Tuesday, September 02, 2008

This is What American Democracy Looks Like

(via Rushkoff) I have to first mention that I’m wasn’t at the DNC protests nor am I going to the RNC protests. I’m staying in DC doing media support and jail support from afar. I went to NYC for the 2004 RNC protests and I was, in the following order, beaten with a nightclub, wrapped in a giant orange net by the cops, set on fire (swear I’m not making that up), beaten again, arrested, put in a cage, hit by a cop car. So I’m taking it easy this time around.

The protests at the DNC are being organized under a couple of different umbrella groups. Broadly, it includes everything from progressives to anti-authoritarian radicals, with a lot of students and youth under 30 and vets.

The conditions were pretty poor. The police had also erected a mini-Gitmo of free-speech zones–protest pens–into which to corral the bulk of demonstrators and any kind of activity was almost immediately curbed. The other major problem was that there was effectively zero press coverage, even among liberal bloggers. I spent my week seeing liberal blogs excitedly gush about what was going on inside the convention and rail about Republican radicalism of the last eight years while I was cradling a phone in my hand listening to friends tell me stories of being beaten up a couple of blocks away.

That lack of coverage in a lot of respects really emboldens the police and allows them to get away with just about anything, aside from it absolutely impoverishing our ability to engage in a reasoned analysis of how power works and whether the Democrat vs. Republican frame actually depicts anything even close to reality.

And, speaking of police brutality, it’s pretty notable that they’ve been consistently targeting press. There was a documented incident where an ABC news producer was knocked down and arrested trying to get footage of delegates and donors. The police also detained and seized the equipment of the Glass Bead Collective (a well-known indymedia group). There was also the knocking down and detainment of a Code Pink member–probably the worst bit was seeing her get shoved down, the footage then cutting to her being interviewed by journalists, and then the cop walking up and grabbing her in the middle of the interview and dragging her off.

But that kind of one-time sensational pushing doesn’t really capture the full scale of what was going on. Marches were immediately surrounded by walls of police, people were told to leave, and then they weren’t given any exit to leave and those who tried were arrested. There was a 100+ person mass arrest after the police simply decided that a large group of people milling about looked “suspicious” and were carrying rocks (which were never found, naturally), a convergence space was raided, and vehicles were simply stopped and searched and equipment was seized.

My connection to this is that I’m part of DC Students for a Democratic Society, which is part of the national Students for a Democratic Society organization. We’ve become known for an event called Funk theWar, which is a Reclaim the Streets style event–we like to call it a Militant Mobile Disco, and we’ve been called “suburban terrorists” by a couple of right-wing writers, which is offensive as we all live in DC. A good chunk of people in my chapter and a lot of people in SDS went to the DNC and are also going to the RNC protests.

I have to note though that this hasn’t stopped with the end of the DNC. In the Twin Cities, where the RNC is taking place, there was a massive raid on a convergence space with all inside (several hundred) detained in handcuffs (including a four-year-old) for hours simultaneous to a raid of three private homes around the area and then a raid on the base of I-Witness Video, a documentary outfit that specializes in recording incidents of police brutality and proved instrumental in getting people’s charges dropped after the 2004 RNC. The police called the whole thing a “criminal enterprise” and a handful of individuals have been charged with “conspiracy to riot”, but no evidence has actually been found as far as anyone can tell.

I’m gonna cut this short because I’m going on a bit, but I think one really important thing comes out of this and this is really what I feel like you’d be interested in: What the police are doing here isn’t stopping the demonstrations. They’re getting us to change the frame of discussion. Since these raids started, we’ve all switched from talking about the war, about capitalism, about the system, and about what we want in place of all this. We’re now talking about police brutality and we’re all getting a certain amount of titillation out of that. But it effectively completely sidelines why my friends are out there on the streets and why they’re willing to risk being beaten and arrested. Police action against doesn’t just shut down our march or cast a chill over organization activity–-it helps us forget why we’re fighting and that scares me more than anything else. I saw the same thing happen to the anti-globalization movement after 9/11 hit and I hope we’re strong enough this time around to inoculate ourselves against this sort of attack.

The last paragraph strikes me as off the mark a bit. The police action may "sideline" why the protesters choose to on the streets, but it actually illustrates all too well why more of us should be on the streets. Police violence is not a distraction. It is, in fact, the very embodiment of that against which the protesters fight. Here is exemplified the violence that sustains and perpetuates the status quo; when its ever-present gestures of defense are betrayed as aggression and projection of power at all costs. We are distracted most when it is ignored.