Monday, March 29, 2010

Sublett: Why We're Winning

Why We’re Winning.
By Sublett of the BAAM Newsletter
Decentralize TV

A curious property evident in the discussion of insurrection in the United States is that it gets more respect the further it occurs from home. Anarchists who would never dream of complaining that the Thessaloniki Food not Bombs is being neglected while its members amuse themselves burning banks, who could never conceive of suggesting that the Somali pirates stop seizing ships for ransom in order to start a bike repair collective, have no problem criticizing their own friends and comrades for shortchanging local projects to attend semi-annual mass mobilizations. This is a shame, because a look at the broader picture reveals that summit demos are taking an ongoing toll on the ruling class, even when they are tactically unsuccessful.

Just for starters, any city hosting a summit has to impose de facto martial law for the duration of the meetings. Miles-long steel security fences, bag searches on the subway, black helicopters in the sky, armor-clad riot cops on every corner, among other measures, make a mockery of the myth of “civil rights.” By employing such repressive tactics just to keep a few summit delegates from being confronted by those they claim to be helping, authority reveals its true nature, undisguised by the usual lies and propaganda. People who claim that we should abandon summit protests because we can never replicate the WTO (World Trade Organization) riots in Seattle are missing this point. While it’s true that the cops will never again allow themselves to be defeated on the street the way they were in Seattle, the things they have to do to win in the short term erode the perceived legitimacy of the entire ruling system in the medium term. If all they had to do was stop the protests they could just shoot the protesters. But since they must also maintain the illusion of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, their problem is complicated immensely. They have no good options, so it’s not a matter of whether we will win, only of how.

Their situation becomes all the worse when, after turning the host city into a militarized encampment for a week, the cops can’t even stop a few kids in black from breaking windows. The resulting frustration often leads them to attack and arrest defenseless groups and individuals who have minimal connection to the protests, further compounding their problems when the videos hit Youtube. Then to justify their own brutality, the cops make an example of a handful of protest organizers by hitting them with ridiculously inflated charges, usually for actions that most people would consider perfectly innocuous. As an added bonus, the lawsuits generated by blatantly unconstitutional arrests and searches strain city budgets, consume prosecutors’ time, and extend their PR nightmare. For authoritarians, the only thing worse than appearing brutal and repressive is appearing brutal and repressive and ineffectual. Cops, by their nature, will fall into this trap every time, as long as we show up and set it for them.

While not every big demo conforms to the above pattern exactly, the dynamic was illustrated to perfection at the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh September 24 and 25. The city imported 3,000 outside cops and 2,500 National Guard troops to augment its meager force of 877. In addition, the Pittsburgh municipal government launched a fear mongering campaign aimed at demonizing protesters, only to see it blow up in their faces when many businesses and schools drank a little too much Kool-Aid and shut down and boarded up for the week rather than face the black-clad hordes. The army of cops kept an unpermitted march of at most 2,000 from getting anywhere near the convention on the 24th, but couldn’t stop protesters from escaping back eastward and damaging stores in the Shadyside shopping district. Later that night, a Bash Back! march broke more windows in Oakland, even attacking some in a police substation. Despite being substantially outnumbered, both actions sustained minimal arrests. Unlike their counterparts at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Minnesota in September 2008, Pittsburgh cops didn’t retaliate by attacking permitted events. They did, however, beat, teargas and arrest protesters at an impromptu rally against police brutality, of all things, including a number of University of Pittsburgh students who were only hanging out watching. While this sort of behavior is routinely ignored in low-income communities of color, it generated an enormous amount of bad publicity for the police when applied to majority-white college students with video cameras.

And sure enough, as if following a script, the Pennsylvania cops found innocent people to scapegoat for their own incompetence. They arrested two members of the Tin Can Comms Collective, Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger, for broadcasting updates about police activity over Twitter. The two are charged, as of this writing, with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communications facility, and possession of instruments of crime. A week later, Madison’s home in New York was raided by the FBI, who seized stuffed animals, Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs, and a picture of Curious George, among other incriminating items. The feds then tied Obama even more tightly to the case by launching a grand jury investigation of Madison and his wife. Madison and Wallschlaeger’s case is reminiscent of that of the RNC 8, eight anarchists who are being prosecuted under the Minnesota Patriot Act for helping organize protests against the RNC. But unlike the RNC 8, whose case has only been covered heavily in Minnesota, Madison and Wallschlaeger’s arrests were featured prominently nationwide. Jokes about “Twerrorism” began circulating almost immediately after their arrests, and many commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of the Obama administration supporting the use of Twitter by protesters in Iran while repressing the same thing in Pittsburgh. The incident tarnished Obama’s reputation as a supporter of civil rights, and future developments in the case will only exacerbate that problem.

But wait, there’s more. The Daily Show covered the anarchist protesters at the G-20—twice, no less. John Oliver’s “Tea Partiers Advise G20 Protesters” segment was a particularly biting attack on the disparity in police response between right-wing and left-wing protests. And, lest anybody be tempted to dismiss The Daily Show as mere comedy, a 2007 University of Louisiana study found it to contain as much, if not more, actual news than the average television news program, and at least one poll has shown Jon Stewart to be the United States’ most trusted newscaster. Not to mention he’s a lot funnier than Walter Cronkite ever was.

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