Policing Dissent

Nonviolent Activist, January - February 2006

Lessons from the Global Justice Movement
Policing Dissent

By Mike McGuire

In November 1999, a relatively small number of committed activists took on the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the streets of Seattle and won. In addition to marching, activists devised a tactic of several layers of human blockades—some with fancy gear, others with linked arms. WTO delegates trying to arrive to the first day of meetings were barred from the conference by these well-organized walls of nonviolent civil disobedience. They created a dilemma for both the delegates and the police: to get past the activists they would have to use the type of force they prefer to hide behind seemingly bland economic policy, and attract media attention around issues previously invisible to the public eye.

Seattle was a watershed moment both for U.S. social movements and police tactics. Because of the novelty of the activist strategy, the Seattle police were caught off guard. After the tear gas, the rubber bullets, and a frenzy of media coverage, the WTO meetings were successfully disrupted—the dealings of the global economic elite pried open for public scrutiny. Seattle is now a point of reference in policing and used as an example of “violent” protest and street success that the authorities have vowed to prevent in the future.

We now have had six years of experience with post-Seattle police tactics that have been further militarized in the context of a reinforced national security state following September 11, 2001. So far, the result has not been favorable for U.S. social movements or freedom of expression.

Currently, whenever a demonstration might threaten the core interests of the political and economic elite, the police and public relations tactics likely to be deployed are predictable. They involve a centralized command structure that relies on funding and coordination through the Department of Homeland Security, and an extensive PR campaign to criminalize even the thought of dissent. Activists can expect extensive surveillance, harassment, and a highly militarized and aggressive police force. Faced with the growing sophistication of police tactics, activists have had to adapt and develop new strategies of effective protest.

Propaganda as Repression

An almost inescapable element of police operations for demonstrations that challenge “free trade” and/or capitalism is an extensive PR campaign to demonize the protesters and scare the public. Examples of these practices abound. In the case of Miami, where representatives of governments from all of the Americas met in November 2003 to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), city officials spoke of the protests as if they were either a medieval invasion of Visigoths—burning, looting, and rampant destruction—or some sort of natural disaster.

Police canvassed downtown Miami, advising businesses to close during the protests, and the city used public service announcements to warn people away from the downtown area where the meetings and protests were held. The organizing center for the protests received calls from terrified school teachers sharing that administrators had children doing duck and cover drills in preparation for the protests. When police raided an abandoned mansion temporarily occupied by protesters, they announced the discovery of an “anarchist bomb factory.” The evidence? A few of coconuts, a camp stove, and a bike lock! Similarly, Miami residents that activists met on the street asked about rumors of anarchists using thousands of billiard balls and “feces bombs” to attack police.

New Yorkers might remember a similar—though less extreme—media campaign in preparation for the protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention (RNC). It’s hard not to laugh at the description of the opening night of the Life After Capitalism Conference held at the CUNY Graduate Center as an “anarchist war council.” ABC’s Nightline ran a story the week before the RNC showing photos and police warnings of the anarchists congregating in New York, while the New York Daily News ran a story entitled “Anarchists Hot for Mayhem” that explained that “50 of the country’s leading anarchists are expected to be in the city for the Republican National Convention, and a handful of them are hard-core extremists with histories of violent and disruptive tactics.” The examples of police fabrication and exaggeration surrounding protest action go on; most are too absurd to even recount.

Show of Force

Parades of weaponry and police force are also a component of the repression campaign. The demonstrations in Cancun in September of 2003 during the WTO’s fifth ministerial are a very good example of this. The Mexican military literally paraded its weaponry down the main boulevard of the cherished hotel zone. They boasted of deploying amphibious tanks and more “less lethal” firearms than had ever been seen in Mexico. Cancún’s daily newspaper Por Esto quoted the commander of the operation saying that he would rule the streets “with an iron fist” and “would trade an eye for an eye with the protesters.”

Miami provides an extreme example of the use of force against demonstrators. Police treated the protest as if it were a massive expo on the use of “less lethal” police technology. In the face of 10,000 marchers from the AFL-CIO and a couple thousand activists interested in direct action, the Miami PD and nearly 40 other agencies deployed baton rounds, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, pepper bullets, tasers, armored personnel carriers, tear gas, lead core batons, electronic shields, aural weaponry, and pepper spray. Police shut off access not only to roads, but to permitted rallies and marches as well. Veterans and retired trade unionists were thrown to the ground and arrested for not responding fast enough to contradictory police orders. In one instance, people (including attorneys and journalists) were corralled, attacked with pepper spray, and arrested while trying to obey a police order to disperse. Many left Miami knowing what a police state looked, acted, and felt like.

The policing of the protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention represents another interesting model of repression. The NYPD tracked every planned action and set up traps. As marches began, police would emerge from their hiding places—building vestibules, parking garages, or vans—and corral the dissenters with orange netting that read “POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS,” establishing areas they ironically called “ad-hoc free speech zones.” One by one, protesters were arrested and detained—some for nearly two days.

Through the use of netting, massive numbers of officers, mass arrest and prolonged detention, police strategy was simply to contain and prevent any anti-RNC gathering. These crowd control techniques were remarkably effective. Fortunately, the demonstrations were large and dispersed enough that even as the police controlled the some areas, they lost control of most of midtown Manhattan.

In addition to the weaponry and crowd control, cities rely on the sheer number of agents to silence protests. Global justice activists occasionally find themselves outnumbered at demonstrations by police and/or soldiers (this includes active duty Army).

In Miami there were around 10,000 protesters and 5000 police. Eight months later, when the G-8 met in Georgia, there were 10,000 plus agents from well over 100 agencies of local and federal government in addition to the Army. There were only a few hundred protesters. New York City, which boasts a police force equal to the standing army of a small country, brought in officers from across the region to help with the RNC operation. It’s also important to note that officers at many of these events opt to be there, and are more eager to confront protesters.

The message of this show of force is clear: The efforts of activists are futile, they should stay away, and most of all, they should be very, very afraid.

Criminalizing Dissent

Host cities of elite gatherings like the WTO and the RNC have taken to limiting free speech for the duration of the meetings by passing last-minute city council regulations. Before the demonstrations in Miami, a set of laws was passed that made it illegal to carry large signs or banners, possess sticks large enough to use for puppets or stilts, gather in groups larger than a few people for more than a half hour, and walk through the streets with more than seven people without a permit. A birthday party in a public park could have been considered illegal. These laws were then copied in Georgia for the G-8. In New York City they were proposed and voted down.

In the wake of the massive repression in Miami, these laws were successfully challenged in court. After the judge recognized the audacious and unconstitutional nature of the provisions, the Miami city council immediately repealed them and alleged that Chief Timoney and the Miami PD had manipulated them into passing the laws. While it is obvious that they are unconstitutional, the crucial point is that they are passed by local government and implemented by the police before the demonstrations—before the courts can even look at them.

Looking Forward

It is important that the activist community be aware of these tendencies of repression. The models used against one demonstration propagate very quickly and are employed in venues nationally and internationally. The recent mobilizations outside of the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and outside the sixth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Hong Kong, saw several of the components outlined above.

There have been many responses to the police repression of recent years. A minority of protesters use it to argue that nonviolent protest is no longer viable, and the only option left is direct physical confrontation with the repressive forces. Others have responded by saying that we need to diversify our activist toolbox by developing our own sophisticated communications plans, staying flexible in our actions, and turning the tables on the repressive forces.

A collective that has been instrumental in developing activist communications strategies or “activist PR campaigns” is Smart Meme. Members have trained activists in intelligently and effectively communicating their message and vision through mass media outlets. The premise of Smart Meme’s work is that the public is actually supportive of principles like justice, sustainability, and peace, and activists must communicate with the public in ways that don’t alienate them or ghettoize the activists.

An example of agile and flexible street tactics is the shutdown of the financial district of San Francisco in the days after the start of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Activists used the media very effectively to announce to San Francisco that they could expect the city to be overwhelmed by protest once the war was launched. In the weeks before the U.S. invasion, organizers circulated a “menu of targets” that listed possible sites for gathering and protest. The menu graphically resembled a restaurant menu, listing parks that would be used as gathering spots, recruiting centers, and the addresses of war profiteers like Bechtel. Media outlets then reprinted the menu in their articles. Through effective communications, clever graphic design, and very intelligent and creative planning, organizers provided the public with two things: the expectation of massive protest and clear information on how the broader public could join in. In some ways, the announcement of overwhelming the city with demonstrations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as protesters successfully shut down the financial district.

The 2004 Democratic National Convention provided a golden opportunity to use the police’s strategy against them. A “free speech zone” that resembled an outdoor prison was set up for protesters two blocks from the convention. The area was demarcated by concrete barricades, two walls of fencing topped with razor wire, and overhead netting. The zone was also under two metro train bridges that were used by patrols of uniformed military police with rifles and live munitions. The scene was incredible. Activists responded by using the camp as a prop. The morning the convention began, one hundred people suited up to resemble the detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay—black hoods and orange jumpsuits—and knelt in front of the zone with their hands tied behind their backs for almost an hour. Activists dubbed the area “Camp DNC.” When the evening news ran that night, it introduced the convention saying that things couldn’t have started out worse for the Democrats. The activists’ street theater became the framing action for the DNC.

For all the forms of police repression, there are many more forms of resistance. Activists in the global justice movement have often fallen into the trap of trying to treat every mobilization as if it were Seattle and strategies can simply be recycled. But by remaining creative and adaptive to new police tactics, activists can make protests more inclusive and effective, and win back not merely streets, but the hearts and minds of everyday people.

Mike McGuire is an activist and construction worker from Baltimore. He is a member of the WRL National Committee.