Assymetrical warfare

As we’ve discussed before, I’m no expert in the practicalities of politics. Yet I find the response to the Occupy protests absolutely baffling, just on a practical level. The police are routinely responding as though the Occupy people are a guerilla group trying to stage a coup — and as though they have a better than even chance of succeeding if the police don’t put their all into the counter-attack.

It’s well known that people who are convinced they are in the right are strengthened in their convictions when they are persecuted. It’s also well known that the best way to pacify opposition is to give in to at least some demands. The Occupy movement famously doesn’t have any explicit demands, other than their implicit demand to be allowed to protest — so why not try to domesticate them by simply giving them a defined place where they’re allowed to have their encampment? Even as recently as the Iraq War, there were the officially sanctioned “free speech zones” that seemed to give people an adequate release valve to make them feel like they’d protested, after which the protest movement shrank to negligible proportions. Or if that doesn’t work, why not make some token gesture toward social justice — cutting the police budget by 1% and putting the money toward schools or something? Or in the extreme case, why not, you know, actually punish a particularly brutal perpetrator of police violence?

There are so many peaceful options here — why has the universal response been such hugely disproportionate and even ridiculous violence?

11 thoughts on “Assymetrical warfare

  1. My suspicion, and I am not too grounded in US politics to be sure, is that they see the Occupy protestors as non-voters or people who would vote for minor parties (or, in some cases, will vote Democrat anyway) and so there is not much reason to placate them. As for the police this is surely all to do with the security-industry and their influence i.e. people with a vested interest in providing police with all that futuristic armour (*almost* laughable if it were not also quite creepy). Couple that with that hate for ‘hippies, stoners, and emasculated students’ from the police end and there are very few reasons to concede anything to the protestors. Those in power surely wager, likely correctly, that most people just don’t like protestors and it’s a win-win; money is made, police get overtime/a little violence, and politicians can just get on with whatever it is that interests them.

  2. I used to wonder about the same, but I’ve stopped. Over here in the UK, the massive response of the police – as well as certain changes in tactics – have had a distinctly dampening effect on the protest movement. On the one hand, a lot of people have faced the possibility of long jail sentences, which certainly makes them and everyone else a bit hesitant to head down into the fray. On the other hand, the policing of – for instance – protest marches has changed from cat and mouse runs around the city (which were fun and encouraging) to wall to wall total policing, which has left everyone with a sense that goes like “why f’n bother to head out for this stuff – we’re just headed straight from A to B and then off to the pub.” Basically – and as much as I hate to admit it – what the police are doing with their massive over-reaction seems to be working. And further it feels to me like there are a few consulting firms flying around the world teaching one government the lessons of the previous one to face down this sort of thing.

  3. I seriously think that’s the point: things used to get out of hand (in a good way, or, well, you know what I mean) only when the demonstrations etc were lightly policed. Now that they basically pull every cop down out of every town and village in England, and now that there’s a sense that the slightest bit of unruly activity will lead to instant arrest and probable incarceration, even those that I know were pretty militant aren’t all that keen to head out on the streets. For the most part, they’re not saying that it’s because they’re scared, though they may well be. They say that it’s because it’s pointless compared to how it was before the advent of “total policing.”

  4. Extrapolating from the UK, riots which gripped several cities not so long ago were able to grow as a result of big Other being perceived as impotent which allowed individuals to enjoy illicit transgression of law without fear of consequence.

    I think over the top police response is less a response than an instance of being proactive, not for the benefit of those currently protesting but for those who are watching.


  5. Violence and heavy police presence also alienates “normal” people, which might also be the point of the agent provocateur stuff that recently came to light. but honestly usa and great britain have a history of very violent oppression of protests that has always baffled me: in a similar way i think there police is much more violent and armed more heavily; and you also have a history of violent rioting. maybe the stakes are just perceived to be higher than in a relatively more peaceful country like, say, germany.

  6. I think there is also a longer-term goal in mind. Cracking down hard now, changing laws, criminalizing dissent (or, in the case of the folks protesting in Montreal, criminalizing the wearing of masks or hoods), militarizing the police… all these things may seem like an overreaction to us now but I think they will set important precedents for coming days when more people are poor, more people are without benefits, more people are unemployed (etc.) and so more people end up protesting. Things are changing now, before we have the numbers, so that, when we do have the numbers, we’ll still be the underdogs.

    (Also, I agree that this is an effective overreaction. I am reminded of the Heart Attack protest that took place in Vancouver on the first day of the Olympic games. There was a moment during that protest when the group — including a sizable Black Bloc — could have seized a key intersection and achieved the goal of the protest… at least for some short period of time. However, people decided to NOT seize the intersection — which, I reiterate, was the whole point of the protest as it would have disrupted traffic to the Olympic venues that were operating on the opening day and could have actually set back the Games in a tangible way — because they didn’t want to confront the [at that point] quite thin line of police guarding — even though the Bloc had broken police lines at two points earlier in the day when the cops tried to split them away from the rest of the people who were engaged in the protest. It seemed to me that everybody got cold feet — they knew there were bus loads of fully armoured cops just a few blocks away, and they knew they would be violently arrested — and so folks decided to just keep marching around and chanting and that way they would still be able to avoid charges, avoid getting their asses kicked, and still be able to attend the other march that was scheduled for later in the day.)

  7. I’m continually surprised by my one-to-one interactions with the police at occupy events. I would have expected the police to have a more conflicted response to the role that they’ve been placed in. I guess I was naive. I can’t express to you how shocked I was (and still am) by the lack of even the slightest hint of critical thought or moral questioning I’ve seen in my conversations with the police.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Stanley Milgram and the people behind the Stanford prison experiment. These studies have become real to me in a way they were not before. Still the authoritarian mindset remains a mystery to me. I can’t make sense of it.

  8. Why are the Police so rough these days in the USA? The godamn President(Manchurian Canidate) represents the unabated greed of the Ruling Class. Voluntarily or involuntarly The President is their gopher!

  9. We were talking about declarations of rights in class today. One–just one–noticed that the same documents that give rights also outline the procedures for abrogating them. Familiar, of course, to readers of Agamben. This lead to a brief discussion of Bill 78–the emergency anti-student legislation in Quebec and the protests there. They originally started talking about whether this was a legitimate limitation of rights or not, but that quickly turned into something else: even if you are completely innocent of any criminal activity, even if you are not rioting, even if you aren’t part of the protest, but happen to be there, you have made a calculated risk to be in public during a protest therefore you have surrendered your rights and are a legitimate target of police violence. Clearly the strategy of scaring the shit out of people who only want to exercise their legal rights has completely worked. My students, by the way, are a half-hour walk or ten minute bus ride from Gatineau, where there are ongoing protests and attempts to shut down campuses.

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