What we read this week:
‘The Impacts of State Surveillance on Political Assembly and Association: A Socio-Legal Analysis’ by Amory Starr, Luis A. Fernandez, Randall Amster, Lesley J. Wood and Manuel J. Caro, From the issue entitled “Special Issue: Political Violence; Guest Editors: Patricia Steinhoff and Gilda Zwerman” in Qualitative Sociology, Volume 31, Number 3, 251-270
Broaching this subject in a group of activists was always going to turn into a bit of an ‘activist storytime’ session, recounting past encounters, horror stories told in our networks and experiences from other countries. However, one thing I had failed to predict was the impact of hearing other people’s ‘moment of truth’ episodes. These were entirely individual and unique moments when we each realised that actually, it was just possible, that the state’s security and police forces – ostensibly bodies that exist for the protection of all citizens of this country – might not have our best interests at heart.
We began by recapping what the article said – in short, that surveillance (or at least the perception of surveillance by those who believe themselves to be observed) destroys activism, and therefore has an extremely negative effect on social movements who can feel incapacitated by the disproportionate attention paid them by state and private security forces. Although often described as paranoia, the reality is that documents have been released, articles published that demonstrate the full extent of state surveillance and as paranoia is an irrational fear – we came to the conclusion that unfortunately the fear of being under surveillance is probably not a case of paranoia for many activists in the UK and USA – although sometimes the security measures could be seen as a bit extreme given the relative likelihood of being under surveillance at any given moment.
The Mark Stone case has prompted many conversations with non-activist friends of ours about the issue of trust. How do we continue with activism (probably worth mentioning here that when I say activism, I largely mean entirely non-confrontational, non-aggressive and legal activities which are explicitly political), in the knowledge that activist networks are infiltrated and observed by security forces – always recording and detailing everything around them. The answer is just that we try to ignore it.
Our discussion predominantly focused on two questions:
Firstly, ‘why’? Why are political activists targetted? Why would an activist who sat in a shop for a couple of hours result in an investigation and court case costing the state £1000s when somebody who’d stolen from that same shop might just get a slap on the wrist? Why would a graffitti artist get asked (relatively politely) to stop if tagging the local bus-stop, but a political activist painting a slogan find themselves in court? Why the disproportionate response to political activity and the extreme measure of surveillance when the activity causes relatively little physical damage to any infrastructure? Is it so scary…I think so.
Crimes of drunkenness, abuse, vandalism and a host of other activities don’t present a systemic challenge. There is no reason to fear somebody who behaves entirely in line with what society expects of them – a man who beats his wife when drunk is an acceptable offence to the state, because it obeys the laws of patriarchy to which they are accustomed. Likewise a thief who robs their local shop at gun-point – thereby conforming exactly to a capitalist expectation that we should always aspire to consume more – by whatever means necessary.
An elderly woman, chaining herself to a fence to prevent the eviction of a group she has little personal connection with beyond a shared humanity. A teenager, desperately throwing themselves in the way of a police horse charging at their friends protesting against the ever growing cost of education. A group of queer activists organising a rally in Central London to demonstrate against war, because they recognise the link between patriarchy, oppression and militarisation – and see it as a duty to stand up to a conflict motivated by the greedy and power-hungry structures of our society. These are the greater offences because they challenge the foundations upon which the state sits. Like a being from elsewhere in the multiverse, they appear to governmental forces to be governed by entirely different laws of physics. Not natural, illegal aliens who only wish for the demise of society. And the actions of activists will always be seen in such a way by elite power structures, because are a threat to the legitimacy of those in control. This post is not the place to discuss how we might deal with this, except to say that it should not be them to whom we are appealing. Our audience are our sisters and brothers and it is those disempowered by those power structures that we should focus our message. Which can be difficult when it is not we who own the means of mass communication and manipulation.
Secondly: Why do we ignore this? Why don’t we challenge it? – posed by a member of our group. I don’t know – perhaps it’s a case of picking our battles. Tired of fighting every corner, we choose those struggles that strategically we think we might have a chance at winning. Though there are some brilliant activist groups and networks committed to tackling this issue – fighting the battle in the courts (see here), and on the streets (see here) – for the most part, we tend to want to get on with campaigning and acting on the issues we feel most passionately about – and it can be hard to get inspired about combatting an insipid, invisible and entirely negative issue such as surveillance of political activity and political policing.
We came to no grand solutions, we didn’t leave inspired to take up action against increasing surveillance by the state (and, perhaps even more scary, the companies they outsource it to). It’s a difficult issue, but the reading at least helped clarify quite the scale of this issue and its impact on political and activist activities. I’m reminded of something a friend of mine said when we were discussing the issue of police potentially using water cannons at protest: ‘Well, what do you expect?’ – by which I think she meant – that upping the stakes by increasing force and surveillance is the natural progression for a state-run security force. Depressing, but probably true – after all, the tipping point for most revolutions has not been when civilians alone marched into the streets – rather it has been when the police and the army turn against their leaders.