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Repressing Social Movements

Tomás Mac Sheoin, with Nicola Yeates, is the author of “Policing Anti-Globalization Protests: Patterns and Variations in State Responses,” in Samir Dasgupta and Jan Nederveen Pieterse, eds., Politics of Globalization (New Delhi: Sage, 2009).

Amory Starr, Luis Fernandez, and Christian Scholl, Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence and Social Control in the Global Era (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 207 pages, $23.00, paperback.

Shutting Down the Streets is not an ivory-tower book, situated a safe distance from its subject; the first appendix lists the seventeen anti-globalization summit protests which were directly observed by the book’s authors. And just as the authors were participants and not just spectators, they also refrain from merely presenting a comparative analysis of policing and repression at these summits. Examining the existing academic literature on social control, dissent, and social movements, they argue that existing works on repression mainly concentrate on protest policing. Instead they aim to develop a broader framework that examines social control by extending the object of analysis from the policing of protest events to the effects of social control on dissent, while also arguing that the unit of analysis needs to be changed from individual protests to the wider one of social movements. Repression then is not just police violence and coercion at protests but also includes a host of other methods of “soft” repression, such as psyops (psychological operations), infiltration, and surveillance.

The authors propose three categories for the analysis of social control: geography, political economy, and political violence. Of these, political economy receives the least attention in what is almost the shortest chapter in the book. Not the least of this chapter’s virtues is the astounding figures for the cost of “securing” the G8 and G20 summits. The G8 costs climbed from $40 million in Genoa in 2001 to $309 million in Toronto in 2010, while the price for “securing” the G20 went from $28.6 million in London in 2009 to $574.6 million in Toronto in 2010 (51). This leads to questions such as: Who supplies what equipment to the police and at what cost? And what overlaps are there between these suppliers and the “security-industrial complex” which grew in the United States under the aegis of Homeland Security, and in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the U.S. occupation?

The geographical analysis identifies the following spatial activities: holding summits in geographically isolated areas; fencing off summit venues; creating and extending security zones; creating and enforcing protest zones; penning or kettling protesters; attacking protesters’ safe space through targeting infrastructure such as convergence or Indymedia centers and sleeping quarters; controlling the mobility of individual protesters through “ban orders, travel bans for foreign activists, daily obligatory registration, preventive (mass) detention, imposed spatial restrictions for demonstrations and assemblies, and (the reintroduction of) border controls” (41); and the increasing militarization of policing—as well as involving the military itself.

For the policing of dissent they trace the use of a wide range of legislative and bureaucratic methods to limit protest; the increased use of intelligence, including undercover surveillance and infiltration; conspiracy charges; preemptive mass arrests; police attacks even on permitted and pacifist protests; increasing criminalization of dissidence through recasting “trespassing and property damageas severe and violent crimes and even terrorism” (87); and the transnationalization of protest policing.

The marginalizing, preemptive, and accumulative effects of policing on collective discourse, culture, and history, as well as the effects of fear on political consciousness, are also analyzed. Here they are candid enough to admit the methodological problems faced: “we have found it nearly impossible to distinguish between the effects of various police tactics and to track separately those effects on individuals, organizations and communities” (93). They argue that the combined effects of these methods of social control on social movements can be interpreted as political violence.

One effect of repression is to divert an organization away from its activist program and instead commit resources to self-defense. For example, “one organization that was illegally searched spent more than 1,500 hours of volunteer time dealing with the fallout for its membership and its relations with other organizations” (109). Another effect is the replacement of the movement’s open culture with a security culture that undermines the movement’s politics and practices. Particularly effective here is the authors’ description of how their own practice came to feature a similar security culture and the difficulties that posed: “We kept our appointment calendars only in our minds, backed up data in three places every night, never left our laptops in cars, and didn’t discuss the data on the phone. The one night I left my laptop in the hotel room and went out dancing, I carried a copy of the day’s data taped to my body” (113). Other effects of repression included “a widespread chilling effect on internal communication in organizationsmembers of nearly all groups we interviewed have reduced their use of email and the telephone, instituted ‘complicated’ communication systems, and try to have their meetings in person” (107). More worrying yet is the possible effect on the movement’s memory and history: “Groups concerned about the creeping criminalization of gray and formerly legal activity take extreme precautions, forgoing inclusivity and destroying written records of their work” (110). This is accompanied by a demobilization, a move away from contentious issues and tactics (even if legal), and an erasure of solidarity as organizations try to create distance between themselves and any organization targeted for repression. They report a similar demobilization on the part of many activists. Repression has previously been seen as splitting movements into militant and moderate factions; instead of this they claim to “find signs of pervasive pacification in the US and Europe” (117).

This repression has not gone unanswered: the penultimate chapter describes social movements developing various tactics and strategies to maintain space for dissent. In addition to solidarity tactics and legal maneuvers, these include tactical innovations on the street to avoid control and channelling of dissent by the state.

This is an excellent book which examines the effects of social control on social movements, drawing on evidence from Europe and the United States, while making innovative suggestions for the analysis of repression and social control. While it is an academic book the authors erect no barriers to keep the general reader out: despite a pinch of Foucault here and a hint of Agamben there, the writing is refreshingly direct and without jargon, while the discussion is constantly illustrated by examples of repression at various summit protests.

However it is not without problems. Despite the book’s subtitle, their analysis is not a global one; of the seventeen summit protests the authors observed, nine were in North America, seven in Europe, and one in Mexico. The subtitle should include the qualifier “in core European and North American democracies” to indicate the limitations of the study: as the authors write “this book is focused on the mechanisms of social control in the Global North” (22). Their “Global North,” however, excludes Asia, where Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea have experiences of summit protests. On the same issue, their European sample is strongly biased towards the north, Italy being the only southern European country to receive attention.

This geographical limitation is accompanied by a limitation in their concept of geography, which excludes consideration of the national, despite the fact that a wide range of national factors—such as the balance of political power, political history, media concentration, and police practices—need to be considered in any exploration of political repression. They also fail to consider media strategies, which are an essential ingredient in any criminalization and marginalization strategy, despite their promise to do so. Similarly, the authors’ concern with geography needs to be joined with a concern for history. Thus there is a history of policing and repression of the anti-globalization movement in the United States, for example, and this development of repression—across time as well as across space—needs to be attended to in any analysis of social control.

Shutting Down the Streets would have been improved by more explicit attempts to compare and contrast the experiences in North America and Europe. While one advantage of the book is the inclusion of the European and North American experiences in one volume, there is a danger that differences are skated over. For instance, political litigation is considered as part of anti-repression work as though it was a common practice in both the United States and Europe (133–38). However, of the ten examples cited, nine relate to the United States and only one (Genoa) relates to Europe. This suggests that this form of anti-repression work may be confined to the United States, and that legal response in Europe is less constant or vigorous. This difference in tradition may account for the surprising concluding demand in the book, that social movements be given legal standing as a class.

While it is understandable that a book like this, which sets out to produce a “framework for examining both the tactics and effects of social control” (20), would wish to emphasize the commonalities between North American and European experiences, such a framework needs to allow for national differences rather than obliterating them. Their analysis of the effects of repression is overdetermined by the experience in the United States of an orgy of repression under the excuse of Homeland Security. Their conclusions on the demobilizing effects of repression are weakened by their almost exclusive reliance on the U.S. experience; and even there the conclusions on passivity appear to be contradicted by the rise of the Occupy movement.

Regrettably the index is sparse and does not include summit locations. The book also contains a fifteen-page discussion of tactics at Heiligendamm by movement intellectuals, space that could have been better used, given the shortness of the book (152 pages of main text). Despite these criticisms however, the book represents a step forward in the study of repression.

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