Theory Teacher's Blog

police raid the homes of protestors

In Minneapolis, more than 100 people were arrested this Friday and Saturday (August 29 and 30) by police officers who raided the homes of people suspected of planning protests of the Republican National Convention. You can read about it in the Minnesota StarTribune [here] and [here],TwinCitiesIndyMedia [here], and the Associated Press [here].

One can only imagine the amount of surveillance and planning by both the police and high-level government officials that led up to this profoundly unconstitutional act. And I call it an unconstitutional act because of the first ammendment right to assembly that we all have — a right we even have in public space, not to mention the privacy of our own homes — a right the framers of the constitution felt was so necessary for the functioning of democracy that they made it the FIRST amendment.

The police raid is not the only instance of the city and state government’s interference in the protest the RNC. For months and months, protest organizers have been negotiating with the city government for a planned route for the march. First, the government stalled and didn’t come to a decision in a reasonably timely manner as it is required to do by law. Then, the government forced the protest organizers to march far away from the site of the convention. The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting the government’s decision for months on the grounds that its plan effectively stifles the constitutional right to be heard. The ACLU has also questioned why Minneapolis and St. Paul can’t be more like Washington D.C., which has very large, peacefully run protest marches all the time, without any significant incident. But the ACLU has not had success.

My guess — and I have to read up on this more, obviously, since I’m just guessing here — is that some of the protestors were planning some activity in the space the city designated off limits to protesting. Hence, in the eyes of the city government, the particular protestors that they arrested would be considered criminal because of the city’s decision to create a protest-free zone.

As I understand it, the city has taken an unprecedented role in managing the space around the RNC site, and in the course of doing so, has temporarily suspended several laws, made public space un-public, and even taken an active role in directing private businesses in how to behave. In doing so, they have created what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has recently called a “state of exception.” In such a state, the government believes that it can break its own laws in order to ultimately protect those laws.

In order to legitimate its unlawful activity, the state must invent a threat to the social order. In other words, they must demonize the protestors as people who are themselves so far outside the law that the state is justified in suspending its own laws in order to preemptively strike against them. (This is the same logic that enabled the strike against Iraq, the creation of prisons in Guatanamo, and torture.)

Here, of course, we have the state’s belief that the protestors are all amoral anarchists intent on wreaking chaos, violence, and destruction. Of course, this is a silly stereotype, and anyone who has ever read anarchist literature or met anarchists knows that chaos and violence is not really their goal. Rather, free love and play are. And I think this YouTube video made by an anarchist organization hilariously mocks that stereotype.

The question that I want to raise in this rather hastily written blog post is what to do? How best rhetorically to respond?

In other words, does one respond by simply asserting the constitutional right to assemble? Does one invoke Orwell’s novel 1984 to inspire a paranoid fear of an increasingly undemocratic, right wing government? How rhetorically successful will it be to accuse the government of behaving in the manner of a fascist police state? I don’t think this goes far enough, because if you read the comments below the StarTribune story, you will see that many people are sincerely worried that dangerous anarchists are going to damage property and loot businesses. Thus, in their minds, the police behaved justly. Although the “home” is enshrined in our constitution as an almoust religiously sacred space, we all know that the police can invade that space with a warrant if they have probably cause to believe a crime is being committed there.

True, we can question this logic in this particular case by asserting (1) that political activity is protected by the constitution and is clearly NOT criminal, and (2) that the vast majority of the organizers under police surveillance are obviously non-violent, and finally (3) that by grouping all protestors under one umbrella and treating them like criminals, the police have essentially criminalized dissent. However, doing so may not convince those who believe anarchists to be criminals. (Moreover, this belief is a confusion that is fostered by many misguided anarchists who romantically emphasize transgression for its own sake and forget to emphasize the positive love that both transcends the law and is imminent to all social behavior.) In my view, it is wrong to raid the home of any protestor, no matter who he or she is.

Therefore, in addition to the rhetoric of rights, one also needs to convincingly represent political protest in positive ways to correct the rhetoric of demonization that we know the government and police will use. For instance, the humanity of the protestors must be articulated as well as the joyfulness and sacredness of political protest. I suspect that a sense of humor about this can go a long way, though I know very well how hard it is to have a sense of humor about such a morally disgusting witch hunt. In other words, in the face of horror, we need creativity and imagination — no easy task, for sure.

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August 30, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

3 Comments »

  1. Steve,

    You’re thoughts about humor remind me of a conversation I once had with a friend who was active in Solidarity. Of course any and all protest was illegal in the state, yet protests frequently took place. A common strategy employed by the Solidarity protesters was to enact farcical theater lampooning the police state itself. At one point during a shipyard strike, for example, the protesters staged an elaborate battle amongst themselves, complete with cardboard tanks and missiles. The point of these displays was to confront the police with their own absurdity, but in a non-confrontational, confrontational manner (if that makes sense). I think what made his acts memorable was that they used very relevant, timely humor, treating the entire police state as a performance. My two thoughts for now. I’m as outraged by this Orwellian act as you.

    Comment by Shane | August 31, 2008 | Reply

  2. The Code Pink group seems to be doing a little something like what you’re talking about, Shane. Here’s a link to a video about them.

    http://www.startribune.com/video/27669519.html?elr=KArks5PhDcU9PhDcU9PhDcUU

    Comment by steventhomas | August 31, 2008 | Reply

  3. I have more to say about this.

    Over the course of the Republican National Convention, over 800 people and quite a number of journalists were arrested, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. The police also fired teargas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades into several protest marches.

    Because of the excessive police aggression, Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller interviewed both the mayor of St. Paul, Chris Coleman (Democrat) and a representative of the National Lawyers Guild, Bruce Nestor. You can catch that interview HERE: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/09/05/midmorning1/
    Both interviews are very revealing.

    In defence of his security tactics, Coleman says three things that are not only ridiculous but also disturbingly typical of the tactics of the Bush administration and other neoliberal governments. First, in order to justify the trampling on first amendment rights, he claims that the RNC Welcoming committee had guns, knives, napalm, and molotov cocktails. His claims actually contradict an explicit statement from his own police that they only found books, bricks, and a bucket of urine. You can watch this statement HERE:
    http://www.startribune.com/video/27709809.html?elr=KArks8c7PaP3E77K_3c::D3aDhUec7PaP3E7_0c:5D:aPc:iUiacyKUU

    For sure, some of the books included instructions for how to make molotov cocktails, but this is not the same as the thing itself, and Coleman’s lie only served to inflame the violence rather than control it. Coleman even goes so far as to call them “terrorists” and one of the largest threats to the democratic system in U.S. history. GIVE ME A BREAK!!! It was pee!!! A more realistic portrayal would be that the RNC Welcoming Committee was the most foul smelling threat to the democratic system in history, but actually, I suspect that the Whiskey Rebellion might still take first prize for that.

    Second, he claims that the “anarchists” are NOT a people with a political agenda. Rather, they are criminals who only want to cause chaos and destruction. To state that they lack a political agenda is ludicrous considering their many explicit, public statements such as this one HERE:
    http://www.nornc.org/2008/09/05/nrc-wc-press-conference-footage/
    But clearly, Coleman’s goal is to criminalize dissent by rhetorically stripping them of any political voice. What is interesting here is that his effort to do so backfired in this case — the more he tried to “discipline and punish” (citing Foucault’s famous book) all forms of dissent by incarcerating them, the more he actually stirred up dissent and violence. (And observing how the police action actually seemed to produce violence rather than contain it, I began to question the argument of Foucault’s book, which I have always found so compelling.)

    In response to Coleman, I’d like to shout my praises to Bruce Nestor of the National Lawyers Guild for taking Coleman to task, for exposing his bullshit, and for drawing connections between the tactics of the Ramsey County police and the tactics of the Bush-Rumsfeld regime.

    Third, Coleman actually claims that he supports the right to free speech and “legitimate” protest. However, what none of the mainstream journalists seem to be aware of is that several months ago tha American Civil Liberties Union actually sued St. Paul several months ago for obstructing the organizers of the legitimate protest. See HERE:
    http://www.aclu-mn.org/legal/casedocket/thecoalitiontomarchvthecit.htm

    So much for Coleman’s presumed support of free speech. FOR SHAME!!!

    Comment by steventhomas | September 7, 2008 | Reply


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