12.27.2012

Radicalizing Repression

How state repression sets off radiating outrage towards police, prosecutors, and the social order they produce.

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Amongst those who’ve recently been organizing against state austerity measures and social oppression in Northern California, an expression has emerged: “Revolution in the fall, counterrevolution in the spring.” The phrase attempts to plot the rhythms of protest and its repression in the Bay, where building reclamations, street actions, and brief strikes have taken shape in the months of October and November, while, by March, our energies have tended to be consumed with court support and campaigns against prosecutions. In the UK, the student protests of late 2010 and the subsequent rounds of criminalization followed a similar pattern, although some of the prosecutions have dragged on for almost two years as the Crown Prosecution Services tries again and again to run cases that have previously ended in hung juries (no overall agreement) or have stalled for technical reasons. However, the riots of August 2011 that took place in several cities across the country exploded in the middle of various protest trials: as tough as it was to get people in court to support those charged from the earlier demonstrations and trade union protest, as well as other direct actions, it was and is almost impossible to track the riot cases — more than 3000 arrests and 2000 charges so far — with twenty-four-hour courts running for several days and immediate custody (i.e. no bail) for most, leading to overcrowding and prison riots.

The expression obscures the less predictable tempos and sequences of recent protest, and this year its inadequacy has become particularly evident, as activists have been dealing in recent months with intensifying forms of state repression. In San Francisco, an October demonstration against war and colonial violence was rushed by the police, who struck with batons and arrested those at the front of the march. A few days later, after the arrestees’ supporters had raised thousands of dollars for bail payments, the mug shots of twenty of those who’d been released from custody were published by the San Francisco Weekly. The Examiner described the protesters as members of a “vicious criminal street gang.” The police evidently have decided to invite local newspapers and their readers into the everyday work of punishment and social regulation; the newspaper editors, at least, seem more than willing to oblige. The SFPD has brought in their “Gang Taskforce” to aid in the prosecution of those arrested, who are facing conspiracy charges and have had phone and twitter records subpoenaed. The utterly widespread usage of CCTV cameras in the UK, as well as a complicit and compliant press and a right-wing blog-culture that sees no problem with reposting photos of people and adding their own insinuations, regardless of the presumption of innocence, have done their best to abet the prosecutions of anyone involved in alleged “unrest” of any kind. Train stations were plastered with photos of those wanted for questioning, and police even dropped off printouts of suspected rioters on university campuses, where they were quickly removed and shredded (off-campus) by student activists.

Back in the US, a grand jury investigation of Seattle anarchist and ultra-left communities has been ongoing; two people who’ve refused to testify before the jury remain incarcerated. There’s a sense that similar investigations could soon be launched in other cities. A spirit of generalized anxiety has thus taken hold amongst those who, just last fall, in the midst of expanding encampments, street confrontations, and rolling strikes, seemed to have forced a series of political openings, and to have put police forces, city governments, and university administrations on the defensive.

Neither the student protests that attacked Conservative Party HQ, the energy of early 2011 Trade Union protests nor the uprisings in the summer have been repeated on any scale in 2012, despite a worsening economic situation and brutal cuts all round. It is hard to know exactly why not: the police tactics on the ground during protest — kettling (police form an impermeable barrier around protesters often for extremely long periods of time — nine to ten hours in the student protests and in sub-zero temperatures — preventing anyone from exiting, eating, drinking or going to the toilet, a shaming mission, essentially), use of horse-charges and the violent police use of shields and batons are clearly designed to put off people from attending future protests, and certainly discriminate against those with children or with disabilities: footage of one activist, Jody McIntyre, twice being dragged from his wheelchair in one protest is absolutely shocking and caused — brief — national outrage (not that the incident has prevented police from turning violent against other people with disabilities at a recent event against cuts in disability allowance). The extreme prison sentences for protesters and rioters, not to mention for people on social media (one person who made a joke about the riots coming to his hometown was sent to prison for four years) have no doubt contributed to a climate of fear and extreme anxiety about monitoring — online and off. Eleven people — ten women and one man — who were tricked into having sexual relationships, and, in some cases, children, with undercover police officers who had infiltrated protest groups, have recently launched their case against the police chiefs who authorized it (the most famous undercover police officer at the heart of this scandal — Mark Kennedy — is also attempting to sue the police for not preventing him from falling in love). There is also the on-going prosecution of Alfie Meadows, a student protester hit by a police baton so hard he needed life-saving brain surgery, who continues to be hassled through the courts on a charge of “violent disorder” (which carries a maximum five year prison sentence — the favoured charge of the prosecution services of late): a parody of justice so grotesque it can hardly be believed.

If the phrase, “Revolution in the fall, counter-revolution in the spring” seems to propose a recurring period of relative freedom from effective state repression, recent grinding prosecutions, and increasingly aggressive policing techniques, across both the US and the UK, give another picture of the temporality of protest these days — a picture in which repression forms something of a constant, underlying current, conditioning oppositional practices that nevertheless have the potential to spin off in unexpected directions or to block, if only for a moment, the effective motions of prosecutors and the police.

If this picture of our political moment appears shaded by pessimism, it also perhaps usefully casts into relief a series of urgent practical and theoretical problems for oppositional formations, from the need to adequately map the complex dynamics, historical layers, geographic variations, and effects on oppositional practice of state repression; to the imperative that we find ways to face, and tear away at, the layers of sanctioned violence that underlie and unsettle the present. By engaging directly such histories of state violence, new alliances, rhythms, and terrains of struggle could perhaps emerge.

Alongside the repression, the last few months have also opened up important real counterstrategies against the police, their violence, lies and ties to a repressive media and an increasingly exposed ruling class. Revelations about the death of nearly one hundred people at a football march in 1989 (The Hillsborough Disaster) have confirmed what families already knew twenty-three years earlier — that the police and other services were directly responsible for the crush and the aftermath, and that many of the people who died could have been saved. The same police force — South Yorkshire police — are also to be investigated for possible assault, perjury, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in a public office in relation to the “Battle of Orgreave,” where ninety-five miners were arrested during the 1984–85 miners’ strike. All were eventually acquitted after defence lawyers argued the police had fabricated evidence. The News International scandal which revealed the extent of joint police, government, and press corruption in relation to illegal phone-tapping, as well as growing anger over deaths in police custody and asylum centres and numerous police racism scandals, as well as the relentless stop and search tactics used in poorer parts of cities, have contributed to widespread mistrust of the police and those they serve.

In California as well, police forces and prosecutors have been particularly discredited in recent years (and, in the case of the Oakland Police Department, faced with possible Federal Receivership) as a result of a series of corruption scandals; the presumptive criminalization of working-class communities of color through gang injunctions and stop and frisk practices; the enforcement of stay-away orders for whole regions of cities against protesters charged with as little as blocking a sidewalk (a statute initially promulgated to criminalize street preaching by members of the Nation of Islam); and cover-ups following police shootings of unarmed people, including Oscar Grant, a young black man who was shot and killed by OPD officer Johannes Mehserle on New Years Day, 2009, while lying handcuffed on the ground.

The 2009 Oakland uprisings in response to Oscar Grant’s murder forced the state to actually prosecute and incarcerate for a number of years Johannes Mehserle; these risings also brought people together who would later help build the Occupy Oakland encampment and the city-wide strike (called in response to a police raid on the encampment and subsequent tear-gassing of assembled protesters), which successfully shut down the port of Oakland on November 2, 2011.

If recent rounds of state repression have both chilled oppositional activity and at the same time set off radiating, increasingly generalized pain and outrage towards police, prosecutors, and the social order they daily reproduce, a question of the moment is whether as-yet unrealized forms of refusal and mutual support might take shape that could activate this radiating outrage, actively politicize and counteract oppressed populations’ uneven exposure to sanctioned violence, and at the same time give those who resist the sense that they can count on massive support if ever they face police violence and prosecution.