Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Archive Update: Law and Disorder, 7 June 2007

This column is temporarily unavailable on the Newsweek site, so I am posting the full text here:


Shadowland: Law and Disorder, 7 June 2007


When does guerrilla theater become guerrilla war? What the demonstrations against the 2004 GOP convention can teach us about managing the protests at the G8 summit.


The Germans have rolled out the water cannons to defend heads of state gathered for the G-8 summit. Black-clad anarchists and clown-faced crazies are the enemy, and so far the forces of disorder appear to be winning. Despite hundreds of arrests since Saturday, the radicals managed to besiege the seven-mile concertina-wire fence around the conference site yesterday while shutting down road, rail and even water transportation. According to the German government, hundreds of police have been injured, albeit lightly.

Worse than that, for those of us who think George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin have a a lot to answer for, the masses of protesters who have real issues ranging from global warming to the Iraq war and growing political repression, are consistently upstaged by those who make skirmishing with police a self-righteous sport and claim their goal is to overthrow, well, everything. “A new world order can only be created through violent struggle," as one black-clad man who called himself Ernesto told Deutsche Welle.

So, when does guerrilla theater become guerrilla war? How do you draw the line between civil disobedience and outright disorder? Or, for that matter, between peaceful protest and potential terrorism? Keeping the peace while protecting freedom of expression is a constant process of compromise. One thing is certain: to make those vital determinations in today’s complicated and dangerous world, you need good information. But how do you get it?

Since 2004, the New York Police Department has faced several lawsuits about the way it prepared for and protected the Republican National Convention in Madison Square Garden that summer. Critics have attacked it for arresting more than 1,800 people, taking fingerprints and then warehousing many of them under fairly grim conditions for two or three days – until the convention was over. Under pressure from the courts, documents have been declassified that show the NYPD spying on activists and infiltrating groups across the country, in Canada and in Europe.

The police point to the results: 800,000 people were able to protestsin good order during the convention, while only one person – a cop – was hurt seriously. Militants had pulled him off his motor scooter and beat him senseless. If there were terrorist plots aimed at the convention they were deterred or thwarted. (Two men were arrested days before it began as they planned to blow up the nearby Herald Square subway station.)

That the Republicans re-nominated Bush and that the American people re-elected him was not the fault of the cops, Indeed, my impression when I watched television coverage of the convention that August and Septemer was that protesters seemed so out of step with the way most Americans thought at the time, they probably helped Bush’s cause at the ballot box. If the anarchists, anti-globalists, anti-capitalists and others who coalesce into militant formations known as “Black Blocs” had managed to stage their planned “Day of Chaos” on August 31, 2004, I’m sure Bush would have gotten even more votes.

The Black Blocs wouldn’t have cared, of course. Their adherents tend to believe the corrupt bourgeois system never listens to the real voice of the people, meaning theirs. As Ernesto said in Germany, "We have seen how ineffective peaceful mass protests have been. Millions took to the streets to try and stop the invasion of Iraq and yet the corrupt world powers still wage their war. Fighting for change is the only way -- otherwise we face a future of blind subservience, slavery and control."

I’ve covered a lot of demonstrations by these characters, who are often more fascistic than the fascists they say they’re fighting, but I’m always a little surprised by the lunatic violence they set out to inflict and provoke. Although the United States had a taste of it during the disastrous 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Washington State (“The Battle of Seattle”), it’s much more a European phenomenon. The G-8 in Genoa in 2001 was a model of mayhem in which a young Black Bloc protester (surnamed Giuliani, as it happens) was shot by a stranded rooky cop while trying to smash through the window of his car. Some 500 people were injured and property damage was roughly $45 million. At the close of the summit, Italian police raided a building where demonstrators were sleeping and beat the hell out of several of them, multiplying the ranks of protest martyrs.

The Al Qaeda terror attacks on New York and Washington less than two months later dwarfed the anarchist menace and obscured it in the public imagination. But the New York police have stayed alert to the danger, even as they’ve assumed a new Al Qaeda attack could be in the works. They consider, with good reason, that the Big Apple is the number one terrorist target in the world. (The latest alleged plot by rag-tag Islamists was concocted in, of all places, the Caribbean, where plans were hatched to blow up fuel storage tanks and pipelines at New York’s Kennedy Airport. <>)

In 2003, the NYPD created a special squad just to address the specific threats associated with the Republican convention. It answered to the Intelligence Division, which had been greatly expanded since 2002 under Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Deputy Commissioner David Cohen, a former Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director of Operations. The investigators worked the Web, dipped into chat rooms, shared intelligence with other organizations, infiltrated several groups and started building voluminous files. Hundreds of those documents, which were brought to light during a law suit, are available, with some details blacked out, on the NYPD Web site. << http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/dcpi/nypd_rnc.html >>

Sure, there was some embarrassing wasted effort, like surveillance of the satirical street-theater group “Billionaires for Bush.” But many of the declassified documents support the police position that a storm of violent threats to the convention and to the city was taking shape on the Internet, and they had to know a whole lot more if they were going to shelter the public – including peaceful protesters -- from its effects.

“In our actions we must be strategic, ruthless, efficient, as well as chaotic,” declared one anarchist group in Colorado which seems to be influenced by both Dada and Jacques Derrida. “Like a string of tornadoes and quakes, we will manifest brutal attacks against key targets physically deconstructing the aesthetic of our oppression. We will erect barricades of fire and reclaim space as carnival. Our rage as well as joy will be present on every street corner.” One can guess that such talk is action for this group, and the threat minimal, but it still has to be examined closely.

Then there was the little organization cataloguing surveillance cameras all over Manhattan in hopes they could be taken down by guerrilla protests. Another presence on the Web vowed to “rise up against police brutality and give the police or the National Guard a taste of their own medicine if they tread on the civilian population, and they will be given the same measure that they dish out.” In more concrete terms, several camps were organized around the country to train militants for confrontations with the cops.

In the end, the forces of disorder failed in New York in 2004. But they will keep trying, and to pretend that they are mere dissidents, and essentially ineffectual, would be a serious mistake. As they’re proving once again in Germany, they’re agents of mayhem who thrive on the idea they are being repressed. When the cops outmaneuver them with superior intelligence and planning, it drives the crazies mad, as it were. But the rest of us have a chance to mount demonstrations, if we choose, that are saner, safer, and more likely than any guerrilla theater to bring a president down or a war to an end.
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