By: Jared Berkowitz
Revolution is in the air: from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Syria; from the streets of lower Manhattan to the hills of Berkeley, making Amory Starr, Luis Fernandez and Christian Scholl’s work, Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence and Social Control in the Global Era all the more relevant. The authors explore the concept of social control as a preemptive measure undertaken by governments to subvert protest and deter dissent. To support their argument, the authors track the “Alterglobalization” Movement and their efforts protesting various world trade and economic summits around the globe.
The study is framed between 1999 and 2009, beginning with the infamous World Trade Organization (“WTO”) protests in Seattle. As both scholars and participants in the Alterglobalization Movement, the authors discuss the dynamics of anti-globalization protest from both a practical and theoretical perspective. Although the study was completed before the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, it is important to consider the concept of social control within the context of these events in order to decide whether such preemptive tactics to deter protest are truly effective.
The analysis begins with the idea of social control: preemptive measures employed to deter protest in anticipation of WTO summits, G8 meetings, and NATO assemblies. Space becomes inseparable from speech framing “the geography of social control,” as governments designate zones of protest or construct barricades to discourage the expression of opposition.1 The site becomes an aberration from democracy as host cities take on the color of military rule. The authors describe the landscape of a recent G8 summit:
It looked like a fence around a prison or military base . . . it sported motion detectors and video cameras. But this fence wound its twelve kilometers . . . through . . . a small seaport town. It protected the three-day meeting of the Group of Eight (G8).2
This landscape of exclusion perpetuates a culture of fear leading to the next part of the analysis: the evolution of our “security culture.”
In the post-9/11 world, few would deny the risk of a terrorist attack at a G8 summit, but the threat is exploited to justify strict control over space. Alterglobalization protestors become akin to counterinsurgent groups and violent non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. This popular perception renders them enemies and radicals in the public eye; fomenting the “culture of fear" and providing political fodder for our “security culture.” This “security culture,” then, ostracizes the protestor and stigmatizes the exercise of free speech and demonstration.3
While the authors offer their personal accounts of international assemblies as well as detailed descriptions of cities where these events take place to support their argument, their proof seems circumstantial. Any preemptive policy or theory is difficult to prove, but their experience on the front lines does place a strong body of truth behind the theory.4
Consider the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. The Arab Spring began nearly a year ago when a young unemployed Tunisian, Mohammed Bouazizi, self-immolated to protest the lack of jobs in his country and his government’s inaction. Following Bouazizi’s defiant act were waves of anti-government protests in Tunisia that led to President Ben Ali’s resignation and flight to Saudi Arabia. These events in Tunisia, however, were not isolated.
Revolt in Egypt occurred almost simultaneously as protestors, frustrated with the corrupt old guard of President Mubarak, gathered to demonstrate in Tahir Square. The movement to oust Mubarak culminated thirty days later as the defiant president finally ceded power to a military interim government. Protestors rejoiced. Wide-eyed intellectuals looked on, praising the triumph of popular sovereignty redolent of post-colonial protests that erupted in the late 1960s. Theoretically, what could come next––military dictatorships, the silencing of protest, and the risk of extremist exploitation of weakened states––is not important. What is important, to academics, is the renewed sense of empowerment that formerly disenfranchised youths all over the globe gained.
Young Americans, inspired by the success of the Arab Spring, organized their response to a sterilized political process: Occupy Wall Street (“OWS”). The movement began in the summer of 2011 as organizers gathered in Zucotti Park located in lower Manhattan. This leaderless movement, although largely symbolic, proffered an alternative to our stagnant political process––quickly becoming the dominant protest movement within the United States, following a decade of political stoicism.
These protests, separate and distinct from the gatherings of the “Alterglobalization” Movement, are nonetheless examples of political agency in the world of social control that break down the author’s thesis that marginalization and criminalization of dissent are enough to maintain dominance and hegemony against the opposition.
While the majority of the book analyzes the methods employed by governments and their agents designed to prevent protest, the broader theme begs a political theory question by alluding to the inherent contradictions in a liberal democratic society. If we act to deter protest and constructively silence the voice of opposition by rendering protest impractical or at times impossible, then we commit a disservice to the idea of democracy. On the world stage, we consider ourselves proponents of democratic society and champions of popular sovereignty but, nonetheless, marginalize opposition and criminalize dissent at home, concepts alien to the most basic notions of liberal democracy. Perhaps Shutting Down the Streets is not just another empirical work reaffirming Tocqueville’s dreaded “tyranny of the majority,” but one where the majority has obtained control of speech—the most basic tool of the insular minority. While the arguments in Shutting Down the Streets are thought provoking, the broader question of the protestor’s role amidst social control remains unanswered. We must consider the proper role of government in a liberal democratic society. Whether the responsibility falls on the state to provide a center-stage forum for protest. Or whether it is the protestor’s duty to dissent despite “social control,” like those in the Arab Spring and OWS.
1AMORY STARR ET. AL., Shutting Down the Streets: Political Violence in and Social Control in the Global Era, 25, (2011).
2Id. at 1.
4Consider the concept of preemptive war: the idea to get them before they get us. Is there ever a way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether an attack was imminent? Questions remain as to whether Iraq ever posed a tangible threat.