by Lesley J. Wood
‘The recent news that Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan has been convicted in the second degree assault of a police officer (from an incident from St. Patrick’s Day 2012), and sentenced to three months in jail, and five years of probation has attracted a great deal of attention. On the day of her conviction, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart joked that the mainstream media seemed to find a harmonious balance in the fact that since one Wall Street banker, Kareem Serageldin (who plead guilty), went to jail, one Occupy Wall Street activist might also face jail time. Of course, he closed by joking that, despite the dramatically different impact of Wall Street crimes when compared to those of McMillan, “that seems fair.”
Fairness has nothing to do with it, of course. It’s only surprising that something similar hadn’t happened sooner. There has been a steady move towards the militarisation of protest policing and the criminalisation of protest. We’ve become accustomed to seeing police use arrests in order to stop protesters from getting into the streets, and to remove protesters once they are there. During the first months of Occupy Wall Street protests, New York City police carried out over 2000 arrests. They also pepper sprayed, beat, corralled, kettled, and surveilled protesters who were simply occupying spaces not intended for such uses. This style of protest policing is notable in the flagship ‘liberal democracies’ of the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom. Indeed, on a transnational scale, police have adopted a strategy John Noakes and Patrick Gillham call “strategic incapacitation.”
This approach treats most protesters who communicate their intentions to police in advance of their protest actions – and comply with police directives – as cooperative, often forcing said protesters to stay behind barricades, or to take convenient, non-disruptive march routes, always staying ‘low-key.’ But if activists decide not to negotiate with police or communicate their intentions, they are labelled as uncooperative and unpredictable, and thereby understood as a threat. Such labelling militarises police strategy, where the goal becomes the pre-emption and/or containment of this threat. This was clearly and repeatedly the case with Occupy protests, as well as the recent protests tied to Trayvon Martin in California, student debt and tuition in Montreal and London, the NATO summit in Chicago, police brutality in the UK, and the G20 and G8 summits in numerous cities. Unsurprisingly, increasing numbers of protesters don’t trust the police, and don’t want to negotiate with them. As a result, their protest is criminalised, and they are more likely to be arrested, TASERed, pepper sprayed, and barricaded.
These trends are visible when examining the patterns of protest policing from 1995-2005 in Canada and the US, as well as other large protest events globally from 1995 until the present. While militarised tactics like “less lethal” weapons and arrests still occur only at a minority of protests, the use of these tools is growing. Their use increased dramatically after the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle – when police lost control of the streets, and then violently over-reacted, clubbing, gassing, and arresting protesters. This became what one police writer called a “Pearl Harbor” of protest policing. After Seattle, US police began using militarised tactics developed in poor communities in the War on Drugs on protesters. The second key event that impacted protest policing, especially in the US and Canada, is September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. Shortly afterwards, there were administrative moves to integrate security, policing, and military systems, based on the British model of intelligence-led policing. This framework and its emphasis on using threat and risk assessments to drive policing strategy facilitated an increased surveillance of protesters, justifying the pre-emption and control of protest and protesters.
How did a style of policing that attempts to limit protest and criminalise protesters become routine? The answer pushes us to go beyond caricatures of the police as omnipotent masterminds or the hired guns of capitalist or state elites. We need to understand that police institutions arose along with and in order to protect the nation-state and capitalism, but this doesn’t mean they are simply cogs in the machine. They are relatively autonomous. Indeed, a valued tenet of Anglo-American professionalised policing is that police operate outside of politics and economics. Opinion leaders in the policing literature portray political meddling in police affairs as a relic of a distant past, and present their role in labour conflicts as that of neutral regulator.
This emphasis on autonomy and professionalism has become more central to policing discourse in recent years. As in other institutions, police actors are connecting more and more across national borders. In a context where integration and interoperability have become powerful goals, local, national, and regional police are being pushed to collaborate and share information, organisational models, and best practices. Electronic fora and the meetings of professional organisations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police are increasingly influential spaces in global policing networks. In such venues (and their associated trade expositions) a leading police agency is able to certify a new weapon or logic as legitimate, facilitating its spread internationally. These spaces are also commercial opportunities, where security and defence corporations like TASER and Motorola sponsor receptions and promote their products. Outside of these meetings, retired military and police leaders operating as private consultants spread best practices to other agencies.
But it isn’t simply the integration of police networks and the legitimacy of professional organisations and retired police chiefs that are making tactics such as less lethal weapons, pre-emptive arrests, and kettling more widespread. Part of the explanation must come from the local level, where political leaders from local, regional, and federal regimes, oversight bodies, police leaders, police unions, human rights groups, social movements, and the media struggle for legitimacy, influence, and resources. In particular, those political leaders who endorse police budgets and sometimes appoint police commissioners must defend their positions, while police chiefs seek to maintain theirs. In this field of struggle, as an institution with a unique position as the agent of state-sanctioned force, police agencies repeatedly get into trouble. It is almost impossible to imagine a police agency that isn’t, to a greater or lesser degree, corrupt and engaged in brutal, racist practices. When these become visible – as they always do – police leaders and the politicians who support them scramble to re-establish their legitimacy and control. In these moments, the legitimate, certified voices of professional organisations, their corporate sponsors, and the most respected police forces present an unparalleled attractiveness.
Understanding such dynamics help us to understand why police today pre-empt protest, treating those in the streets as threatening criminals who need to be subdued, assaulted and arrested. It is also these dynamics that help to explain the fate of Cecily McMillan.’
Lesley Wood’s new book Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing is available now on the Pluto Press website.
Lesley Wood is Associate Professor of Sociology at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Direct Action, Deliberation and Diffusion (2012) and co-author of the third edition of Social Movements 1768-2012. She is an activist in the global justice and anti-poverty movements.