Beyond Spectacle – Increasingly Repressive Policing Calls for Greater Innovation at RNC & DNC

by Kris Hermes

Around the turn of the century, we saw a concerted effort by the state to stifle dissent. In the late 1990s, a new way of handling political protest was developed for milestone events of national importance, like the quadrennial Republican and Democratic conventions. Adopted by executive order under President Clinton, then later passed by Congress, the designation of National Special Security Event (NSSE) establishes a robust law enforcement apparatus with the FBI and U.S. Secret Service at the top of a multi-agency pyramid aimed at controlling free expression.

With the advent of the Global Justice movement and the effective protests in Seattle during the 1999 meetings of the World Trade Organization, a renewed focus on suppressing street actions and a new model for policing protest was born.

The 2000 Republican convention protests in Philadelphia gave then-Police Commissioner John Timoney the opportunity to develop this new policing model which is still used today. Coined by social scientists as a form of “Strategic Incapacitation,” the model uses a set of tactics that deliberately chills dissent, including heavy surveillance and infiltration, denial of protest permits, preemptive raids and arrests, indiscriminate police violence, mass unlawful arrests, and forms of preventive detention such as overcharging, high bail, and keeping activists detained longer than allowed under the rules of habeas corpus.

After becoming the Miami Police Chief in 2003, Timoney oversaw one of the most brutal responses to political protest in modern history during the Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations that year. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz called Timoney’s policing approach a “model for homeland security,” ushering in the repressive “Miami Model” which has been used to great effect ever since.

So, what does this mean for social movements and summit protests today?

Although the NSSE designation was not used against the Occupy Wall Street movement, nor has it been used against Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations, the militancy of these movements has been effective enough for the state to try to control and suppress them.

The police response to BLM activists has caused the movement to use more creative strategies and tactics in order to push back against such repression, including a proliferation of “cop-watching,” ongoing protests at police stations and precincts, unannounced mass civil disobedience on freeways and roadways across the country, and an unwillingness to be co-opted by established political and religious organizations.

The Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia this July will likely see the intersection of BLM-led protests and the NSSE law enforcement apparatus. There’s already been evidence of police spying on BLM activists, and it’s certain to get worse as the conventions approach. We will also see actions by the “Climate Justice” movement and, if militant enough, will undoubtedly draw an aggressive response from the state.

In the past, activists have relied on the element of “spectacle” at summit protests—dozens of TV News cameras and the public’s rapt attention—to broadcast the issues of the day. However, given the vast resources of the state and the increasingly repressive tactics used against dissidents, summit protests like the upcoming RNC and DNC must seize on more than just spectacle. Activist strategies and tactics need to be more innovative, confrontational and resistant to repression. We have to find ways to be in true solidarity with each other. Those with privilege need to better use their socio-economic positions for the benefit of others, especially activists who are commonly targeted by police such as known organizers, people of color, immigrants, and queer/trans folk.

The upcoming RNC and DNC also hold the opportunity to involve and engage people who live in areas surrounding the convention sites. Although it may be more work, we must endeavor to make connections between the millions spent by host cities (i.e. the taxpayers) and the failure to spend needed funds on their deteriorating social infrastructures.

Often missed by protest organizers is the network of labor needed to successfully host conventions and the inherent opportunity to involve and agitate workers who have the collective strength to withhold labor and/or sabotage the efforts of the political elite. Whether it’s bus drivers, food preparers and servers, or hotel workers, the opportunity to agitate can and should be exploited.

So, this summer don’t just join a march or rally. Use your political capital to resist the inevitably repressive response by police and push the envelope by designing ways of using the convention protests to truly advance our movements for social change.