Thursday, April 09, 2009

NATO Protests and Repressive Tolerance: State Containment of Free Speech

The tactics of French police directed by the State to thwart the rights of freedom of expression in Strasbourg this week for NATO meetings are a troubling but sobering sign of a recent trend of ever more repressive tolerance in Western liberal democracies, by which I refer to the phenomenon of increasing state caricature of rights to free speech by cordoning it off, thwarting its circulation, which amounts, in effect, to freedom to speak to the wall.

French police literally shut down the entire city and quarantined the protestors. While 40,000 to 50,000 protestors were expected, according to the AP wire, only about half of that estimate were counted on site. There is evidence that the reduced presence is due to police harassment, detainment, containment and arrests of hundreds of protesters. One wonders what tactics were used to reduce the numbers further. The AP Wire writes,

"On thursday night in Strasbourg police detained at least 300 people and forced demonstrators back into a tent camp on the edge of the city."

Was the city effectively closed by police order to deprive the protestors of an audience and to create less of a media spectacle ? In other words, did the state attempt to stifle free political speech?

While there is also a trend of violence among fringe protestors, it is no wonder that violence broke out in Strasbourg given police provocations and the frustration born of this quarantine.

21 March Le Monde: "The mayor of Strasbourg didn't really have a say in the deployment of security forces in the city [for the NATO summit]. It was the French and German governments, in consultation with NATO and the U.S., which decided on the security measures and put them in place." The article continues, "The inhabitants of Strasbourg have the impression of witnessing their city under seige: no parking, transportation by bicycle encouraged, buses rerouted, and public services temporarily closed." Many businesses closed as the result of the policy.

Another independent account states that all bridges were closed and the protestors had no way out. IN other words, they were brutally, strategically quarantined. Why?

A Le Monde journalist Arnaud Leparmentier spoke of how he was allowed, ironically, to be seated two rows behind Obama for the press conference. Police, the journalist said, tightly blocked entrance to the conference, yet no one ever checked his bag, which he noted could have of course contained a bomb, hypothetically. Why the double standard?

Yesterday, Wednesday July 9 I was approaching the Invalides metro, the common site of a great many protests in Paris, to find Tamils, of which there are estimated to be 60,000 refugees in France," protesting the Sri Lankan governments offensive against Tamil rebels. I was shocked to see hundreds of them boxed in like cattle in an approximately 20x10 yards square area. Many were seated on the ground, while others stood and chanted. I witnessed no violence whatsoever. Some police mocked the protesters, while others attempted to block any contact the protesters could have with an audience of passersby. One man leaned over a makeshift fence to offer leaflets to anyone who wished to have them. Several people including myself approached him out of curiosity. Immediately, the police rushed over and took his leaflets, telling him he could not pass them out. Why, I don't know, unless French foreign policy includes silencing protests such as this.

Outside the 2004 Republican nominating convention in New York, protesters were confined to what was euphemistically called a "free speech zone," which protesters referred to as a cage. What is free about free speech in these situations? Is this what founders of Western constitutions had in mind when they spoke of liberty and equality, sacred rights of political assembly and freedom of expression. These are tactics more akin to fascist control of protest, provoking violence, then meeting it with disproportionate force. But most of all they have media effects.

There are few spectacular media images such as the fire hoses being turned on children in the Civil Rights movement. The spectacular images are of the lunatic black block, precisely the undermining of the protest organizers' strategies. None of the stories I read when I googled "Strasbourg," "NATO," and "protests" attempted to discuss why and what is was protesters were protesting. Instead we got tried and true frames that media business values commonly dictate. Conflict and violence. But this frame was lent by the State attempt to control speech. Why these measures? In the same way that states have learned from their mistakes in control (or lack thereof) in war situations, from Vietnam to Algeria. So they've learned ways to defuse the power of protests.

What this means is that the old strategies for effective change via consciousness raising in marches are largely co opted today. They must find other ways of addressing audiences and circulating messages in the way they intend.

more pictures here

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