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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The G20 and the criminalization of dissent

Public protest, activism and dissent are long-established and honourable traditions. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, no society, no matter how egalitarian and how well-resourced, can make progress without people -- inside or outside the loci of power -- who are willing to stand up and risk censure or worse for pointing out that the emperor is naked. The Industrial Revolution prompted class consciousness. Women's activists brought universal suffrage. Labour activism and organization brought us the 40-hour work week, the weekend, and benefits. All of those are under attack now; nothing new there.

What is new, and especially worrisome, is the obvious state / corporate goal of tarring the very idea of activism itself. Thanks to the narrative propagated 24/7 this weekend in connection with the G20 -- the seeds of which were clearly sown weeks, if not years, in advance -- it'll be impossible even to use the words "protest," "demonstration," and "activism" without thinking of burning police cruisers, smashed store windows, and violent confrontation. In the days and weeks to come, we'll be hearing tropes like "violent black-clad anarchist thugs" so frequently that they'll become part of the subconscious noise. They'll become the norms. They'll become so ingrained that any suggestion that activism or opposition to the G20 / corporate agenda might be justified will come as a shock, a departure from established and acceptable ways of thinking.

Separating words from their meanings has always been part of the apparatus of repression, of distraction, of domination. In the United States, right-wing operatives have successfully turned the term “liberal” into an epithet. That strategy is clearly at work here, now, with the endless display of violent images and the feverish efforts to entrench a manufactured storyline – one we can all write in our sleep. Violent protestors are used to justify a massive investment in security and coercive state actions, which then have a chilling effect on further public participation. No one will want to be tarred with labels like “activist.” How convenient for the powerbrokers orchestrating events. God knows, democracy can be messy and unpredictable and even interfere with profit-seeking.

We cannot meet the operators / foot-soldiers of the corporate / state security apparatus on their own turf. They'll always have more guns, gas, tasers, truncheons and testosterone. Our best strategy is to undermine the narrative. We can't let them associate protest, demonstration and activism with negative connotations (as is clearly their strategy). We must challenge the storyline at every possible opportunity. Undercover cops as agents provocateurs? Unprovoked violence against peaceful demonstrators? Wholesale suspension of our fundamental rights? Rousting people from their beds in midnight raids? Privileged access to G20 leaders for business leaders and other ruling-class functionaries?

This is a challenge that goes beyond this weekend's G20 events in Toronto. What's at stake is the very idea of public participation, the very notion that we have rights that go beyond the channels so carefully delineated for us.

The G20 narrative: whose story is it?

Throughout the G20 weekend, I was following events on TV, on Facebook, on various blogs and websites, and on Twitter. (not quite like being out on the street, I know, but it’s a start ...)

It was hard to miss the building drama Saturday, what with the smashing windows, burning police cruisers and assorted related mayhem. By early evening, TVO broadcaster Steve Paikin’s real-time observations had started attracting a following on Twitter. I started following @spaikin as the buzz intensified. Good reporting -- amplified and enhanced by the sense of real-time immediacy inherent in the use of social media tools like twitter -- and I have no reason to question the honesty of his observations or the authenticity of his reactions to what he was seeing. The sense of outrage is genuine, and he asks several worthwhile questions that everyone in this town -- journalists, public officials, citizens -- ought to be following up.

My problem with Paikin's tweets, though, is that ultimately they simply feed a narrative that was almost certainly manufactured days, if not weeks, in advance. We can see that narrative taking hold, even as we speak, in the dreaded MSM, on Facebook posts, on blogs, and on Twitter. And it's a narrative that just happens to serve the agenda of the powerbrokers who orchestrate all this G20 / FTAA / SPP / MIA crap. How does it go? Watch:

"Peaceful city besieged by violent black-clad anarchist thugs." Get used to that theme, because we're going to be hearing a lot of it over the next little while. Thus giving corporate / state security apparatus an excuse for even more repression.

This leads to an even more chilling effect on public protest. Yes, you have the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, free assembly and all the other fundamental rights inherent to an open and democratic society, but how likely are you to exercise those rights when you're worried about getting clubbed, gassed or tasered? Especially when you're getting demonized and lumped in so consistently and overwhelmingly that the very words "protest" and "demonstration" take on pejorative overtones?

And how convenient that makes it for the owners / managers / investors who want all this -- "free trade," "security and prosperity partnership," "free market ," etc. -- to happen. Democracy, civil discourse and public engagement are all messy and unpredictable, after all, and they make it that much harder to maximize profits.

It's crucial that anyone with a conscience and a commitment to telling the truth do everything in his or her power to challenge and derail that storyline, ASAP, before the news cycle ramps up.

Were there any undercover cops trying to incite violence?

Gee, I wonder if anything like this was going on in Toronto today? Honestly, who doesn't think the images of smashed windows and burning cop cars play right into the hands of those who want more cops, more security, more surveillance, more pre-emptive arrests?

And what about the reports of police rousting people out of bed, without warrants? That's straight out of the gestapo-jackboots-on-the-stairs playbook.

And someone tweeted about the script CTV was following Saturday: over and over, video of one of the burning police cruisers. No images of cops charging / beating / assaulting people. Gee, I wonder what kind of storyline they're trying to construct?

If we don't challenge this immediately, the story is going to be all about the nasty violent black-clad anarchist thugs. An easy story for lazy media types to manufacture. Hell, I'd bet most of us could fashion that storyline in our sleep. Nothing about the midnight arrests days in advance. Nothing about indiscriminate police brutality. Nothing about exclusive access to G20 leaders for selected business leaders and other members of the privileged class.

Time to start pushing back, like right now.