Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

Review information

    Author
    Greg Elmer

    Affiliation
    Ryerson University

    Publication Date
    28 September 2012

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Peer-to-Peer Protesting: Evading the Police Kettle

Review of the Sukey app: http://www.sukey.org/

 

Since the WTO protests in Seattle and in particular the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) meeting in Miami Florida, police agencies around the world have assembled a set of practices and protocols to constrain and immobilize political protestors. Dubbed the Miami Model of protest policing – in recognition of the FTAA summit and its attendant post 9-11 security funding — such police techniques served to extend and enhance G.W. Bush’s controversial preemption doctrine.1

In Targets of Opportunity cultural critic Samuel Weber outlines perhaps one of the most pervasive epistemological implications of preemptive technologies and techniques – the development of media and information technologies that forgo the process of surveillance (narrowly defined as the process of collecting information), in favour of direct action, that is striking or destroying the object of its gaze.2 By de-coupling the notion of watching or gazing from liberal notions of learning or intelligence gathering,3 Weber provides for an instrumental understanding of visual regimes and contemporary surveillance technologies. For Weber, the technological eye is increasingly designed and deployed to visualize (locate), destroy and eliminate, thus removing any possible threat or risk.

The Miami model of protest policing has, likewise, incorporated a broad preemptive agenda to securitize various high profile events, namely political conventions and global summits. In so doing police have deployed a set of strategies to spatially displace and marginalize protestors, in effect preempting protestors from joining large rallies and marches. Such strategies have included the mis-direction of buses, mass arrests of activists and protest organizers in the days leading up to protests, and the establishment of designated “free speech zones” – typically spaces located miles away from the event or site under protest. Furthermore, in advance of the G20 summit in Toronto the city’s mayor actively dissuaded citizens from entering the downtown core, not so subtly communicating to city residents that it would be unsafe to do so.

Those citizens who do brave the pre-protest warnings by police and other officials and succeed in avoiding pre-surveillance arrest traps and police detention nevertheless face the most intimidating component of the Miami model of protest policing, the overwhelming presence of police – and not just everyday police officers but heavily militarized units. While the deployment of so-called less-lethal weaponry has been commonplace at such protests, weapons that have become all-too convenient means to control free speech, the sheer numbers of police officers deployed at political protests has also encouraged the encircling or “kettling” of protestors. While police often claim such tactics aid them in detaining and arresting violent offenders, a recent article in The Economist conversely highlighted the net political effect of the tactic: “the demonstrators are kept there until they’re too cold, hungry and tired to carry on with their protest”4

Increased awareness of – and opposition to – Miami model tactics, including kettling, has however forced law enforcement to revise and update many of their tactics in an effort to keep one step ahead of protestors, litigators, and legislatures concerned by police efforts at dangerously constricting the movement of protestors. The 2010 G20 summit in Toronto for example saw police charge through the “free speech zone” with horses and batons, beating and charging protestors. The growing use of smart phones, and other networked hand-held devices at protests and rallies – coupled with social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook – has moreover, produced a networked and real-time struggle between police and protestors, not just over “point of view truth-claims and evidence”, but over the police’s management of urban flows and temporalities – the underlying geo-political architecture that enables the preempting of dissent.

While much was made in the press about the manner in which Blackberry instant messenger was used by looters during last summer’s riots in London, peaceful protestors have for years been incorporating communications strategies into their tactics. Many civil society groups and social activists now routinely hold training workshops for their members, efforts that have spawned alternative media collectives or more ad hoc attempts to coordinate communication among protestors and organizers, while also trying to redress simplistic mainstream media reporting and PR tactics from police departments.

For those individuals and communities planning public protest, congested and spatially constricted cities such as New York and London pose particular safety concerns. Not surprisingly such centers of political activity and technological innovation have produced

smartphone apps specifically designed to outwit heavy handed police tactics. While IM, and micro blogging platforms like Twitter and other means of real time, mobile communications have served to coordinate and confront the spatial tactics of police during protests, such largely text-based platforms have offered limited spatial tools. Sukey, a mobile platform developed by computer programmers in the U.K., was designed to address this very limitation. Through the development of locative forms of data visualization (the incorporation of real-time maps), Sukey offers, simply, a way out, an exit from police kettles. Based upon GPS technology the smart phone software application works with Google Maps to aggregate and locate on a map socially mediated protestors – which is to say that like any other social media site it only works through peer-to-peer participation. The software in other words not only self-locates its user/protestor on a map, it also encourages its users to tag or otherwise locate evasive routes away from potential police kettles and dead ends.

In addition to the need for mass P2P participation, Sukey’s reliance on GPS poses other hurdles. GPS and its common map interfaces routinely offer incorrect or frustratingly imprecise locations, which the developers of Sukey themselves note commonly extends upwards of 50 metres. Given the narrow corridors and cramped urban environments that police commonly harness for their kettles and dead ends, a map-only interface could prove to be a disaster in the loud, tense and cramped conditions of urban protests. As new versions and code have emerged, Sukey has sought to integrate aggregated twitter reports to provide text based updates and tickers with warnings to individual users, thus lessening the reliance upon maps.

Some critics might be quick to label new protest tools like Sukey as counter-surveillant or better, sousveillant technologies – turning the eye back on police forces. And while there is some merit to such claims, such critiques fail to capture in the first instance at least Sukey’s disruptive element to the central logic of preemptive policing. Sukey, in short suggests a real-time form of crowd-sourcing and P2P, what we might call a crowd-evading platform that harnesses and socializes that which the preemptive doctrine has cast off – the process of intelligence gathering and collective dialogue. In so doing the Sukey platform suggests much more than a way in (to participate in public protests without fear of police violence) through a way out (exits from kettles). Rather the Sukey application resists and collectively evades the egregious forms of collective punishment that are preemptively enacted by police kettles, the effort to stifle freedom of assembly and dissent. Sukey in short, call for collective mobilization, communication and dissent to coalesce in real time through one platform, a techno-political platform that calls into question the use of police services and other public resources to constrain and punish dissent.

 

Bio

Greg Elmer is Bell Globemedia Research Chair at Ryerson University, Toronto. He is co-author of Preempting Dissent: The Politics of an Inevitable Future (with Andy Opel) and Infrastructure Critical: Sacrifice at the Toronto G20 (with Alessandra Renzi). Greg is currently co-directing (with Andy Opel) the feature documentary film Preempting Dissent: Policing the Crisis — one of the very first documentary films made exclusively with creative commons licensed media collected from media producers around the world.

References

  1. The doctrine is most commonly associated with G.W. Bush’s (2002) “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, White House, Washington, D.C.
  2. Weber, Samuel. (2005). Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking, New York: Fordham University Press.
  3. See also R. Shields interesting critique of the gaze and conceptualization of the glance (2004). “Visualicity: On Urban Visibility and Invisibility”, Visual Culture in Britain, 5:1, pp. 23-36.
  4. http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2011/01/demonstrations/
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