Déjà vu. I feel like I did after 9/11. Folks just started being asked to talk about things and instead of passing interested parties to the dozen or so people who had been studying this topic, they decided to speak. The outcome: this does not lead to the best of what we have to offer. It’s not all that informative as it is largely the product of Academic Accidental Tourists – those who decide to stray from what they have been trained to do as well as what they have done and to take up the topic of contentious politics/conflict processes as an “expert”. While problematic, this does have the benefit of being entertaining and occasionally quite popular.
So, what have folks gotten wrong? How should we think about what is going on based on actual scholarship? What if the right people were doing the talking – what would be highlighted?
Before we do that, let’s start with the actors a little. Most students of contentious politics/conflict processes (i.e., genocide, civil war, human rights violation/state repression, [counter] terrorism, [counter] revolution, [counter] protest or protest policing and everyday resistance) would highlight four groups that are involved: 1) politicians (as the leaders of relevant political institutions that set policy/practices), 2) police (as the coercive/forceful agents of the state), 3) people (ordinary citizens who will choose to support politicians/the police, protestors or neither as well as 4) protestors (those who explicitly decide to challenge political authorities with some activity outside institutionalized mechanisms). No, who and what you start with varies but the differences are important.
Sequences are always important, part 1. We currently have mass protests going on because of activities undertaken by the police directed against specific individuals in specific communities. In short, politicians and police started the contentious interaction. Politicians created the relevant coercive/forceful state institutions. They gave them directions/mandates, cash, training and a license to kill (in their name). It is worthwhile to acknowledge this because many are calling upon these same actors to fix the problem of state-sponsored violence via reforms. But, if these actors started the sequence of activities that led us to our current situation, then we may need to take politicians and police out of the loop – call it a conflict of interest. At a minimum, it may be necessary to bring in a third party to negotiate/facilitate change. Of course, saying this impugns US state sovereignty but frankly so does the violent action that they took/allowed against those under their care. Police violence undermines any respect or legitimacy that the government might have had. This discussion is largely missing in the things that we are currently reading.
Sequences are always important, part 2. Research is fairly clear on the fact that protest leads to repression but what is not as commonly referenced is that it leads to different types/dimensions of repression – overt and covert, indiscriminate/selective/ collective, reactive/proactive and civil liberties restriction/personal integrity violations. Interestingly, and in contrast to the uniform relationship identified above, repression leads to every type of influence of protest: e.g., increases, decreases, delayed influences and no impact at all. What this means is that it is going to be a little difficult to figure out what is going to happen next because of the variation identified above. This does not mean that we have no clue, only that tracking and understanding dynamic interactions will be crucial.
Democracy itself hangs in the balance. Now, to be clear, I do not feel that it is just black and increasingly white, Latino, Asian and other lives that are at stake. It is the very democracy itself. Perhaps Ralph Bunche said it best in The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR:
- If Democracy is to survive the severe trials and buffetings to which it is being subjected in the modern world, it will do so only because it can demonstrate that it is a practical, living philosophy under which all people can live the good life most abundantly. It must prove itself in practice, or be discredited as a theory. Democratic nations such as (America) have an obligation to all mankind to prove that democracy, as a form of government, as a practical means of human relationships, is a working and workable concept. This America can do only by abandoning the shallow, vulgar pretense of limited democracy – under which some are free and privileged and others are permanently fettered (1940: 106).
As he continues,
- The (African American), and especially the (African American) in the South (potentially changed to the North in the current context), already has had too vivid an experience with embryonic fascism in the very shadow of democracy. Within our own gates are found intense racial hatreds, racial ghettoes, and racial differentials that saturate the political, economic and social life of the nation (1940: 106).
Either the problem gets fixed or the United States is not a democracy. Some have gone this route with discussions of comparative authoritarianism but it merits stating this simple proposition as it is not often seen in the current conversation – at least in mainstream venues. I’m sure Bob Avakian has mentioned this 20 times already.
Actors are not Unitary. Researchers know this but current discussion seems to have this point confused. All individuals out in the street when a protest is taking place are not down with the program. Some are there for justice. Some are there for Justine and/or Jeff – personal connections are incredibly important for understanding contentious events. Some are there for Sony or Gucci. And protests which are organized by some institution for a particular as well as clearly articulated objective are not the same as uprisings/disturbances/riots which are not developed/controlled by institutions and which are not associated with particular as well as clearly articulated objectives. The looting in the media focus exemplifies this confusion. Articles make it seem that at one turn an individual is out objecting to illegitimate state-sponsored violence, some window breaks and then this same individual decides to go for a laptop. Folks then bemoan the tactical choice of “the movement” but this is not movement activity soooooooo. Holding protestors accountable for those looting is not reasonable. From the work of Clark McPhail it is not even close to being reasonable. McPhail finds incredible variation within the same protest event. There is no clear connection or chain of command like in a military or police unit. Now, in these setting it would be reasonable to hold everyone accountable for what is done because of how they are organized.
All is not always what it seems. Researchers of contentious politics would warn observers that just because someone looks like a protestor does not mean that they are one (see Gary Marx’s work). There are informants (those who would provide intel) and agents provocateur (those who purportedly instigate and escalate something in order to facilitate legitimate/legitimized state action) out there. This generally does not go the other way: there are few movement people embedded within police units to start something. Watch but always wonder.
Beware of the Channel. Finally, much of what we see being discussed is on the coercion/force end of contentious politics but there are other strategies that are relevant – channeling (see James Scott and Jennifer Earl for this one). Here, we would see an effort to bring protestors under control by placating them – making them feel heard, empowered and involved but without having any real impact on anything. One could see this in current calls for leadership, questions about organizations being created and highlighting the newest voice of the generation. Two things on this: 1) if there is no leader/messiah/organization, then there is no one to coopt; and 2) if there is no specific person/organization, then politicians and police might actually have to speak to all individuals and/or, more realistically, assess the condition that prompted everyone to rise up in the first place (i.e., politicians and police).
Luckily, I see that some contentious politics folks are finally getting tapped by decent venues: e.g., Cathy Schneider and David Meyer in The Washington Post today (which requires setting up an account which just feels wrong somehow so I don't have links to them).
More folks out there. All hands on deck.