Feminist scholar Judith Butler foresees rising repression against protests in the western world

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.

Comments (27) Add New Comment
glen p robbins
The police power - /oppression/ will be the exact thing that turns the revolution - and the governments will be over powered - or alternatively the respect for authority will be gone as will legitimacy. Accordingly - western governments as they are - are done.
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Optimist
What exactly are these people protesting? That some people are Rich and others are not? People protesting that life is a struggle seems kind of lame...it has always been a struggle and will always be a struggle...corruption is not that horrible in Canada.
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Jiff
I ain't no professor and I figured this one out a while back.
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Anton
At least they're not being shelled, nor will they ever be
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Taxpayers R Us
Optimist:

I think they are protesting the vehicle that gets us into these roles. The more and more it seems - you start rich, you stay that way, you start not so rich, you become poor. You start poor, you stay poor.

I'm not that old, but when I was growing up, there was opportunity. And we recognized where it was, and now it seems it's being clawed back at an increasing rate.
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e.a.f.
The professor makes some very valid points. In the past 10 yrs we have seen the erosion of our rights & freedoms. Western governments have passed all sorts of legislation which 40 yrs ago we thought happened only in movies.

The "crowd control" methods are unusually violent. Police departments are starting to have equipment we once saw only in the military or comic books. It is especially prevelant in U.S. police dept. However in American police dept.'s they are given grants by federal arms of the government which in turn are lobbied by arms corporations.

In Canada the Harper gov't has tried many things since they have achieved their majority. their crime bill, their listening in bill; defunding women's rights groups, removing food inspectors, alter pension plans, implementing back to work legislation prior to anything even really happening. the G-20 summit in Toronto was the first major exhibition of police out of control power.

this will eventually either result in a dramatic change in our political structures & how society operates or a very divided & violent society with few rights for the majority of citizens.
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scathe
Repression in Montreal? The students have been allowed to protest for over 100 days now and the Quebec government is doing nothing to stop it.

You can agree with the protesting students or not, but that's besides the point. All the government has done is said they won't negotiate on the issue.

“I think if those demonstrations can bring the routine operation of a university to a halt, "

THAT'S the problem. What if you're a student who WANTS the operations of a university to continue? Where are your rights? Why do you have to deal with this?

http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1179225--protest-gangs-storm-...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MLXeLVYSDQ
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Island Girl
the looters are taking over
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violet9ish
we all know Ms. Butler is right and we've all been saying the same thing ourselves. sometimes it just takes high-profile individuals to express a collective viewpoint publicly (and repeatedly) before that opinion becomes a validated stance and gains momentum.

i hope that more people like her in positions of power will come forward to defend the right to dissent.

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R U Kiddingme
Gosh, it sure is some reknowned thinking when you can argue for bringing normal operations of a university to a halt as being a legitimate means of protest.

The perfessor is saying, if you don't agree with the way things are going, put an end to it unilaterally.

Well, she is an American, that's how they roll. I don't see how this is particularly sentient, let alone progressive thought.
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PR
@RU - So this one issue aside (Quebec), you're all for police/government clampdown on dissent? And Americans aren't the only ones taking to the streets, in case you hadn't noticed - the escalation in power and tools for police and government is becoming widespread. Nobody's even done anything in London yet and they're already quelling anti-Olympic dissent.
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Anna Ezekiel
@Optimist: The reason it's not that bad is because (and only as long as) we don't let it get that bad. We need to resist when little pieces get whittled off our freedoms and rights, and when new policies and laws move in the wrong direction. It isn't an immutable fact that the West is free: it was fought and struggled for, and it can be lost, fast or slowly (or, of course, made even better). I'm an optimist too - but not complacent.
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R U Kiddingme
@PR

It's not that I support clampdowns, it is that I don't particularly believe in protesters shutting things down. A small group of people shutting things down is actually the opposite of the way things are supposed to be decided in our society, where there is this transparent, thoughtful and peaceful process. When a few people decide to shut things down because that is what THEY want, how is that democratic? How does that rebuke the fascism that the protester supposedly opposes?

(I say supposedly because I feel that many protesters are just in it for the lulz -- they get high on their moral superiority which justifies the power tripping. Go on, tell me you never met that type.)

Shutting things down, then, is just playing by the rules that you supposedly don't like. It's arbitrary power, bully vs. bully. That turns off a sizeable amount of people on principle, like myself.

It also has no useful effect that I can see. At worst, the "shut down" protester justifies a massive increase in counter-protest security and entrenches a culture of violence. If you can't see that, I'd like to truncheon you myself.

At best, the protest forces the other side to back down. So what? You haven't *convinced* the other side that their way is wrong. And you never will or can convince people that their way is wrong by using power against them. All you can do is make them change their timing slightly.

The only dissent that works in the long run is persuasion.

Now, I am all on my high horse here and I apologize. I know that making social change is a tough bizness, I grant you that. I have no stomach for it myself. You'll never see me, making like Gandhi peacefully and calmly enduring arrest after arrest for civil disobedience. (Not the same as shutting things down, I hope you'll observe.)

But I can support or not support certain forms of protest and I hope I have convinced you that argument and negotiation is the way forward.
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the quite revolution
Talk about a revolution that is actively going on as people talk and talk and talk and then they will decide as the internet opens up lines of communication like never before.
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Be concerned
Like other posters I have been thinking the same thing! We all at first glance think things are fine and look at protests elsewhere and don't associate the issues with us. There as been a steady eroding of our legal system for varied 'good reasons' ranging from convenience and efficiency to justice to anti-terrorist laws. Funnily enough I'm not even a Canadian - I'm an Aussie but I see this trend here at home, in the US, Canada and the UK. When you see reports of of legislative changes increasing police powers, increasing state powers, modifying judicial independence, intolerance of protest action and so on its happening across all the English speaking Western Countries (with apologies to any French Canadians reading this) - it could well be happening elsewhere but I'm monolingual and mostly only read the in depth stuff from english speaking countries!
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D. Zaster
Repression of political protests by government is worrying, but it would worry me a lot more if the protests in Quebec were based on something of more substance than reasonable increases in tuition rates that are now the lowest in the country.
Quebec students pay HALF the tuition that BC students pay at universities and colleges here. Is it really so awful that they should have to pay a little more for their heavily subsidized educations?
What justification is there for a minority of students to prevent the majority from attending classes and sitting for exams? Who the hell do they think they are?
If they insist on paying a small fraction of the real cost of their degrees and diplomas as a moral right, where is the money to fund Quebec's post-secondary system supposed to come from as education costs continue to rise? More federal subsidies, from the rest of Canada? I think not - we already pay through the nose to subsidize culture, health and education in Quebec. If anything, it's high time to end the tribute we pay to placate Quebec nationalism.
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arie1231876
I remember how awful the protestors at the Vancouver Olympics were being belittled by bystanders. The cops weren't even the worst of it. It was jocks in pickup trucks making fun of protestors holding signs that read "Native Rights" or "Feed the poor." It was disgusting. One fellow told a protestor to "SHUT THE F**K UP" and as he drove away in his turbo diesel pickup I noticed a union sticker on his back window. I made a mental note of the local and wrote to the president who said if he found out who it was, he could have him removed from the union because that union, in fact, supported the protests. One of the biggest problems we face if we want to voice our opinions is not the police or government, but the rest of the population who's support has been eroding more and more with each passing year. Oh how easy it is to forget that not that long ago Chinese people, Japanese people, Black people, Women, Gays, etc did not have the rights that Anglo White Males enjoyed. It was through protest that many of these rights became shared with the rest of the populace.
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blueheron
Taxpayers R Us, I disagree with this part of your statement.

"You start poor, you stay poor."

If you start poor and you have initiative and work hard, there is opportunity to be financially successful. Much depends on your attitude, smarts, where you live, and how much effort you're willing to expend to get where you want to go.

Re. the protests and new regulations or laws. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects our right to speak up and protest and the right to free assembly, along with freedom of religion. There is no right to riot, loot nor to torch other people's property. BIG difference.

In my opinion, we were meant to struggle; this is a fact of life. If everything is just handed to us, where is the satisfaction?

The last thing I would want is the nanny state.
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blueheron
arie1231876: "I made a mental note of the local and wrote to the president who said if he found out who it was, he could have him removed from the union because that union, in fact, supported the protests."

If this anecdote is true, that union president just over-stepped the boundaries of his position. Union members have the right to their own views. Union members very often do not vote for those candidates endorsed by their union. The president was spinning a line for you, to make himself appear powerful.
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Christophe Dupond
I am exhausted of reading comments about how low the tuition fees in Quebec are, and how high they are in BC, or where ever else. This in now way invalidates the Quebec student movement.

These young people decided they would not wait until they are as screwed as their other provinces homologues before taking action. They KNOW what is awaiting them when they look at BC tuition fees, or at UK's, which was free not so long ago.

And maybe Quebec tuition fees are also that low because students has been fighting for it for the last 50 years??

BC students should be in the streets right now. Not only their tuition fees are high, living cost in the major cities is simply horrifying! Simple housing is inaccessible for a majority of workers.

And how can you save for your old days with so many depts?? How can you hope of any decent retirement when you can only start saving at 30 or 40 years old?? (especially since pension plans are an endangered financial specie). Interest rate are so low it's almost a joke. BC will suffer from their poor elderly people in 30 years from now.

Depts are modern slavery, and it's time ROC realizes it and stands up for once!!!
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