Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing

Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing

by Lesley J. Wood

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745333885
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 05/20/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt



It's the year 2010 and I'm standing in Allan Gardens, in the rapidly gentrifying east end of downtown Toronto, the evening before the meeting of the heads of state of the twenty richest countries (G20), later known as the "Austerity Summit." Hundreds of people from different student groups, community organizations, unions and diverse communities arrive in the park. There are women from domestic violence shelters, social workers and union members, student activists, parents and children, people from homeless shelters, punks, bike messengers, members of the South Asian Women's Rights Organization, Iranian refugees, migrant workers and various anarchist, socialist and social democrats. Entitled "Justice for Our Communities," the event is intended to bring local organizations and communities together, and to link the G20 summit to locally rooted demands for immigrant justice, environmental justice, affordable childcare, and an end to gender violence, police brutality and the marginalization of the poor, amongst other things. To say the least, the politics of the coalition coordinating the event are inclusive and complicated and we are marching without police permission.

I attended many of the planning meetings, but at this particular moment, I am helping with communications — relaying information about the police movements from a team of bicycle scouts circling the area to the activists attempting to lead the march into the streets of Toronto. The specific route around the downtown area is flexible, but the intention of the march is to stop at sites that represent the way that the austerity policies of the G20 impact our local communities — these include Toronto police headquarters, the Immigration and Refugee Board, a social assistance office and others. After visiting these sites, we will try to get as close as possible to the 3-meter-high fence surrounding the summit meetings. We aren't crazy. We do that given the state of lockdown in the city, the police will block our path. So we intend to be flexible. We want this to be a peaceful event, one that parents and caregivers can bring their children. If the police start to act aggressively, and arrests seem imminent, our plan is to march back to Allan Gardens, where we will occupy the park overnight.

As people try to enter the park to begin the march, police search their bags. Protesters are only allowed in if they obey the police, and dispose of their bandannas, goggles and the sticks on which their signs were stapled. The heavily policed boundary is only one manifestation of the most expensive policing operation in Canadian history. The security for the combined G8 and G20 summits has topped $1 billion, and the results of this spending are on full display throughout the downtown core. Nonetheless, despite, and perhaps because of the police presence, the numbers swell and eventually, led by people with disabilities, many in wheelchairs — we head into the street. Then, the police commander tells the activist designated as a "police negotiator" that they have chosen this moment to bring the body of a soldier killed in Afghanistan directly across our path. We wait until the procession passes and move on. Our first stop is Toronto police headquarters. The crowd is packed tightly as people tried to hear what the speakers are saying. Suddenly a scuffle breaks out and police pull a Deaf man, Emomotimi Azorbo, from the crowd. When other activists try to intervene, the police beat them on the heads and arms with batons and push them with shields. Azorbo and another activist are arrested. Tensions increase. The police put their riot helmets on. Tensions increase more. Even the most placid demonstrator is becoming angry. I try to understand the big picture using my telephone and a small radio, and ask other marshals what we should be doing. No one knows. Our job of keeping people safe and reaching our destination seems somehow less important than taking a stand against the absurd police intimidation. Finally, we try to move the crowd along the street. Our negotiator tells us that the Toronto police commander says we'll be able to march down University Avenue, a massive roadway — towards the security fence. Then, all of a sudden, police form a line and block our path, helmets on and shields up. We are unable to keep marching. Obviously there is "a diversity of tactics" in the uniformed ranks. The Toronto commander we are speaking with yells into his radio and kicks a bottle of water in frustration. The crowd wants to keep moving and surges into the streets by the hospital, the only route available. A game of cat-and-mouse unfolds as protesters try to continue south, and the police continue to block us. Finally it becomes clear that we are outflanked. Frustrated, we return to the park to spend the night, undisturbed by the police.

In the morning, we receive news that in the early morning hours, police have arrested 17 key activists, waking some from their beds, and pulling others from vehicles. All are charged with conspiracy and kept in custody. Nonetheless, the large march planned for that day continues, with a section of the crowd breaking away to try to get to the fence surrounding the summit. When they are unable to do so, some protesters and passersby break the windows of shops and smash and burn three police cars. Over the following 24 hours, the police retake the city, surrounding and arresting over 1,100 people, making it the largest mass arrest in Canadian history (Mahoney and Hui 2010).

The over-the-top policing of the G20 launched frenzied media coverage, public hand-wringing, finger-pointing, inquiries, lawsuits and promises of "never again." Since that time, of course, Montreal police have arrested over 3,500 people in the 2012–13 wave of student-led protests against tuition increases, while police across the US and Canada have arrested hundreds of Occupy activists, and significant numbers of Idle No More indigenous sovereignty, anti-pipeline, immigrant justice and anti-police-brutality protesters. At these incidents, sometimes police surrounded protesters in "kettles" or "enclosures" and arrested them. Sometimes police Tasered, pepper sprayed, launched projectiles, and tear-gassed people. Sometimes police simply intimidated people out of protesting.

Clearly, the policing of protest in democratic, capitalist countries is now both more militarized and more dependent on intelligence gathering and pre-emptive control than in the past. This is a trend that has been observed in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and in North America, but this book highlights the emergence of this protest policing strategy in cities in the United States and Canada from 1995 until the present. It argues that this protest-policing strategy must be understood as a result of a neoliberal transformation of political, social and economic systems, and their effect on police organizations and decision-making. I seek to explain the incorporation of less-lethal weapons like pepper spray, tear gas and Tasers, and the use of barricades and riot control units into police forces in Canada and the US during this period, highlighting the conditions that have led to their increasing use against demonstrators.

Protest policing in both Canada and the US was different twenty years ago. The established public order management systems of the 1980s and early 1990s have been replaced by fortification, an escalation of coercive policing strategies, incoherent negotiation, generalized and indiscriminate information gathering, and intelligence-led and proactive policing (della Porta, Peterson, and Reiter 2006). In their studies of protest policing in the US since 1999, Noakes and Gillham (2007) label this approach "strategic incapacitation," noting how it attempts to pre-empt and contain protesters perceived to be threatening or disruptive. This restructuring of policing has taken place in tandem with neoliberal restructuring and converging economic, political (and climate) crises. By understanding how a strategy of limiting and responding to protest has emerged, we can better understand the limits and possibilities for dissent in the twenty-first century.

Some observers might argue that the job of the police has always been to beat, follow and arrest dissidents, and that little has changed in the past fifty years. Activists in both Canada and the US often reference state driven intelligence projects like the US COINTELPRO, designed to disrupt social movements, suggesting that the police are behind every internal movement division or failure. However, protest-policing strategies have changed significantly since the 1970s, and even since 1995 there have been serious changes in the way that police "deal with" protest and dissent. At the other extreme lies the argument that a new form of police state, in which the police are wholly unaccountable to political authorities or to the public, has emerged since 1995. Still other observers see militarized protest policing as a response to increasingly militant direct action movements in the Global North — and believe that the strategic incapacitation strategy of policing signals a growing polarization, with potential for revolutionary transformation. As an activist who has participated in demonstrations throughout the past twenty years, and as a sociologist frustrated by common-sense explanations of police strategy, I believe that in order to build the capacity of movements to resist state and corporate domination, we need to get beyond simplistic explanations and look squarely at police organizations, their decision-making procedures, and the forces that are influencing them.

This necessitates locating police strategy within the context of neoliberal transformation, a process characterized since the 1980s by an increased "marketization" of social life. In the 1990s, this transformation was accelerated by numerous free trade agreements and deregulation of the economy, and in 2008, the economic crisis furthered the transformation, especially in the United States. Neoliberal transformation has resulted in increasing deregulation and commodification of relations and practices of governance, education, sociality, and culture. In Canada and the US, governments have reduced social spending and avoided regulating large-scale investment and trade. Core cities in the Global North have become the domain of the "FIRE" sectors (finance, investment, and real estate), or the service sectors which support them. As a result, these cities have become increasingly populated by the rich and the poor, while any existing middle class has been displaced or disappeared. The manufacturing sector has fled to smaller cities or suburbs, while traditional public sector, health care, and education work has become unstable and precarious. Austerity policies have furthered income inequalities between rich and poor, and cities have been transformed accordingly. As Naomi Klein (2007) argues, elites have restructured the economy quickly, hitting the poorest and marginalized most directly. As corporations become more influential and states cut social spending, political and economic systems are transformed, including systems of policing. Increased privatization of policing, availability of new technologies, and the emergence of increasingly globalized policing networks have corresponded with a sometimes contradictory shift towards intelligence-led, community-oriented, and militarized policing strategies.

In the context of neoliberal transformation, and particularly since the attacks of September 11, 2001, symbols and messages of fear and insecurity dominate political culture in Canada and the US. Government spending is increasingly directed towards security, law enforcement and defense, distracting us from economic and political policies that facilitate the consolidation of wealth by the 1 percent. Despite falling crime rates, and ongoing distrust of the police, policing has taken on an expanded and altered role within government and economic systems.

In 1990, the Solicitor General of Canada produced a document entitled "The Future of Policing in Canada," which included predictions on the effect of neoliberal social spending cuts on policing. The report, written by criminologists Andre Normandeau and Barry Leighton, coolly describes the integration of the Canadian economy with the world economy, and subsequent "short term dislocations of labour." It notes that a "pool of poorly educated, unskilled unemployed people will grow in large cities, contributing to property crime and violence," and describes the downloading of services, the de-institutionalization of people, and the cuts to services (1990: 30). As a result, the authors conclude that there will be implications for police work: "more civil unrest may be anticipated, based on more groups in society seeing themselves as disadvantaged" (ibid.: 31) In response to these changes, the authors suggest increased privatization of law enforcement, collaboration, and the use of new technologies.

In the US context, David Bayley (1998) warned in the police publication, "Ideas in American Policing," that privatization and deregulation would provide new challenges for police, including increased group violence stemming from inequalities structured by race, class, and ethnicity. He claimed that such violence, when combined with increased criminal violence or terrorism, would encourage increased militarization and a "warfare mentality" by police. Indeed, as police researcher Peter K. Manning (2008: 30) explained, external political and economic pressures, including cuts to the budget, the collapse of the economy and, with it, the budgets of many large cities, forced change on US police agencies in the 1980s. Neoliberal response reforms within police agencies were similar to those facing other public institutions. These included the promotion of new management styles, the privatization, deregulation, and outsourcing of public sector operations, and a reliance on information technology and data analysis to facilitate the restructuring of these centralized institutions.

As the social safety net weakened under neoliberal restructuring, the police role became both one of "cleaning up" the results of damage caused by economic transformation and that of "securing a strong investment climate." The implications of both hit poor people and people of color hardest. As Neil Smith (2001) writes, the introduction of police strategies like zero tolerance and "broken windows" policies dramatically increased the role of police in eliminating any evidence of social disorder. Loïc Wacquant (2001: 81) noted that neoliberal transformation meant the "erasing of the economic state, the dismantling of the social state and the strengthening of the penal state."

Today, police operate within a context of ongoing social cleansing in which the legal, cultural, and political space for dissent has narrowed, facilitated by legislative tools like the PATRIOT Act, new laws against organized crime, bans on protest, anti-terrorism laws, and an increased state capacity for surveillance and border control. Police increasingly portray protest as a form of "threat," thereby justifying policing strategies, while new legal restrictions have meant that even legally permitted marches and rallies may now face an increasingly militarized police (Scholl 2013, Starr, Fernandez, and Scholl 2012).

As the policing experts anticipated, protest-policing strategies in this neoliberal era are influenced by those challenging the existing order. With the social amelioration functions of the state deteriorating, many of these movements are turning away from the potential offered by electoral politics. At the same time, social movements are increasingly globally connected, and this has allowed activist tactics, identities, and symbols to diffuse rapidly, facilitating waves of direct action protest. Diverse movements are more able to collaborate or coordinate in their struggles against neoliberal institutions and processes, through protest convergences against international institutions, global days of protest, and formal and informal electronic and face-to-face networking.

Context and Protest Policing

Despite these obvious connections, the relationship between neoliberal restructuring and policing is not a straightforward and unidirectional one. To understand the relationship between these processes and practices, we need to go beyond political rhetoric about the police as the tool of the elites, or as omnipotent masterminds. Instead, we must understand police institutions as complex and somewhat varied organizations with particular historical trajectories that contain active, relatively reflexive participants with changing strategies.


Excerpted from "Crisis and Control"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Lesley J. Wood.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press Between the Lines.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
2 Policing Waves of Protest 1995 – 2013
3 To Serve and Protect Who? Policing Trends and Best Practices
4 Local Legitimacy and Struggles for Control
5 Officer Identity and the Diffusion of Pepper Spray
6 Experts, Agencies and Integration
7 Protest As Threat
8 Urine Filled Supersoakers
9 Conclusion
10 List of Acronyms

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