategic thinking. Moreover, it elevates those attributes that the criminalization of dissent has succeeded in demonizing in much of the public mind. If we approach people in ways that communicate that this is the essence of working for social change, of resistance, of struggle, then a lot of people who might otherwise join their moments of everyday resistance with ours will say, "No thanks!"

In contrast, I think we need to put a different figure at the centre of our movements, and we need to valorize some different characteristics. I'm not completely sure what those should be, but I have a sense that what we need to put at the centre is a certain dignified, persistent defiance. It contains a certain caring openness to ordinary people and an implacable refusal to accept power-over and oppression. Its vision encompasses not only the big protest, the land occupation, the direct action, but also the importance of survival, of everyday acts of resistance, of resisting through defiant application of caring and reproductive labour, of nurturing ourselves, of listening, of choosing our moments carefully. This is not quietism. This is putting at the imaginative centre of our movements an ideal that can nurture and connect the many moments and modes of resistance that many militants claim in words that they support but that many, in practice, treat as subordinate or inferior. It is a vision clearly different from middle-class left dabbling or liberal wiffle-waffling but one that is rooted in life and the living of it, that is capable of sustaining the networks we need to win in the long term, rather than the idea that experts and specialists (even if they are movement variants thereof) will save us.

We can't, though our actions, completely counter the ways in which harsh policing and all of the associated real risks and paralyzing cultural engineering discourage at least some people from particiapting in movements, but we can be strategic in how we respond.


Randy said...

Scott, I read this post in a state of awe. This is such a helpful contribution to the thinking around what it means to resist, to create new ways of being. You should send a copy to Staughton Lynd, because his writing has the same effect on me: it excites me for the possibilities contained within, while addressing some of the problems that we can wrap around us as security (but ultimately repel those who might otherwise be partners in struggle)
I also know that we grow through our many mistakes, so that I can look back at my own activist history and feel both satisfaction and sorrow, but I continue to appreciate your thoughtful and respectful insights, so articulately rendered.

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks so much, Randy. It's always really satisfying to hear that something I've written feels so useful to someone else, especially to a valued friend and comrade like you!