Sociology professor Lesley J Wood examines how and why the practices and strategies of North American policing agencies have shifted in the last twenty years when policing protests. From the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine.
- Why write this book and is it relevant to British readers?
Elites use the police to maintain their power, so understanding their operations seems relevant. The police have weapons and powers to control the population – especially people of colour, immigrants and poor people. As more people take to the streets in North America and the UK they face an increasingly militarised, interventionist police strategy. British police experts are promoting this strategy and its reliance on intelligence-led decision- making internationally. Mixed with the US police love of militarised toys, we’ve got a deadly combination.
2. What is the strategic incapacitation model of protest policing now routinely employed for large-scale, uncooperative protests?
One that views unpredictable protest as a threat to institutions and systems that are central to the state or capitalism, and as such must be eliminated or contained. This leads police to focus on worst-case scenarios and infiltrate, contain and militarise their response to social movements. You can see this strategy in Ferguson, Missouri with the armoured personnel carriers, riot units and less lethal weapons like flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets.Or in the attempt to control the movement of protesters through kettling or the security walls around G8 summits.
3. What impact are civilian-based oversight/investigative bodies having on handling complaints by protestors about police actions?
Oversight bodies can’t challenge the fundamental problem. The police are operating as part of an unjust system and any armed group given legitimacy by that system is likely to end up being racist, violent and corrupt. But, crucially, they keep the pressure on by challenging the police who thus find it harder to demand massive budgets in anticipation of protests. They encourage critical discussions about what sort of tools and technologies are legitimate, so oversight bodies save lives.
4. How important are international policing conferences and networks in diffusing ‘best practice’ ideas within the global policing field?
They are key in spreading the strategic incapacitation framework. These conferences have grown rapidly and are spaces where dominant players – the NYPD’s, the RCMPs and Metropolitan Police Services of the world - offer their expertise to smaller forces. They are often sponsored by corporate sponsors from the security and defence industries. There were 750 exhibitors at the most recent International Association of Chiefs of Police conference. These conferences and their legitimacy encourages the adoption of particular technologies and further remove police decision-making from the people who will be policed.
5) How has the widening of the definition of terrorism to include social movement activity impacted on the policing of protests?
The UK broadened its terrorism in 2000 to include “the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public….made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause and involving or causes serious violence against a person, property or an electronic system.”
Such a definition is broad enough to be used against strikes, property destruction, disruption of institutions or corporations or blocking roads. Even David Anderson QC, the official reviewer of counter-terrorism laws, has expressed fears. Following the UK’s lead other states broadened their definitions. These are being employed against G20 summit protesters, Kurdish activists in Turkey, Brazilian anti-World Cup demonstrators and Oklahoma activists who dared to hang a glitter-covered banner protesting at the Keystone XL pipeline. Such definitions help justify increased funds for police, intelligence gathering and more repression.