How far can a government go in squashing dissent before it can be termed “oppressive”? On first glance it might appear a rather inane question and one certainly loaded with all kinds of preconceived ideas about the state. Even if you can get past that, any response will have enough caveats and extenuating circumstances attached to rob you of a black and white answer. Yet it remains an important question to ask, if only to realise that suppression isn’t an on or off switch but a whole array of techniques, common only in their overriding purpose: to keep you quiet and off the streets.
When we think of suppression of protest our minds wander towards the Syrian or Bahraini army firing on protesters, Egypt disrupting mobile communications during protests, China monitoring and blocking the web, the networks of spies and informers in Gaddafi’s Libya, the American tanks rumbling around Kabul or the stench of corruption hanging around the Russian elections. In short, we see oppression is something that happens in faraway places.
What we’re far less comfortable with is the idea that the tools of oppression are being deployed against us every day. The methods employed here are more subtle, but nevertheless have the same goal. Whether we’re talking about disproportionate “total policing” of protest events, blocking people from protesting outside parliament, using de-humanising riot gear, recruiting agent provocateurs within protest movements, threatening to use rubber bullets, kettling, beating or arresting, it’s all the same. You could even argue that not giving into the demands of protesters is a form of suppression. How many times have you heard “Oh, you’ll never achieve anything.” as a reason for staying at home rather than taking to the streets to fight for what you believe in?
Whatever the method, suppression of protest means preventing any true challenge to the establishment and making damn sure that no-one wants to go on a protest ever again. Just because you live in the relative safety of the United Kingdom doesn’t mean that there aren’t people seeking to boost their own legitimacy by preventing you from exercising your democratic prerogative.
At the root of this uncomfortable truth is the fact that no-one can rule another without consent. Whether you’re a leader of a democratic state or a military junta doesn’t matter, you’ll still need people to recognise you as ruler. The only notable difference between the two extremes is quite how blatant you can be when trying to manufacture your consent to rule. Killing and maiming aren’t quite open to democratic governments, but nearly everything else is still on the table.
The civilised West prefers more subtle methods and the case in point at the moment is the security around the Nato summit in Chicago, but the tactics used shouldn’t sound at all dissimilar to anyone living near the Olympic site. The mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Chief of Staff to Barack Obama, has turned the city into a virtual police state. A legacy that will last far longer than the few days the leaders of the free world will be discussing how to contain China’s growing power while retaining the impression of promoting world “security”.
Miles of roads and highways have been shut down to establish a security cordon, eight foot tall security fences erected, F-16s and helicopters fly overhead, national guard deployed on the streets with a large reserve on a “training exercise” on the outskirts of the city, half a million pounds of new riot-control equipment and two new sound cannons. With the world becoming increasingly peaceful, the western military-industrial complex is branching out into security. Business may be booming, but no potential buyer would do so without a demonstration of the goods, and what better test subjects than your own citizens?
More worrying are the stringent new laws on getting a protest approved in Chicago, unlike the equipment, these changes are permanent. For example protest organisers are required to register each banner or soundsystem too large to be carried by a single person and have become liable for damages incurred by whoever happens to turn up on the day. It might sound petty, but it’s enough to dissuade casual organisers and keep the professionals at a slow enough pace to allow government to ram through any truly horrific legislation in day or two and avoid any major backlash.
In the West though, these kinds of tactics are really the reserve of the lazy or desperate. A true leader governs with the absolute and unforced consent of the people and a decent politician can inspire trust even in those whose opinions offer from their own. Moving down the scale, a bad politician stifle dissent by allying with the media, dividing his enemies or massaging the truth. An incompetent politician can simply makes sure that anyone that disagrees with them simply can’t be heard, and that road doesn’t end in a pretty place.
Governments across the world are facing a crisis of legitimacy. A well informed populace, a deep seated mistrust of politics and tough economic times are a recipe for unrest. But instead of attacking the root causes of this mistrust, they’ve started attacking us. I can’t in good judgement say that I’m being oppressed by my government, but the measures that they’re planning certainly fall somewhere on that scale. The danger is that the longer they try to use force, fear and coercion to keep the lid on this social pressure cooker, the bigger the eventual explosion will be.
Excessive security, provided by a shady industry with little to no concern for what regime they’re actually securing, is a danger to us all. Suppression of protest might be more familiar to us abroad, but allowing these practices to become normalised ensures that eventually they’ll be turned against us. We’re not a police-state, but it’s certainly the direction we’re travelling in.