A high-profile U.S. academic says that western governments are ramping up the use of police power against people who are trying to exercise their right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Judith Butler, a renowned feminist thinker and professor in the rhetoric department at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Georgia Straight by phone that this is evident in recent police responses to anti-NATO protests in Chicago and student demonstrations in Montreal. She cited it as the fallout of the intensification of neoliberal capitalism.
“At a certain point, we have to ask whether security has become an alibi for state violence of various kinds,” she said shortly after arriving in Vancouver to give a free public lecture.
Butler, who is the author of several books, pointed out that people are taking to the streets because they’re excluded from established areas of influence, including the electoral system, corporate power, and the media. She noted that these protesters often don’t come from communities based on a common identity, language, or even nationality, and they don’t agree with each other on many issues.
“Their bodies are their last resource and their most important resource—and it is the power they have,” she said. “So bodies in the street can stop traffic or bring attention that [there are] very basic needs to be satisfied, including shelter, food, employment, and freedom of mobility and freedom of expression.”
In her view, the worst examples of police violence in western countries have occurred in Greece. But she expects police violence to escalate as security forces are being trained in new military-style methods of crowd management.
Butler mentioned that new laws—such as Quebec’s Bill 78—are often justified by authorities in the name of security for dignitaries and the global economy. She highlighted the fact that many protesters are in the streets to demonstrate about their lack of “security” over such basic needs as shelter, employment, and health care.
“Wealth is accumulating at accelerated speed for fewer and fewer people,” Butler stated. “And conditions of precarity are being intensified at an accelerated speed for more and more people. It’s not exactly the traditional conception of class warfare, but it is our very contemporary version.”
Under Bill 78, police must receive eight hours’ notice of any demonstration involving more than 50 people. Authorities can order demonstrators to move their protest to a different location. Encouraging someone to protest is illegal, and people can be fined up to $5,000 for preventing someone from entering an educational institution. For these actions, student leaders face fines of up to $35,000, and student federations face maximum fines of $125,000.
“I think if those demonstrations can bring the routine operation of a university to a halt, that means they are exercising quite a bit of power,” Butler declared. “I actually think the Montreal students’ strikes have been among the most powerful.”
Butler stated that in Berkeley, a legal case has been made that demonstrating students pose security risks for the university. She added that sometimes, the law works to “shore up military and police power”.
“The more we see courts and judges accept that kind of argumentation, the more serious this conflict will become because there is no recourse even to basic classical liberal precepts of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly under those conditions,” Butler said. “That is very, very frightening. Some would even say that those kinds of laws that prohibit assembly and free speech on grounds of state security are emblematic of fascism. I’m not saying we live in a fascist society, but I am saying those are the hallmarks. So it’s extremely important that these kinds of legal decisions not become normalized or accepted as reasonable. And it does mean that extra-legal forms of resistance will become more and more important.”
Judith Butler will deliver UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies free spring lecture at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday (May 24) at the Vogue Theatre.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.