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

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      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.



      glen p robbins

      May 23, 2012 at 8:50pm

      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.


      May 23, 2012 at 9:28pm

      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.


      May 23, 2012 at 10:35pm

      I ain't no professor and I figured this one out a while back.

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      May 23, 2012 at 11:29pm

      At least they're not being shelled, nor will they ever be

      Taxpayers R Us

      May 24, 2012 at 12:20am


      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.


      May 24, 2012 at 12:23am

      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.


      May 24, 2012 at 6:29am

      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?



      Island Girl

      May 24, 2012 at 6:46am

      the looters are taking over

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      May 24, 2012 at 2:26pm

      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

      May 24, 2012 at 3:12pm

      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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