How protest is democratically permitted so that hardly anything remains of it Ruthless Criticism

Blockupy Day of Action:

How protest is democratically permitted
so that hardly anything remains of it

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt-Verlag analysis on Radio Lora Munich, October 1, 2012]

Last spring, when the last protest tents of the Blockupy movement were cleared by the police in Frankfurt, media commentaries assessed this as the final drawing of an overdue line under an overly persistent protest; the movement settled this itself by its permanent camp, because its supporters allegedly had no more time or inclination to continuously protest; and in the end, those displaced by the police should probably be thankful that they had been forced to return to civilized living conditions: This depiction of events wants to remain ignorant of how the state authorities step by step paralyzed and killed off a disruptive protest movement. And indeed with a repertoire of constitutionally impeccable methods that provide a lesson on how democracy proceeds with dissenting opinions.

In this country, as everybody knows, protestors enjoy the right to free speech – even if they, like the Blockupy people, are in clear opposition to the prevailing political relations. This movement flatly rejects the fiscal state policies of capitalist states and considers the effects of this policy a scandal, and not just in times of crisis, so it wants to declaim and assert this visibly and audibly. Therefore, Blockupy doesn’t want to put up with the well-known and usual waiver in the motley world of free opinion by which each critic may send a letter to the editor or participate in a demo if he then dutifully goes home and leaves everything up to the elected politicians. Their protest should not be just theoretical, but should be practiced as a political counter-opinion. That means: the machinations of finance capital and its political allies should be hindered quite a bit and at least symbolically impeded – even if it’s only for one day of action. Wall Street and the Frankfurt banking scene were and are therefore suitable targets for bringing their criticism as close as possible to the enemy and making it nationally or globally noticed.

For states – the U.S. as well as the German – this is certainly a provocation that it wants to render innocuous. The right to demonstrate is good for this contradictory project – permitting and preventing protest: first, it forces the protesters to ask for permission to demonstrate, and secondly (and most importantly) it awards a license to protest only with a general caveat: it must be peaceful. The organizers and every single protester have to commit themselves to the public order as the framework within which the protest has to operate, otherwise they lose their license to demonstrate and become a case of criminal law.

It’s foreseeable that a Blockupy day of action as planned in Frankfurt collides with this framework. The activists by no chance want to be veered into what they contemptuously call a “going for a stroll demo” [“Latschdemo”]. They want to snarl the daily business of finance capital by venturing into its home district and calling for its overthrow there, and underline this with some disruptive actions, especially a blockade action against the European Central Bank – something the German state power sees as an attack on law and order, thus a violation of the obligation to be peaceful. The city of Frankfurt demands complete rejection of the blockade action and the relocation of the protest to some faraway gyms. Only under such conditions would they ever approve a demo.

This dispute is then brought before the courts and takes a memorable procedural form there. On one side is the desire of Blockupy to demonstratively interrupt the daily life of business profiteering in order to launch the debate promoted by their criticism. This is legally transformed into the right to free speech. Against it stands the bank owners’ and employees’ right of “freedom to pursue a trade or career.” In this way, the political opposition between Occupy and the banks seems quite neutralized and strangely judicialized: Two legal interests stand in opposition, two constitutionally valid claims made by bourgeois subjects. Quite impartially then, the court decides that what is to be demonstrated against has a higher level of claim to protection. Demonstrating may not degenerate into disruption of business activity. It thus demands that the protesters respect precisely the freedoms of the opposing side that they find so unacceptable.

As in the 1960s and the subsequent years of protest, the right to demonstrate proves its value for the state as a means of neutralizing exactly the political content and critique that a protest movement wants to put forward. It demands that anyone who announces a basic critique that does not agree with the workings of the state power commit themselves in any case to the state monopoly on violence, thus submit to it. This is the condition for the protest permit and the lever to obligate them to take the restraining perspective of the rule of law. The organizers of the day of action should give guarantees for the peaceful order of events and agree that only activities permitted by the police take place.

If a movement so resolute in its goal of gathering is thwarted, it is no wonder and also totally predictable to the police that some militants will not put up with the prescribed good behavior and still try to do something on their own anyway – now, just so that something from the whole action reaches public awareness at all. They are then the few malcontents who end up in custody or beaten with police batons and tear gas. So that as few people as possible dare defy them at all, the forces of law and order line up a massive contingent of police. The asymmetry, verified by the media, is the intention. The state power shows that it will by no means tolerate the transition to practical opposition, which would clearly be an abuse of the right to demonstrate. And the media seconds this by finding exactly this imposition of non-violence the decisive issue. No matter what the content of any protest, the first and central question is always: did the demo go peacefully?

In this self-confident appearance, in the assurance that only the superior use of violence ensures the public order, democratic and not-so-democratic regimes are in complete agreement. If the Belarusian President Lukashenko, reviled by western democrats as “Europe’s last dictator,” takes control of a demonstration and disperses it, he does this no differently than the Frankfurt police. In Frankfurt it was also the case that the mere presence of people who could not identify themselves as authorized employees at check points set up around the zone surrounding the ECB were treated as offenders, and disregard of the restraining order counted as a criminal offense, something the locked away disagreeable persons legitimized. In Frankfurt too, whole buses with suspected demonstrators were intercepted outside the city and held in specially set up camps far away from the city. And where need be, subway stations and highways were closed without further ado. So yet again it was vividly demonstrated: In no case do democratically empowered peace officers let themselves be accused of a lack of determination and effectiveness in the use of violence.

With their massive control operation, the Frankfurt police indeed prevented the Blockupy actions, but they also at the same paralyzed the financial district for four days themselves, something that filled many of the banned and frustrated with furtive delight. However, the democratic state power easily swallows this small contradiction: For the enforcement of the legally protected right to “freely pursue professional activities” in the financial sector, professional activities must also sometimes be interrupted by the police, because the legal system is, after all, the condition for daily life in all spheres: In Frankfurt it was once again shown how much this legal system is based on violent enforcement by the state authorities.

Some demonstrators were of the opinion that the politicians must actually have been embarrassed by this excessive use of means of violence because it doesn’t fit democracy. After all, they had not called for violence, so the massive police operation was wholly inappropriate and exaggerated. However, in this they accept the claim that, of all things, the police are tasked with the prevention of violence. Indeed, they had just experienced how the democratic state power sends them packing, but they hold tight to their good opinion of democracy and its positive values and ideals. Even when a “democracy capable of defending itself” gets in their way and in the form of Frankfurt Mayor Petra Roth points out the incompatibility of their project with democracy:

“Only the large contingent of police forces and the strategy of intercepting violent demonstrators in front of the city has nipped violence in the bud ... All who have contributed to peaceful demonstrators characterizing the last few are to be cordially thanked in the interest of our democracy.”

To thank those affected for the deterrent effect of its own apparatus of violence is a cynical tour de force which only democrats are capable of. What is the merely brutal bludgeoning of a protest on Moscow’s streets in contrast to this extremely elegant feat of permitting the content of a protest simply to come to nothing, of treating its incorrigible supporters to a police cordon and congratulating the defenseless rest for having the democratic decency of letting themselves and their concerns be subsumed under this demonstration of violence?

Putin must still work really hard at state violence that is this effective and politically cynical. And on the other side, his critics must do the same for as much democratic responsibility.

See also: Objections to the politics of the Blockupy Alliance