Saturday, March 01, 2014

Tighter security at Sudbury city hall: More ominous than you thought

This past week, Sudbury city hall announced new security measures. The chatter that I have seen about these changes on social media makes the very reasonable points that they are unnecessary, foolish, and anti-democratic. But I want to argue that they have even more unsavoury implications than I've so far seen recognized in the online conversation.

At the moment, the details of the changes are not entirely clear, but a few things are known. There will be new restrictions on where ordinary residents of Sudbury can go in city buildings. This seems particularly to apply to city council meetings and to city committee meetings -- there will be a clear separation between where residents must be and where staff and councillors can be. Journalists will have to get formal accreditation, and that will entitle them to be in the staff-and-council area at certain times, though from what I've seen it looks like even accredited journalists (i.e. those considered sufficiently respectable by city authorities) will be more restricted in their movement and activities than previously. As well, every council and committee meeting will have a uniformed security officer at the door, 'welcoming' people to the event. And the impression given by the coverage of the issue so far is that there are other changes happening as well that are not, or at least not yet, being made public.

According to the original CBC reporting of this development, the city staff person in charge of it -- manager of corporate security and court services, Brendan Adair -- indicated that "security is not being tightened in response to anything in particular." While there is no way to demonstrate in a court-of-law sort of way that this is false without having access to internal documents, it seems highly implausible. What seems much more likely is that this is at least in part a response to an action in late January by the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP). For about ten minutes, members and supporters of the group noisily interrupted a city council meeting to draw attention to the city's woefully inadequate response up to that point to the lack of a full-winter, fully accessible, night-time warming space for homeless people in the city. This public shaming would have been embarrassing enough for the mayor and council, but -- as I reported at the time -- the mayor's handling of it was additionally embarrassing. And it no doubt rankled that she was not, in the moment, able to use security personnel to just make this very brief but embarrassing interruption go away.

In the Sudbury Star piece on the security changes, the fact that these actions are a response to S-CAP's brief, non-threatening, but embarrassing intervention seems even more stark. The story's lead quotes Adair as asserting a need for "more control" at city council meetings, and as far as I am aware, there really isn't anything else he could be referring to. In addition, Adair is also quoted as saying, "We're in the North. How many men do you know that carry knives on their belts?", which is a ludicrous and insulting thing to think is relevant to this discussion. It is, however, an attempt to invoke fear of ordinary people, a rhetorical tack used by law-and-order types that is all too familiar in the era of the War on Terror. (Interestingly, in this case, he doesn't seem to be particularly trying to incite fear of people of colour, which is the bread and butter of War on Terror rhetoric, but rather, through the invokation of a particular classed way that masculinity is enacted in the north, it is fear of working-class men that he is hoping to mobilize for political ends.)

There are a number of kinds of objections to these measures that I have seen on social media from people that might be generally categorized as "progressive." They point out that there hasn't been anything even resembling an actual threatening incident, so these measures are unnecessary. They point out that this seems to have been in response to a non-threatening but politically embarrassing action that was clearly aimed at saving lives, and as such it is a poor use of resources, it is anti-democratic, and it is reactionary. And, in fact, the obliging Mr. Adair was quoted yet once more in the Star article, making quite clearly the anti-democratic point that, "We're trying to create a barrier between citizens and staff." Others are more familiar with this history than me, but in light of various other quiet changes at Sudbury city hall in the last number of years to make (the admittedly always quite limited) scope for political participation by residents even more difficult and less relevant, even if you believe the dubious claim that these changes are not about beefing up the capacity of security staff to respond in repressive ways to entirely commendable political actions, it still seems like it will further corrode whatever semblance of actual democracy might exist at city hall.

I want to argue, though, that we need to see this decision as part of a much larger historical trajectory as well, one that isn't just about Sudbury. So for a paragraph or two, let me step back and give some of that context.

In the decades after the Second World War, the dominant consensus in the rich countries, including Canada, was that the best way to respond to clearly demonstrated human need, particularly when people were getting upset and politically active because of it, was to find some way to partially meet the need in order to get people to quiet down. This is where the welfare state came from. It has always been far more limited and politically contradictory than its most ardent proponents claim, and it always excluded significant numbers of people and reinforced the subordination of others, but it met some needs and was a site for struggle through which other people with other needs could hope to have them met as well.

Starting globally in the 1970s, and arguably then in Canada too though it really picked up steam here in the '90s, was a change in that dominant consensus. There's lots to be said about the causes, character, and extent of that change, but the bottom line has been changes in how our society works such that there are more people with more unmet needs, and the dominant social response to those people is more likely to be repression rather than the partial, inadequate, and contradictory measures to meet (some of) the needs of the earlier social democratic era. In both the context of the everyday manifestations of crushing need experienced in particularly oppressed communities, and also in the context of collective efforts to demand change that would alleviate need, social responses have come to rely increasingly on policing rather than on addressing symptoms (or, heaven forbid, even root causes), and that policing has become increasingly militarized and violent. As a simple illustration of the change in the context of collective political action in Canada, you only need to look at the shift in policing across the Toronto Days of Action in 1996, the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, and the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. And there are countless other examples, domestic and international, of a shift from responding to angry collective expression of demands for justice with (often inadequate) bread to responding with batons and plastic bullets.

I think these new security measures at city hall are one small part of that much larger and longer trajectory. Contrary to what some other lefty types have asserted on social media, while I agree that these changes are odious and anti-democratic, I don't think they are just making something out of nothing. They are, I think, based on city officials perceiving something real and then making a political choice about how to respond to that. It's a bad political choice, but it's responding to a real phenomenon. Adair's framing of it as a fear of dangerous northern Ontarians and their knives may be foolish and insulting, but buried in that statement, and in the more implicit nod to the non-threatening but disobedient and disruptive S-CAP action, is a recognition that there are going to be -- inevitably, one way or another -- more angry people. The trajectory that has been going on since the '70s has only accelerated since the financial crisis began in 2008. Call it "neoliberalism," call it "austerity" -- there are going to be more people suffering, more people being attacked by the violence inherent to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, more people who don't have the means to meet their needs. And there are going to be people taking action based on those needs. Many people will take action in fragmented but absolutely essential everyday ways to ensure their own survival. A few might act in individualistic, anti-social ways that express their rage but do nothing to change anything. And others -- hopefully many others -- will find ways to join their resistance to the resistance of others to make it social and collective and visible.

So you have a situation that is going to produce more people whose lives have been pushed into need and suffering and who are understandably angry about that, and who might express that anger in a whole range of ways. And you've got a situation where repression is increasingly the go-to response to people who are making various sorts of demands for justice. There are a whole lot of little choices that go into making such trajectories a reality, lots of little ways to either reproduce them or to work against them. And the city has made a choice here.

I'm not saying, by the way, that the city is only repressive, or is likely to become so. State relations, of which municipal governments are a local manifestation, are complicated, and there are plenty of good people doing what they can in that context to mobilize resources to meet at least some kinds of needs some of the time (albeit inevitably in limited, social democratic ways). But core to this new, neoliberal, austerity-based reality is a recognition that such socially useful work goes so far and no further, and will have increasingly starker limits in the years ahead, and those who think that the well-being of ordinary people and the planet should take precedence and who are willing to take disobedient action to make the state and elites act accordingly are not going to be met with soft words and partial measures but with uniformed people empowered, ultimately, to use violence against them.

Some might argue, in reference to this one small change, "Well what else could the city do?" But part of truly prioritizing the well-being of ordinary people and the planet is refusing to accept pleas to practicality that disguise the politics beneath. "What else could the city do?" is just not good enough. These changes are the City of Greater Sudbury, in a small way, preparing itself to be better able to respond to articulations of human need -- which it knows will come, one way or the other -- with repression and force. And that isn't acceptable, however you dress it up.

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