In a massive new report, entitled “Take Back The Streets: Repression and Criminalization of Protest Around the World,” nine international civil liberties organizations warn of the increasing use of excessive force in crackdowns on nonviolent protest (full text available here, courtesy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association). Broad in its scope, the report features case studies of repressive events in the United States, Israel, Canada, Argentina, Egypt, Kenya, Hungary, South Africa, and Britain. As the report states:
In June 2010, hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets of Toronto to peacefully protest the G20 Summit, which was taking place behind a fortified fence that walled off much of the city’s downtown core. On the Saturday evening during the Summit weekend, a senior Toronto Police Commander sent out an order – “take back the streets.” Within a span of 36 hours, over 1000 people – peaceful protesters, journalists, human rights monitors and downtown residents – were arrested and placed in detention. The title of this publication is taken from that initial police order. It is emblematic of a very concerning pattern of government conduct: the tendency to transform individuals exercising a fundamental democratic right – the right to protest – into a perceived threat that requires a forceful government response. The case studies detailed in this report, each written by a different domestic civil liberties and human rights organization, provide contemporary examples of different governments’ reactions to peaceful protests. They document instances of unnecessary legal restrictions, discriminatory responses, criminalization of leaders, and unjustifiable – at times deadly – force.
Besides the general importance of these issues to the dynamic and ever-changing relationship between states, social movements, and repression (Earl 2011; Davenport 2007), I think these kinds of developments are especially notable when considered in light of the “social movement society” thesis (Meyer and Tarrow 1998) – the argument that protest is an increasingly accepted and taken-for-granted mode of political action in advanced industrial democracies. Specifically, this report may confirm the steady return to an “escalated force” model of protest policing in many contemporary democracies, as characterized by McPhail et al. (1998, quoted in Soule and Davenport 2009: 3):
1. Limited concern with the First Amendment rights of protesters and police obligation to respect and protect those rights
2. Limited tolerance for community disruption
3. Limited communication between police and demonstrators
4. Extensive use of arrests as a method of managing demonstrators
5. Extensive use of force in order to control demonstrators.
What is responsible for this apparent shift in the policing of protest? Although the Patriot Act and similar legislation in other countries have provided opportunities for a return to social movement policing tactics not seen since the 1960s (Churchill and Vander Wall 1990; Cunningham 2004), characterized by pre-emptive suppression of protesters, increasingly arbitrary use of advanced surveillance technologies, informants, and agent provocateurs, many contributing factors were well under way before the “War on Terror.” Consider, for instance, the overwhelming militarization of policing technologies and strategies in the U.S. over the past 20 years.
As Soule and Davenport (2009) argue, it is also important to consider the policing of protest at the level of the event. If events perceived as threatening by law enforcement are more likely to be policed aggressively, using arrests and physical force, what are the organizational and institutional factors that might affect these perceptions (e.g. Cunningham 2004; Earl and Soule 2006)? Joining event-based approaches with broader organizational, institutional, and historical insights are critical in this regard.