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Protest as Embodied State Practices

Linka | 20.10.2009 11:54 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Repression | World

Whilst this article focuses on US based protest, the article provides some useful discussion on the reasons that Autonomous and Black Blocs receive so much more attention from the police. For more on the Institute for Anarchist Studies, see the Last Hours interview at The image is 'borrowed' from this article 'In support of Direct Action which appears at

Black bloc demonstrators draw attention to the divide between anarchic direct ac
Black bloc demonstrators draw attention to the divide between anarchic direct ac

Mass mobilization demonstrations have attracted numerous participants to protest a wide array of issues, including capitalist globalization, US militarism, political conventions, and transnational business operations. These recent political convergences in the United States have attracted an endless amount of attention from the state and the media. Numbers of participants have ranged from several hundred to tens of thousands.

In an effort to organize these actions, a specific rational ordering and internalization of state practices has occurred on the part of mainstream protesters. It is our intent to demonstrate the ways in which mass convergences embody particular state practices. We will be examining dominant protest discourses that promote a belief in state sanctioned democracy, techniques of surveillance among protesters, legality of protest tactics, internalization of state authority, and inscriptions of legitimate protest space. Additionally, we will focus on the counter resistance that is present at mass mobilizations in order to further shed light on the relationship between the state and legitimate protest. The counter-hegemonic forms of protest that exist within these larger convergences are often made visible by the scrutiny of other protesters. Specifically, we will analyze the counter-hegemonic forms of resistance that are present by examining the decentralized organizing tactics of the black bloc[2] in the following areas: anonymity, extra-legal spatial formation, and cultural space reclamation. In order to frame the context for such an interrogation of this question, it is important to look at the discourses surrounding these mass convergences.

In a speech broadcast live during the World Trade Organization meetings, former President Bill Clinton addressed the public on the issue of protest:

“For those who came here to peacefully make their point, I welcome [emphasis our own] them here because I want them to be integrated into the long-term debate. For those who came here to break windows and hurt small businesses or stop people from going to meetings and having their say, I condemn them. And I’m sorry that the mayor, the governor, and the police officers and others have had to go through this. We need to make a clear distinction between that which we condemn and that which we won’t.”[3]

As a representative of the state, then President Clinton declared the appropriate and inappropriate methods of protest. The idea of protest then becomes co-opted to serve the interests of the state. At the 2009 Group of Twenty Economic Summit (G20) in Pittsburg, President Barack Obama also praised the (mainstream) protestors' “right to express their views,” and drew a clear distinction from past protests of the G20 in Europe as a “much more tumultuous response.”[4] Protest organizers internalize this same distinction within the demonstrations itself by upholding similar discourses of peaceful state sanctioned protest. There is a contradiction in this sanctioning that serves state power and legitimacy. Historically, the state has acted to halt most forms of mass protest (or at least curb their interests from reaching the masses). Accordingly, the state has historically come under scrutiny and disdain by large sections of the population. This leads us to the newly emerging approach that has been instituted by the agency of the state and has come to be the dominant discourse echoed by many protesters largely since the protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November of 1999. The discourse surrounding mass mobilizations has changed from that of dismissal and repression, to one which embraces and promotes such examples of “democracy at work.” The type of protest endorsed by the state implicitly reinforces notions of state benevolence and the concept of an idealistic notion of a “people’s democracy.” Hierarchical mass protests that are permitted, authoritarian, and tactically unilateral (i.e. enacting strict nonviolent codes) are deemed legal and thus acceptable by the state.[5] Any other form of protest existing outside of this legal domain has been deemed unacceptable by the state as well as by mainstream protest “organizers.” As illustrated in the aforementioned quote by former President Clinton, certain protest tactics are not only allowed by the state but also encouraged and even endorsed.

The “Peace Police
“Peacekeepers” have been instituted to help purge the protest from any deviant behavior that is viewed as outside the scope of the goals of the protest. Peacekeepers are a tactic instituted by mainstream organizers to uphold and maintain a regimented set of imperatives within mass mobilizations. They are known to wear bright colored armbands, hats, and shirts that proclaim and assert their visual identity as peacekeepers. Peacekeeping is a formalized nature of surveillance in that its primary purpose is to keep a watchful eye on protesters, despite its stated goal to maintain safety for protesters from state violence. Peacekeepers are encouraged to maintain and regulate spatial boundaries. They in fact demarcate legitimate and illegitimate spaces to protest and negotiate the relationship of protesters to the state and mass media. The peacekeepers reinforce state policing by keeping marches on the designated routes, minimizing spontaneity, informing people of police orders (and even enforcing them when necessary), protecting private property from destruction, and giving the protest a sense of hierarchy.

Several organizations around the country develop trainings for future peacekeepers (e.g. The Ruckus Society, Answer). These forums aim to prepare activists in advance for upcoming demonstrations. The nonviolence trainings that are conducted throughout the country produce protesters with “credentials” in order to serve in various authoritarian roles at the protest. Trainings act to mobilize a specific type of expert knowledge of protests while simultaneously curtailing any anticipated deviations from a “successful” protest. Expert knowledge is accumulated under the rubric of becoming the most efficient protester, and people with training are often encouraged to become self-appointed peacekeepers. The discourse of peacekeeping is often embedded as an appeal to the logistical mechanisms of protest. It becomes of the utmost importance to minimize any potential risk of bodies deviating from the expected norm of the protest.[6] The logic of these trainings rests on the rationalized ordering of bodies. Peacekeeping becomes a legitimized official discourse with ample expertise that occurs at the exclusion of other protest discourses.[7]

Surveillance & Control
As mentioned, peacekeepers are trained in the art of surveillance and control. These protesters then use the power of surveillance to monitor behavior and conduct at the mass demonstrations. The system of surveillance maximizes visibility and control without expending an exorbitant amount of energy. As Foucault notes, “there is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he is his [sic] own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself[sic].”[8] Thus, surveillance by protesters themselves discourages the need for police intervention at protests.
The state is made efficient through its practices that are embodied by protesters to monitor deviant protesters. “The fortitude of the state’s power to act is an immediate consequence of the limitation of its power to know.”[9] Organizations that take it upon themselves to lead these protests have often distributed social contracts and rules governing the impending protests. These contracts request that people abide by the rules, while further imploring them to help in regulating other protesters’ obedience to the rules. The contracts are well publicized and distributed in leaflets, newsletters, action updates, and peacekeeper trainings (which means they are also available to the state). By establishing universal, non-democratic guidelines regarding people’s conduct at the protest, this in effect replicates the top down hierarchy of the hegemonic order that they are protesting. The protest then begins to resemble the state’s best attributes of control through the planning and official sanctioning of legitimate behavior at protests. Deviant behavior can then be easily classified and identified as disruptive to the pre-determined set of rules and regulations governing the protesters.

These same organizers also work with the city and state by applying for marching permits. The city authorizes the protest in terms of its location, day, and appropriate time. The host city then mobilizes its police force for the particular day of the protest and prepares any other needed resources to deal with the mass mobilization ahead. Prior knowledge of the details of the protest allows ample time for the city to make any necessary arrangements. Protestors act in a position where they freely offer logistical information to the state regarding the protest. The protesters thereby establish their own confines of protest and voluntarily restrict their boundaries. Any deviation from the agreed upon protest route is thereby seen as detracting from the goals of the protest and casts all those who do not follow the rules as deviant.

In addition to controlling bodies through demarcations of space, peacekeepers restrict conflict with corporations and state authorities. Spatial restrictions are maintained by physically aligning their bodies next to the police or corporations, while simultaneously directing other bodies to move in high modernist formations through the streets. Visual aesthetic order is a mainstay of high modernist ideology.[10] Protest “organizers” and peacekeepers emphasize visual order, which becomes apparent in the linear even-paced fashion often emphasized by the protest planning elite. Calls of “keep up the pace!” and “stay off the sidewalk!” are not uncommon phrases, thereby reinforcing the ability of the state to locate what bodies are protesters and what bodies are sideline pedestrians. Not only does this quell the creative spirit of the protest, it allows the state unimpeded access to assess the situation (i.e. number of protestors, march route, etc.) while simultaneously abating conditions which may lead to spontaneous mass uprisings. Keeping protesters in block formation in the street has numerous ramifications: police are able to ride on motorcycles on the edge of the street or deploy officers along the sidewalk to suppress deviants and observe the protest easily with helicopters along with many other tactical benefits which ultimately contain the protesters’ actions. Consequently, peacekeepers contribute to the effectiveness of the police to control the protest and its movements.

Symbolic Arrest and Hegemonic Ideology
Symbolic arrests are another tactic employed by protesters that works in conjunction with the police, which contributes to the hegemonic demeanor of the protest. During mass demonstrations, the police will designate an imaginary line that protesters will cross in order to be arrested. The police announce the establishment of the imaginary spatial line and forewarn protesters that they will be arrested if they decide to cross. Protesters will then line up (often single file) and proceed to march across the invisible line where police await them with handcuffs and paddy wagons. Protesters’ bodies are disciplined and conditioned to feel as if they are resisting the state by being arrested even though the conditions of their arrest are seen as irrelevant. The arbitrariness of the spatial imaginary line is not questioned, but is only recognized through the acknowledgment of protesters to walk acceptingly into the state’s domain. Therefore it is not that protesters have disrupted state power, but to the contrary they have internalized state power by recognizing its legitimacy. No violence or force is necessary by the police because there is no resistance by protesters; there is an unspoken recognition of the authority of state power. State authorities and peacekeepers help assemble those who want to cross the state’s symbolic lines into an orderly fashion so that the police can respond in an organized “peaceful” manner.

The arresting of non-resisting protesters works very conveniently for the state and allows for the transporting of bodies to a holding space where the state can proceed to classify and catalogue the arrested bodies. Important identifying information is obtained from arrested protesters and input into their database; photographs, laser fingerprints, addresses, political affiliations, and physical markings are all recorded meticulously for the individuals under arrest. In a recent labor protest in Los Angeles, “arrestees” pre-registered with police to make their arrest processing run more efficiently. The procedures for gathering knowledge of protesters are standardized and uniform, maximizing efficacy through legibility. “Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Whatever the units being manipulated, they must be organized in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated, and monitored.”[11] The process of symbolic arrest transforms a potentially disorderly situation to one that will help order subjects for efficient processing during arrest, thereby maximizing the knowledge of the state.

Non-violence, Legibility, and Authoritarian Leadership
Many protesters have internalized the standards set by the state and integrate them into their protest rhetoric and tactics. For example, peacekeepers and other mainstream protesters link arms in front of corporations to prevent other “deviant” protesters from inflicting property damage. While the protection of private property has been historically assumed by the state’s police forces, now demonstrators voluntarily give their free labor to assume this role. The protesters’ original aim is subverted from demonstrating against state and corporate policies to policing one another for subversive behavior. The protestors then act as a stand in for state power, reinscribing the very authority and value of private property and capital. There is no need for police force because unarmed civilians using their bodies as blockades minimizes the resistance and imposed threat of deviant protesters.

Negotiating with the police, such as coordinating so-called “staged arrests” has also become a widespread practice, particularly with liberal “non-violence” organizations. In 2005, the organization United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), an anti-war coalition consisting of groups such as Code Pink, organized a non-violent civil disobedience in front of the White House in order to send a message to then President George W. Bush. The symbolic protest resulted in numerous “symbolic” arrests. Leaders in the UFPJ movement negotiated with the police prior to the arrest, providing the police with the details of the action, number of projected participants, and other identifying information. According to Jodi, a Code Pink organizer, and member of the UFPJ coalition, “When you do a nonviolent action it’s important to not be confrontational, so you want to be in a relationship with the cops…The cops said they understood that if we’re peaceful, they’ll be peaceful.”[12] The protest went as planned, and both the police and the protestors left content.

Authoritarian leaders of mass convergences further inscribe legibility. “Legibility, after all is a prerequisite of appropriation as well of authoritarian transformation.”[13] Authoritarian leadership positions have been on the rise in mass demonstrations. Self appointed leaders develop rules for the protest, apply for permit marches, lead “non-violence” trainings, act as spokespeople for mainstream media, and act as liaisons with the police. The leaders of the mass demonstrations further amplify their authority by regulating the direction of the protest. It is the intent of these leaders to control the people they are mobilizing. Anything outside the scope of the intended directions of the leadership needs to be realigned or expelled from the purview of “their” (sanctioned) protest.

Counter-Hegemonic Forms of Resistance: A Look at Anarchist Tactics
Anarchists and anti-authoritarians who march in a black bloc threaten the ability of the state to regulate bodies during protest. If the peacekeepers refused to enforce spatial regulations and control, the police would have to increase their presence and visible control of the protest. This enlarged presence would give the appearance of a more threatening state and further visualize its power. Through the peacekeepers, the state can rely on their demarcation of “good” protesters and cast aside or make spatially visible the “bad” protesters who will not relinquish their bodies to the control of the peacekeepers and/or the state. The black bloc tactic has been utilized in mass mobilizations, which contradicts many mainstream protest organizers' vision of appropriate protest through refusal to conform to the restriction of high modernist line formations (that is fixed permitted march routes that can be surveyed by the police), decentralized dispersal of power in decision making, noncompliance with “protest rules or guidelines,” and embrace of “diversity of tactics” as opposed to a strict code observance of nonviolence codes, among other things. The black bloc has challenged the hegemonic mechanisms of control as used by both mainstream protest organizers and the state.

A common misunderstanding regarding mass scale protests has been that large numbers of police forces are needed to keep order due to the sheer size in the number of protesters. This is not entirely correct. For example, one of the largest mobilizations protesting the war in Iraq in 2003 occurred in San Francisco where over 100,000 protestors marched in a permitted designated route to the United Nations Plaza. This particular demonstration did not have a large anarchist presence nor was there a call for a black bloc; thus a very small number of police forces were visible at this event. For these non-threatening protests, police act more as “traffic cops” than agents of the state. This is one example out of many illustrating that it is not the number of protestors the state is concerned with, nor is it the “cause”; these are seen as irrelevant to the state. Rather it is the methodology and goals of the demonstration that is pertinent.

Demonstrations that use prefigurative politics where power is dispersed and authority is questioned tend to be under harsher police presence. “The modern state, through its officials, attempts with varying success to create a terrain and a population with precisely those standardized characteristics that will be easier to monitor, count, assess, and manage. The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations.”[14]

The spontaneity of anarchist-style mobilization is a constant threat to state regularity.[15] Many mainstream protesters and police officers have commented on the chaotic element anarchists bring to demonstrations. While their formations of protest are indeed highly illegible to state monitoring, they are certainly not without order. For the standards set by the state and reinforced by mainstream protests organizers, decentralized spontaneous tactics do appear disorderly, although upon closer examination, a different form of organization is being employed that is not recognized as legitimate since it does not fit the dominant conception of (state) order. In other words, illegible tactics should not be confused with disorder or chaos; they are representations that the hegemonic ideology (in this case the state and mainstream protest organizers) portrays, and not intrinsic qualities that are fixed and objective.

Another reason anarchist mobilization appears disorderly is because of the decentralized participatory culture it strives to uphold. High modernist ideology often equates order with hierarchy and since there are no appointed leaders in anarchist theory or practice, this further challenges legibility. Anti-authoritarians (anarchists):

“aim to subvert the traditional political roles of leader/follower by fostering a highly democratic and egalitarian culture of organizing. It is a radical rejection of constructed roles and a questioning of the legitimacy of the authority that teachers, parents, governments, experts, activists, organizers, etc. hold which is so rarely challenged. By its very nature autonomous organizing disrupts the ability of the authorities to isolate leaders.”[16]

The state authorities as well as many mainstream movement organizers are organized around similar notions of centralized leadership. The challenge put forth by decentralized, autonomous collectives to hegemonic styles of organizing is unidentifiable and cannot be traced so easily by modernist conceptions of organization.

Anarchists also subvert surveillance and monitoring by employing breakaway marches, which spontaneously divide the mass convergences into smaller sub-parts. This makes it more difficult to monitor the overall movement and direction of the demonstrators. Breakaway marches are not permitted by the state and take nontraditional routes throughout cities, including making productive uses of alleyways, parks, intersections, and one-way streets. Another particular tactic used by some anarchists is known as the “snake” which is used to subvert spatial control in the streets. Anarchists move in a curved format that weaves and twists its way through the march resembling the movement of a snake, thereby limiting the ability of the police to monitor them and interpret their bodies as regulated and orderly spaced. Legibility becomes very difficult since anarchists evade identification and predictability.

The anarchist black bloc tactic is also an important area to look at regarding the relationship between visibility and surveillance. A typical black bloc (but by no means all black blocs) consists of a group of individuals wearing similar dark colored clothing. In addition to black clothing, many of the individuals choose to wear black masks, bandanas, or any other type of face covering. As a consequence, individuals participating in the black bloc become difficult to survey and monitor. Moreover, this tactic diffuses state power since surveillance is both contradicted and undermined. That is, it allows individuals to carry out acts they might normally be unable to do without the cover of anonymity. Furthermore, by contradicting traditional protest roles of leadership that rely on the media’s coverage of individual bodies (especially faces), anarchists subvert the acceptable and legitimate forms of dissent. James notes, “Some bodies appear more docile than others because of their conformity in appearance to idealized models [e.g. demonstrators using conventional non-anonymous protest tactics]…[as a result,] their bodies are allowed greater leeway to be self-policed or policed without physical force.”[17] Those employing the black bloc tactic then face more repression since the participants resist the self-policing acts encouraged by the state. Additionally, the black bloc tactic of anonymity also aids in dispersing power within the black bloc itself by deflecting hierarchy within its own ranks, further marginalizing itself from tactics deemed “appropriate.”

Subversion of space is not just a matter of reconfiguration of bodies in space, but also reclamation of cultural space. Blank walls and sidewalks become visual sites of contestation of authority and the state. Some anarchists use graffiti as a tactic to imbue space with a visual meaning of revolutionary ideas/slogans that the state deems inappropriate. “Contemporary graffiti writing occurs in an urban environment increasingly defined by the segregation and control of social space”[18] Reclamation of space leaves residual messages that transcend the time of the actual demonstration and can be witnessed long after the day is over. As one graffiti artist notes, “Graffiti allows the key benefit of anonymity, that is, protection against any form of retribution. All can say whatever, however, and whenever, to whomever. Further, the lack of explicit rules and protocols allow people to express themselves without the fear of social punishment that arises from any kind of violation.”[19]

Cultural tactics such as graffiti in public space are viewed as one piece in a larger toolbox known as a “diversity of tactics,” including among other things self-defense, offensive strikes on authority, property destruction, and even many protest tactics employed by mainstream organizers such as marches. The difference between “mainstream tactics” and “diversity of tactics” is that the latter is open to change, adaptation, and spontaneity, depending of course on the appropriate circumstances of the protest and/or target, as opposed to a rigidly fixed protest ideology that is upheld in every situation (i.e. nonviolence code). Foucault notes, “There is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent.” Call further elaborates, “this multiplicity of resistances is always to be deployed according to context and in response to particular situations.”[20] The examination of context in relation to a “diversity of tactics” further allows new imaginaries of resistance that are not allowed in current mainstream tactics. Epstein points out that anarchism has imbued political practice with elements of creativity, thus insisting “that radical politics need not be dreary.”[21] This flexibility allows protesters to open up creative possibilities of resisting that can transform protest culture and also the type of concessions that can be imagined.

The type of mass convergences that we are witnessing today cannot be viewed under the same rubric of past social movements. It is necessary to contextualize protest dynamics and tactics in light of the history of protest within the United States. The recent mass convergences are being embraced by the state in a different vein then before, which leaves mainstream protestors questioning the efficacy of their tactics. The dominant discourses surrounding mass convergences embody many state practices of surveillance, control, centralized authoritarian leadership, and protection of private property. It is important to view much of the dominance of these practices in relation to the production of counter-hegemonic moves towards decentralization, anonymity, illegible spatial formation, and diversity of tactics. The restraint practiced by some mainstream protesters only further allows us to witness the productive resistances of counter-hegemonic forms of protest.

[1] Sabrina Alimahomed is a Doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UC Riverside. She is the author of “Thinking Outside the Rainbow: Women of Color Redefining Queer Politics and Identity,” Social Identities: Journal of Race, Nation, and Culture. Her current work is on Muslims and the racialized-gendered dimensions of the “War on Terror.”
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. He is the co-author of Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution (2008). Both contributors are also active in resistance movements to end racism-sexism-homophobia, war, exploitation, and environmental degradation.
[2] Black bloc is a tactic used during protests where many protesters will wear black clothes and face masks in order to protect themselves from being targeted by the police. The black bloc has been utilized in many other countries and is now a growing contingent within Northern American mass convergences. The black bloc has participated in marches ranging from peaceful solidarity marches on behalf of political prisoners to confrontational marches targeting the KKK.
[3] Tim Ream, Breaking the Spell (Eugene: Pickaxe Productions, 2000).
[4] Lindsay Carrol, et al. “Obama talks pancakes, protestors at G-20 press conference." September 25, 2009.
[5] Refer to Table 1 on p. 14.
[6] See Ulrich Beck, "World Risk Society for modernity’s relationship to avoidance of risk."
[7] See Steven Seidman, Difference Troubles for further discussion of knowledge and authority of expert discourses.
[8] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Random House, 1980) p. 155.
[9] Michel Foucault, The Foucault Effect, eds. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) p. 16.
[10] See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State for a discussion of legibility and high modernism.
[11] Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) pp. 81-82.
[12] Benjamin Dangl, “Staged arrests round off weekend of anti-war protests in DC.” 27, 2005.
[13] Scott, pp. 81-82.
[14] Scott, pp. 81-82.
[15] Spontaneous mobilization is an ongoing feature in anarchist communities. See Sharif Gemie, “Counter-Community: An Aspect of Anarchist Political Culture.” Journal of Contemporary History, v. 29:4, April 1994. pp. 349-367.
[16] Aggy Kelly and Andrew Blussat, “Autonomy and the New Global Social Movements.” Arena, April-May 2002. pp. 48-51.
[17] Joy James, Resisting State Violence (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) p. 26.
[18] Jeff Ferrell, “Urban Graffiti: Crime, Control, and Resistance”. Youth and Society. September 1995, pp 73-92.
[19] Amardo Rodriguez and Robin Patric Clair, “Graffiti as Communication: Exploring the discursive tensions of anonymous texts.” Southern Communication Journal. Fall 1999. pp 1-15.
[20] Lewis Call, Postmodern Anarchism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002) p. 76.
[21] Barbara Epstein, “Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement.” Monthly Review, v. 53:4. Sept. 2001. pp. 1-16.

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