The Brooklyn Bridge case: how the police adapts to leaderless resistance

By criminalizing the movement, in other words, by equating active participation with the possibility of being processed criminally, the same “preventative” logic of policing is imposed on political speech. The idea, however, is not to prevent gang violence or other crimes, but to prevent political speech that questions the groundwork of the State. Leaderless resistance in this sense doesn’t figure at all: no matter what strategic and tactical method is uses, this response will happen. However, leaderless resistance has a specific weakness in this respect: the inability to protect participants from State criminalization. No team of lawyers, no bail fund, no clarity to participants on what can criminalize you or not. The kettling exploits this: by criminalizing behavior that normal citizens assume to be legal, and because leaderless resistance is unable to provide clarity to participants that kettling can happen, participation is limited to those willing and able to be subjected to criminalization.

The following article on police tactics is a mustread for those involved in the #OccupyWallStreet movement.

Excerpted from SKS:

The Brooklyn Bridge kettle is a historic event: it represents both the first time in living memory that a mass disruptive action has happened in New York City that was pro-active in form: there is no RNC convention, there is no WTO meeting, there is nothing to fight for other than the atrocious malfeasance of the State and Wall Street.

It is also historic in that in represents a conscious shift in police tactics. For those who remember the “Guantanamo-on-the-Hudson” during the RNC protests in 2004, it is clear: while mass arrests did happen, they were the usual random snatching operations in a large scale street isolation. As such, violent tactics, such as the use of pepper guns and baton charges were the norm. Perhaps the most recent example in a mass movement of this set of tactics was the Pittsburgh G-20 protests in 2009 in which even sonic weapons were used. However, in those protests, already the first change of tactics was visible: two of the most dramatic events of the protest were the identification of passive plainclothes police among the protesters (not active provocateurs) and the preemptive dismantling of a media center, including the arrest of those behind one of the main Twitter accounts used for organizing (which was part of a months long intelligence operation).

This “kinder and gentler” approach has its roots in contemporary policing theory, and had its first essay in the London kettles in fall of 2010. Some of the same tactics first used there were clear in the Brooklyn Bridge kettle.

Let’s give a short overview of the ones I find significant:

1) Tactical assumption of a lack of leadership in the protest. While politically and even on terms of prosecution they wouldn’t admit this, the police didn’t try to snatch particular leaders from the protest as they would normally; this pragmatic approach to dealing with the situation is novel and proved very effective to their ends. In London, this allowed easier kettling by tricking naive and idealistic people into moving in the direction the cops wanted, to then kettle them. In the Brooklyn Bridge incident, this was semi-successful: apparently the majority of the people saw the obvious trap and side-stepped the police. Still, hundreds fell for it. In effect, since there are no leaders, the police become the leadership, de facto.

2) Use of high-ranking officers in the front-lines. One of the origins of the Police Riot, which is what often leads to the most violent actions on the part of the Police in mass situations. In the Brooklyn Bridge kettle, nearly all the front-line officers present were “white shirts” or officers of Lieutenant rank and above. While Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna earlier provided a one-man Police Riot, he is indeed a rotten apple: white shirts are often the cooler heads under pressure, and in the videos you can see open chastising on the part of these white shirts to even lower rank white shirts. This also a pragmatic recognition on the part of the Police of the non-violent, yet provocative, nature of the protest: they do not expect violent actions on the part of the mass – they do expect a few cops to lose their cool and riot, with the consequential spectacle in the media. This robs the mass action of the provocative intent of civil disobedience: since the State’s reaction is pedestrian and “acceptable”, there is no message transmitted. The medium of mass civil disobedience is robbed of its only effect. The cops win, not the movement.

3) The measured proportionality of action. Until recently, the tactics of mass policing in the western world were based on intimidation and control via overwhelming force. The use of non-lethal weaponry, the massed deployment of physically imposing riot police on exotic steroids, the use of provocateurs and active counter-intelligence. This has given way to a more proportional and surgical utilization of what they call “the quiver”: all of the options previously available are still available, but not deployed. In the recent English riots, this perspective gave way to much criticism on the part of right wing elements who sustained that the police intervention was ineffective. However, a careful look at the arrest and convictions show they doth protest too much. All of the people allegedly involved in murders during the riots have been indicted. Nearly all active participants, including those involved in minor crimes, have been arrested, indicted, and for the most part convicted. Turns out that the Police were not asleep at the wheel, or even overwhelmed: they switched from a tactic of direct control and intimidation to one of post-facto enforcement: essentially hitting participants when they least expected it. Rather than street fighting and running battles, the police chose CCTV video, and intelligence operations to get the participants. The result is even more effective than that of a running street battle from the perspective of the state.

With all this in mind, and with some further elaboration below, I think it safe to conclude that the Brooklyn Bridge kettle had a particular intent, all related to counter-intelligence:

1) De-articulation of the main base of the “Occupy Wall Street” camp. By successfully depopulating the main base, the police were able to isolate the committed participants in the infrastructure of the camp, the unaccountable true leadership of the movement. Like sifting sands for gold, the identification of the logistical leadership is priceless to future intervention. Those targeted should be very vigilant: they are no longer Anonymous. Leaderless resistance claims to solve this by allowing any compromise member to be taken over by another anonymous member, but the false egalitarianism promoted that we are all willing, able, and equally effective in any capacity is a lie. If this were true, we wouldn’t need surgeons or pilots because we would all be able to do it, without a need for skill, talent or willingness. If, say, Lorenzo, gets arrested, who will take over him? A model of leadership that identifies, protects, and prepares people for accountable leadership is less vulnerable in this respect.

2) The de facto Red Squad needed to update the databases. This movement has attracted lots of people who are new activists, unknown to the State. They needed to round them up and identify them, and in particular those willing to be arrested for the movement. Rounding them up in a diffuse open plan like that of the camp, or tediously using CCTV and on foot video for no crime cannot be justified. However, the process of booking is an intelligence coup. Not only are the databases updated, but new items added, biometric data collected, network analysis made. In effect, 700 arrests mean, 70,000 data routes for the average person, who knows 100 people or so. There is overlap, so obviously the number made vulnerable is not 70,000, but it will still be in the five figures. This is a counter-intelligence coup. Yes, we are Anonymous, we never forgive, we never forget. Neither does the State – and its power is underestimated. One of the claims of leaderless resistance is that since people do not actively conspire in cells or pyramids, it protects the independent cells. But as the Federal de-articulation of the North-west USA eco-cells (the Elves of the Earth Liberation Front) shows, there is no need for active conspiracy to connect the dots via social network analysis (and I do not mean Facebook: social networks are not a technology, it is how humans connect socially everywhere). In effect, the movement has provided the State with an intelligence head-start of great value – and did so because the leaderless resistance’s directionless approach failed to notify people of this consequence.

3) Separate the “hardcore” from “softcore” and from “nocore” activists. A key goal of counter-intelligence is to de-cohere movements so they implode. One of the methods used in the past is to take advantage of the inherent wedges within movements. The leaderless resistance model claims to solve this by eliminating hierarchy – but this is also a lie. The elimination of formal hierarchy doesn’t eliminate informal hierarchy of will, charisma, economic/racial/gender privilege and other such background hierarchies. In effect, counter-intelligence hoists the movement on its own petard in a pragmatic approach. This wedging is formally addressed in “leaderless resistance” theory as “weeding out the weak”, a sort of social-Darwinist process – but this is anathema to a true mass movement. The inherent elitism of “leaderless resistance” with the onus of dedication and self-sacrifice is exploited effectively by the state.

4) Criminalization. This is the most political of the goals. By criminalizing the movement, in other words, by equating active participation with the possibility of being processed criminally, the same “preventative” logic of policing is imposed on political speech. The idea, however, is not to prevent gang violence or other crimes, but to prevent political speech that questions the groundwork of the State. Leaderless resistance in this sense doesn’t figure at all: no matter what strategic and tactical method is uses, this response will happen. However, leaderless resistance has a specific weakness in this respect: the inability to protect participants from State criminalization. No team of lawyers, no bail fund, no clarity to participants on what can criminalize you or not. The kettling exploits this: by criminalizing behavior that normal citizens assume to be legal, and because leaderless resistance is unable to provide clarity to participants that kettling can happen, participation is limited to those willing and able to be subjected to criminalization. This has concrete effects: in many jobs, even a misdemeanor can get you fired, and definitely having to serve time and pay a fine is an economic hardship to the bulk of people.

1 Comment The Brooklyn Bridge case: how the police adapts to leaderless resistance

  1. markus petz

    Hmnn there is a lack of understanding about the origin of these police tactics – there is a much longer history of the German police using them and in response to the Black Block in that country – all the way back to the 1980s.

    There is also elements here that were seen in the Battle of Orgreave in the UK in the early 1980s. OK in neither of these cases was it called “kettling”. In the US I don’t know the history so well, but I would be suspicious of any claims that this is something new or that leaderless resistance is really new. For example the book Gangs of New York shows the part that street gangs and “the mob” played in political aspects in New York in the Victorian period – yes there were gang bosses, but it was very much leaderless resistance from certain Districts like 5 Points rather than a co-ordinated struggle.

    Aspects are also captured in fiction – for example the film The Warriors.

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