Living in Tampa and working in a criminology department I’ve been in a position to hear quite a bit about the preparations for the upcoming Republican National Convention in downtown Tampa this August. Over the past few months there have been several reports on the large budget, especially the possibility for long term public surveillance expenditures, and of the disappointment by the city council and police over the denial of airborne drones for the event. Lost in the discussions over how much, and what new toys local and federal agencies will have has been the ability of the protestors to actually protest in a meaningful way during this event. It almost seems as though it’s an afterthought, with local law enforcement I spoke to saying the intention is to keep the protesters as far away from the convention as possible.
This now seems to be the pattern of protest management at large national, or international events. Prior to President Obama’s decision earlier this month to move the G8 from Chicago to Camp David there had been fears that new protest laws put in place, and additional training for riot control officers, were attempts to stifle legitimate protest. Many saw Chicago’s crackdown on Occupy protestors as a dry run for the G8 and NATO Summit (which will still occur).
Finally there is news out of London that restrictions put in place for the Olympics will allow for VIPs to completely avoid any inconvenience posed by protesters, and that London itself will see a more heavily militarized police presence during the Olympics. Like Chicago and Tampa the preparations in London include increased surveillance, keeping potential protesters removed from the event itself, and the passage of laws that enhance criminal penalties for civil disobedience and many standard forms of protest actions.
Given these kinds of preparations can we really consider protest at these events to be capable of achieving the stated goals of visible contentious behavior? I know many activists I have spoken to contend that even if they are kept away from their intended targets they are still able to form connections and community with their fellow activists, and that media still often provide them with coverage. But it seems as though the main raison d’etre for coming to these events has been all but subverted. Modern forms of policing keep protesters sufficiently contained and separated from the objects of their grievances so that these objects, be they people, places, or organizations, are able to operate isolated from the public.