Armoured Citiesby Chris McMichael / 30.11.2011
The last few weeks have shown how quickly a global police state can be mobilized when people stop listening to rulers and attempt to reclaim public space. Hundreds of protesters In Tahir Square demanding an end to the military generals’ highjacking of the Egyptian revolution were shot dead with US-manufactured weapons and dosed with chemical agents. Meanwhile, in a clampdown co-ordinated through the Department of Homeland Security, police departments in 18 US cities attempted to shut down the Occupations with pepper spray and sonic weapons. In the UK, the government announced a blanket ban on protests during the Olympics next year and have proposed a massive increase in their power of ‘pre-emptive arrest’; an attempt to institute legal clampdowns on dissent under the guise of securing the sporting spectacle.
State violence is becoming harder to keep under wraps. Images online of predominately young people being beaten and attacked stand as a disturbing herald of future events. State security apparatuses, built up throughout the world in the name of fighting crime and terrorism, are revealing their real function: the enforcement of an unjust social order.
The Olympics are apparently to be “secured” by military missile systems pointed at civilian spaces. As geographer Stephen Graham has argued, such global spectacles serve as platforms for state experiments in new military urbanism. Throughout both the global North and South, social war is becoming one of the key organising principles of city life. SWAT style, zero-tolerance policing blurs the line between law enforcement and combat. Widespread surveillance systems monitor the public. Technology developed in war zones is being deployed in everyday life. The sonic weapons recently used by the police to attack the Occupy Movement in the US were first tested in Occupied Palestine.
Graham argues that “polarising worlds” (elites and everyone else) within cities themselves are a product of neoliberalism which has rewarded a narrow band of the wealthy at the expense of the majority. The city is all about separating and securing space and privileges. Ensuring the smooth wired mobility of solvent ‘risk free’ individuals and groups while containing ‘risky’ surrounding populations. The goal is ‘world class cities’ with sanitised urban space available for unhindered accumulation and consumption.
Theorists have connected the “pacification of urban space” to ongoing foreign conflicts. While the war on terror has involved military actions against Al-Qaeda, for the most part it is used by governments around the world to crush dissent and justify militarism in everyday life. Even the controversial Protection Of Information Bill uses counter-terrorism rhetoric, the line of defending South Africa from ‘unnamed enemies’, to justify implementation in the name of ‘national security’. The real enemy may well be a populace stirring from uncritical slumber.
Security and arms industries keep posting record profits despite the economic downturn. As military budgets in the first world face cost-cutting austerity measures, arms and security industries have turned to developing countries like South Africa to sell expensive ‘homeland security’ packages. During the 2010 World Cup, the South African Police Services went on an unprecedented spending spree, buying a futuristic array of mobile command centres, new body armour straight out of the next Batman movie and helicopters with heat sensors apparently as “effective in tracking a suspect as 25 police officers on the ground”. An SAPS plan to buy unmanned drones, regularly killing civilians in Pakistan, and very popular with the US Occupying Forces, for vaguely defined surveillance purposes, was abandoned only when the SA Civil Aviation Authority insisted on keeping them out of civilian airspace.
Almost all of the SAPS spending spree had one key purpose: crowd control. Crowds characterize the ongoing rebellion of the poor throughout the country, of course, the endemic community protests and blockades that are very much a feature of post-apartheid South Africa. As Don Delillo once put it, ‘the future belongs to crowds’. Urban planners and security consultants envision dystopian near future scenarios of environmental and economic collapse, mass migrations due to global warming and conflict over scare resources.
The irony is that these security establishments protect and serve the same geo-political system leading to their nightmare scenarios.
Underpinning the military policing of the city is the elite’s fear of revolt, dangerous ‘populism’ (a euphemism for direct democracy) and insurgent populations. The uprising of the poor. It has driven the pre-emptive criminalisation of anticipated future dissent. Elites rightly fear the fragility of the global system and the consequences of deepening inequality.
Again the upcoming Olympics provide a glimpse into the paranoid ruling mindset today. The organisers of the 2012 event recently chose The Clash’s “London Calling” in an ad campaign. The song is a snarling, rousing vision of social breakdown and dismay. Hardly the stuff of Olympic dreams.
A wonderful example of the real spilling into the spectacle of mega-events. These events already blur the boundaries between theatre and security. Mass displays of police and military reiterate State power as much as they’re about public safety. We are meant to look on and remember who is in charge. We are meant to remain onlookers rather than agents ourselves. We are not supposed to participate. Or storm the pitch.
Which is precisely what’s been happening this year. Wall Street. Tahir square. Both the form and indignation of protests have surprised state security. For now. In the case of Egypt, repression has backfired. A liberal call for elections has escalated into radical demands after the military crackdown. Protesters describe the army as a cancer to be removed. In the US, imagery of unarmed people attacked by riot police has meant massive coverage for the Occupations.
What is potentially revolutionary is the multiplication of transnational links, through the internet and smart phones, allowing vivid connections between different national struggles across the world. People are putting their situations together and seeing common denominators of oppression. Once those insights spread, genuine change is possible. State repression is ever more deadly. The ferocity unleashed across the world, in Greece, in American cities, in Hangberg, in Egypt, is what happens when rulers and their allies are challenged.