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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.

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