Public Order versus Political Dissent: A Nasty Dilemma

Posted on January 4, 2011


Since the  British tuition fee protests, I have retained a few of the most interesting student activist tweeters from the UK on my twitter feed. Despite the fact that they have a slight tendency to clog up my twitter feed with things that don’t have  a whole lot to do with me, I keep them on because there is a fascinating discussion going on within the British Student Movement about what form activism should take in the twenty-first century. The recent appearance of an important issue which galvanized the young people of the country-and rallied the police to oppose them-has made the UK the site of some truly cutting edge thought from both sides of the police line.

Case in point: Two articles which popped up in the last few days. The first is written by Tim Dees, a police tech correspondent to a police newsletter. It starts, predictably, with the following clichéd assertion:

For some, anarchy is a full-time job. The nature or cause of the event is a far secondary issue to the opportunity to disrupt people’s lives, destroy property, and flip the bird at authority.

I welcome speculation as to why the media refuses to acknowledge that most protesters sincerely care about their cause. For my part, I have no idea. The rest of the article discusses protesters’ increasing use of internet tools to out-organize police forces:

The proliferation of highly capable handheld ‘smartphones’ now makes it easy for protest organizers to communicate by voice, text and images, even with real-time video. The protesters may have more watchers and observation points than the police, and actually outpace the police in quantity and quality of intelligence.

Having a real-time map, complete with satellite photos, of where everyone is at any one moment is almost as good as having your own helicopter overhead — maybe better, if you can distract the crew of the helicopter.

First Amendment and net neutrality issues being what they are, there isn’t much law enforcement can do to keep protest organizers from using these resources. What you can do is know that your opposition has access to this kind and quality of information, and not to underestimate them or their capability. Managing large-scale public order incidents is a science, and it’s possible to leverage a relatively small force to be effective against a large gathering. If you anticipate the possibility of a protest or other anarchist demonstration in your community, prepare now.

The protesters are preparing already.

Dees appears to equate protesters with rioters. He is apparently assuming that a protest is a problem which must be managed, rather than a fundamental part of democracy. His thesis that technology has changed the game is true, but his transparent assumptions about the objectives of the game are far more interesting.

The second article is a fascinating essay by Rory Rowan from Critical Legal Thinking, about how activists should respond to the increasing use of kettling as a police tactic to deal with large demonstrations.

…it is clear that a protest strategy based on concentrating spectacle walks straight in to the trap the kettle sets – not simply in terms of the physical site of the protest but of the virtual terrain of the media spectacle. A new spatiality of protest, a new geography of opposition is needed that can prevent spatial containment becoming the medium for a media spectacle that delegitimizes protests at the same times as it legitimizes government policy and police brutality.

If multiple smaller mobile groups were to simultaneously occupy key strategic sites and disrupt vital processes the momentum of symbolical opposition could be maintained without the police being able to herd opposition toward spectacle. The crowds could continuously move between temporary occupations to ensure the police are divided and chasing but to refuse them the pleasure of pitched battle. Imagine multiple small groups (perhaps numbering from 50 to 1,000 depending on the site in question) emerging at once to occupy government buildings, banks, constituency offices, party headquarters, shops, airports, train stations, tubes, buses, corporate office towers, Scotland Yard, Buckingham Palace, monuments, museums, universities, schools, roads and streets before dissolving and regrouping again – and not just in the centre but across London and not just in London but across the country.

I’m not going to pretend to give an even-handed comparison of the two articles. My recent experiences with political activism have given me what I believe to be a justifiable bias towards Rowan and against Dees. I do, however, think that when taken together, these two articles illuminate a rather difficult problem. Essentially, both articles discuss strategy from opposite sides of what is seen to be an inherently antagonistic relationship.  The two authors would probably agree on little other than that they are enemies.

This is problematic from both sides of the equation. If, as Rowan suggests, the goals of activism should be to create disruption and disorder, and out-thinking the police is a necessary means to this end, then this betrays a deep disrespect towards the functioning of political discourse and society as a whole. I mentioned in an earlier post that an ethical political tactic must be one that can be acceptably employed by proponents of any political view. Would Rowan be okay if British Nationalists engaged in the same tactics which he advocates for student activists? Furthermore, there is some value to public order. It helps us go about our everyday lives, conduct our business, and even facilitates many kinds of less dramatic (but no less important) political expression. If it were subverted every time a large group of people had a point to make, then we would all be worse off.

At the same time, if Tim Dees has his way and the police are able to effectively prepare for and counter every protest tactic such that public order is always intact, then a significant aspect of the democratic process would be neutered. Where would gay rights be if the Stonewall Riots had been easily dispersed with a sound cannon and some teargas? What would be the current status of the anti-globalization movement if the ringleaders of the Seattle WTO protests had been effectively tracked and arrested for conspiracy before the protests could occur? The United States owes its very existence to a failure of public order. What if the Boston Tea Partiers had been brought down with a hail of rubber musket-balls and promptly imprisoned?

This is a big dilemma. Public order is valuable, but occasional breaches of the peace are absolutely necessary in a functioning democracy. The police have rightly been given a duty to keep the peace, and they must do their best to succeed at this in all circumstances. If the police were to award greater leeway to certain kinds of protests, then ranking police officers would suddenly have enormous political power to decide which kinds of gatherings to permit. The problem is that, with the recent invention of some fancy riot control technology, the police are perhaps getting a little bit too good at keeping the peace, such that they have begun to suffocate political dissent. We can’t reasonably ask them to stop using this technology, both for the aforementioned reason and for their own safety. At the same time, we can’t ask activists to constantly defer to the police in the interests of public order. That would also give the police too much political power.

I don’t have an answer here, but I think it is useful to state the question. Where should the balance between public order and political dissent lie? I have no idea, but it should probably be decided through dialogue, rather than a constant arms-race between police forces and protesters. Your thoughts?

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