From NATO to the DNC: Does More Repression Mean We’re Winning?
Three weeks after the opening of the NATO summit in Chicago, many local organizers are still spinning from the massive and aggressive police presence that descended on the city. Though the City Council Wednesday passed a resolution praising the Chicago Police Department and other first responders for their work during the NATO summit, the National Lawyer's Guild says that it has received reports of more than 70 instances of police brutality during the week of the demonstrations.
Part of the reason the CPD and Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy in particular have received such fawning praise from public officials and the mainstream press (One Chicago Alderman, evidently concerned that the comparisons to Braveheart didn't go far enough, likened McCarthy to George Washington during the City Council meeting Wednesday) is that some of the worst civil liberties abuses took place prior to NATO, out of the public eye. And as Chicago activists tackle the aftermath of multiple raids and more than 100 arrests—including those of the 'NATO 5' being charged with terrorism-related offenses in what defense lawyers say are cases of entrapment—the FBI has already begun questioning North Carolina activists about protests planned for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September.
Jeremy Miller, an activist with the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, told In These Times that FBI agents visited the home of a fellow activist in Asheville, North Carolina on May 30 and tried to ask her questions about the DNC and the the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia (FARC), where she had been part of an international solidarity delegation. Though the activist declined to comment for the article, FBI agents reportedly told her that they also wanted to speak to Miller, who was involved initially with the steering committee planning the DNC protests.
Miller believes that the visits are related primarily to the grand jury subpoenas of anti-war and international solidarity activists in Minneapolis and Chicago (about which Asheville activists have been questioned previously), but noted that as the convention approaches, “we're expecting to see the same repression and harassment that took place in Chicago coming here to North Carolina.”
In a recent article for Alternet, Arun Gupta notes that, with terror-related charges issued against three activists in Cleveland and five in Chicago, “the FBI is unleashing the same methods of entrapment against the Occupy Wall Street movement that it has used against left movements and Muslim-Americans for the last decade.” These developments followed the uncovering of new evidence of a massive spying campaign directed against the Occupy movement. In reponse to these revelations, there's a certain logic that holds that this kind of backlash means the movement must be doing something right. But does more repression really mean we’re winning?
Certainly, it’s hard to imagine this level of attention being directed toward a movement that holds no threat to the status quo. But arrests and surveillance can be poor metrics for movements to be dealing in—especially when the vast expansion of resources devoted to producing terrorism convictions since 9/11 has meant that the FBI now more frequently seeks to pick off the low-hanging fruit than to disrupt movement strategy based on a thorough reading of Gene Sharp.
These methods are part of a paradigm of so-called “predictive policing” that emerged after 9/11, when FBI Director Robert Mueller issued a memo on “forward-leaning” prosecutions just days after the attacks. Since this time, a vast network of spies and informants—as many as 60,000, according to an investigation by Mother Jones—has been used to manufacture many of the domestic terror plots that have made headlines in the past decade.
In the 2011 documentary If A Tree Falls, which chronicles the Green Scare and the prosecution of Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan on domestic terrorism charges, the viewer hears one law enforcement officer explain the pay and promotion incentives to deliver “terrorism enhancement” cases. But while environmental activists like Daniel McGowan became targets after lengthy organizing careers, informants have in recent years been used for quick frame-ups of activists relatively isolated from movements—like the two young men from Austin, Texas who were pushed into a plan to make Molotov cocktails at the 2008 Republican National Convention by FBI informant Brandon Darby.
Of course, though these charges may not interrupt the campaigns actually being planned by organizers, their effect on individual lives is just as destructive—and they can still dissolve movements by creating paranoia and alienating those who might otherwise join in.
Will Moore, a political science professor at Florida State University who studies political repression, notes that Occupy attracts attention precisely because its central repetoire—occupying—runs counter to the logic of urban policing which, he says, involves in part “a constent belief that a large group of people gathering is by definition disorder.”
But while mass demonstrations may disrupt this logic temporarily, the arrests and brutality that frequently result don't necessarily translate into a win—especially when police are able to gain the moral high ground and justify further crackdowns. Moore, who attended the NATO protests as part of a research team studying the policing of mass demonstrations, says that the Chicago Police Department and Gary McCarthy “won heartily” because, after allowing unpermitted marches throughout the weekend (though not, as Moore observes, north of the Chicago river “where the rich people live”) the police were able to portray the dispersal of protesters following the largest march on Sunday as entirely warranted.
“Compared to 1968, it was incredible how coordinated and restrained the police in Chicago were,” says Moore. “But what they see that as an increasing ability to maintain order, I see it as an increasing ability to restrict freedoms … With police communicating and coordinating more and more, the freedom of assembly of large groups on the street is increasingly tenuous.”
This coordination is especially evident as law enforcement agencies gear up for the RNC and the DNC this fall. Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett and a number of other Tampa police attended the NATO summit to compare their security strategy for the RNC with Chicago's. Before the NATO summit got underway, multiple homes and activist spaces were raided by the Chicago Police (In a recent piece for Alternet, Sam Jewler recounts the warrantless interrogation of the neighbors of the nine people briefly disappeared following a raid on May 16). In an interview with FOX News, Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett said in reference to the raids and use of infiltrators that Tampa police “will be taking the same measures of prevention on our end" prior to the Republican National Convention in the city this summer.
Meanwhile, a replay of the legal struggles that took place before NATO is underway in Charlotte, where the Democratic National Convention is set to be held in September. In advance of the convention, the city of Charlotte in January passed a ban on camping and instituted a lottery system that demonstrators must apply through in order to win entrance to a restricted parade route and free-speech zones established for the convention. Though the Coalition to March on Wall Street South was, last week, granted a permit for a march the weekend before the convention, demonstrators say that the city took eight months to respond to their request and have called for a clear permitting process.
Heading into the conventions this fall, there's likely to be plenty of speculation as to whether Occupy is falling into the kind of “summit-hopping” that the anti-globalization movement has been criticized roundly for. Criticisms of mass demonstrations as trading in the symbolic over the strategic often miss the point of a radical defense of the right to public space—all demonstrators, regardless of their perceived strategic prowess or willingness to make agreements with fellow protesters, should be able to show up (wearing whatever color or head gear they so choose) without expecting to be beaten, pepper-sprayed or snatched off the street before these things even happen. Still, as police seeking to control crowds at summits and conventions roll out an increasingly standardized set of tactics, movements need to consider how to adapt theirs.