Saturday, September 18, 2010

On Security Culture: A Critique

       This another in a line of articles that I wrote for the Arise! journal during the period of the anti-globalization movement.  For those who haven't read the earlier entry, the journal was a periodical tied to the collectively run bookshop.  My interest was to move the newsletter to take a more critical role, to become a space in which activists could critically discuss the practices and ideas of the movement, possibly an untenable goal given the public format of the journal.  This entry was the most discussed and provocative of the essays that I wrote.  It led to a number of conversations, as well as a very angry and incoherent rant on my voice mail.  I've left it largely untouched with the exception of cutting out a footnote on primitivism that I feel is largely polemical and unproductive at this point.

      In addition, this article shouldn't be taken as a critique of security culture, per se.  There are many moments when the techniques developed under that name allow for more productive actions, and the legal ramifications of direct action have only become more drastic since the article has been written.  The article is a critique of the way that those often necessary and productive techniques were used to legitimate micro-structures of exclusion and domination.  I think these are not simply faults that a small group of bad people possess.  Instead, they indicate a set of behaviors that we are all capable of.  In that, it's part of a process of considering the importance of the means of how we engage in activism, a set of practices that invariably shape the ends of what comes out of that organizing and activism.

On Security Culture: A Critique

     Within a number of activist circles, the concept of security culture has become an important one in regulating the behavior of activists. This creates a series of practices that are legitimized on the logic of preventing an external threat from disrupting the efforts of activists to resist the current state of things. There are a number of arguments that examine the question from this angle, asking whether this culture is sufficient in achieving this end, whether the methods of security culture are being used properly, etc. In effect we have a discussion that works within the ideological logic of security culture itself.

     These are interesting questions and in the case certain types of illegal direct action, crucial questions, but I am interested in asking a different set of questions, that is what does the series of practices constituted under the rubric of security culture do to internal relations within activist communities? I will argue that in effect, that security culture acts to produce privileged and unprivileged actors within activist projects. That the privileged actors to some extent constitute an inside, and those who are unprivileged acts as an outside. This process operates by the control of information, those who are trusted and inside are allowed to know more of what is happening than those who are outside. The last premise is that this mode of security culture allows for those inside to have a number of means to punish those on the outside.

      So, how does a series of practices that are designed for a single expressed purpose, to avoid prosecution and infiltration, become, in effect, an informal methodology of sovereignty? Well to understand that, we need to first look at what constitutes an inside and an outside within this logic. In effect, we need to look at the cultural formation that the activist circles that adopt security culture take.

     Within this article, I am interested at looking at security culture within the confines of two overlapping formations. The first formation is a type of anarchist politics that emphasizes spontaneity and illegal direct action politics. The second formation is a type of DiY punk culture. So in effect, the individual who is inside is marked by a number of signs that are based on a manner of dress, age, and political expressions. These signs form a simultaneous dress and speech code that demarcates the individual in question as legitimate.

     This inside is in some ways a far more exclusionary one than within traditional left politics through its very informality. After all, there is no party doctrine or code to critique. Instead we are left with a certain form of cultural and political sameness that constitutes a certain hegemonic formation. And this formation can be seen to have two distinct qualities, 1. It is very young. One rarely finds individuals over the age of 25 at the informal social gatherings of said communities 2. It is primarily white. It is not that there is a de jure exclusion of individuals that fit those patterns; rather it is a more insidious de facto exclusion. What constitutes a ‘militant’ or a ‘radical’ is constituted within very narrow categories.

      It is at this point that security culture steps back in. It acts as a sort of enforcement device of this inside. To point to a rather extreme example of this type of enforcement, a friend of mine was trying to become involved within some of the organizing around Mayday. The trouble was that he was middle-aged, dressed in a manner that made him look not that much different than the average person on the street, and he had a mustache. This immediately gave him the label ‘cop’. Now this individual, who is an anarchist, and had been involved in direct action politics when his accusers were in grade school, simply threw up his hands in disgust and left.

     I would argue that the example that I gave is the phenomenon at its most pathological, but it can be seen in a number of everyday examples that are considerably more naturalized. Instead of looking at any number of activities that I was to some extent outside of, I’ll examine something that I was involved in at a privileged inside position, the formation and the organizational politics of ROAR (Radical Offensive Against Racism). ROAR was formed when a number of individuals (primarily anarchists) wanted to be involved in protesting the Ku Klux Klan/Neo-Nazi rally occurring late in the summer of 2001, but had no interest in the official organization because of the personalities, ideologies, and tactics of its lead organizers. Ironically, when I initially started discussions with others in forming what would become ROAR, my ideas of what the group should become were open and democratic. The moment of the Klan rally should be used as a rallying point to push white radical anti-authoritarian activists into realizing that anti-racist activism had to be built on actual relations with activists of color in the context of concrete political projects. This of course, failed miserably.

     Instead, ROAR became a creature of insiderism and security culture. The meetings were effectively structured within a layered manner. First there were the open public meetings. Obviously these were limited as well, being that one had to go to the locations where they were advertised, street or internet, but anyone could walk off the street and come in. The second layer was the meetings that occurred afterwards over pizza and beers that were primarily designed to discuss tactics of the day itself. These were events that you effectively had to be invited to attend the later meetings. The third layer consisted of a number of small gatherings to come up with details on security or tactics. This layout is a bit schematic and doesn’t capture the nuances that were involved in planning, but it works as an approximate overview.

     This type of layering organizing can be seen frequently at the organizing of these types of anti-authoritarian protests. They in effect act as a sort of informal parody of the Leninist model, moving from the mass meetings of the popular front group to the meetings of the party subaltern to the inner-sanctum of the central committee. The fact that it is organized informally, based on friend networks and cultural markings doesn’t make it any less exclusionary.

     The tactics that were envisioned at those meetings followed the same logic. They were in fact a logic of putschism. The tactics that we theorized were built on a model that showed no confidence with the greater attendees of the demonstration. After all, every outside face is a potential police officer waiting to pop out. In that we came up with increasingly elaborate strategies of stopping the klan rally before it even started. We came up with structures that had no members to them. More significantly, because of our informal closed-door system, we wound up terrifying the hell out of a number of the demonstrators because they only saw the militancy of our propaganda, which emphasized attacking the klan rather than disrupting the event.

     Most depressing was the fact that we neglected the things that were most built upon mass participation. For instance, we had planned a concert for the day before the protest, but only a couple members did the work, and many neighborhoods were not fliered for the event. The discussions around the event only took place at the initial public meetings, and only briefly at that.[1] It would be a mistake to call the show that we had a failure, but it certainly held more potential than was actualized.

     This actually does relate back to the issues of security culture directly. It does because security culture is a logic that emphasizes keeping out the outsider, the “other.” There is a certain logic to it off course when one is about to do something illegal, but the trouble is that is has leaked into a whole range of other activist practices. In this case, it led to less emphasis to what could be a way of bringing people outside of traditional activist communities into the project of anti-racist politics.
     The ironic thing about this whole series of events is that ROAR’s role in the demonstration was fairly successful, but only because of the utter failure of our plans. Instead of playing at guerilla war, we wound up forming an ad hoc group that pushed out klan supporters out of the demonstration, working with a group of Latino punks, old ARA folks, and a kid who terrified the Nazis by speaking to them in German. We, in effect, did what I originally intended to do in the end, but all the hours of planning that we did, were completely wasted.

     What I wanted to capture in my discussion is the way that security culture legitimized and even created a climate of exclusion. Within this context, security culture created something along the lines of a slightly more sophisticated clubhouse, with the sign “keep out” firmly in place. I’ve seen this numerous times within activism. All it has managed to do is alienate people, keep number small, and spawn a whole series of unproductive demonstration and actions. The meeting of ROAR primarily succeeded in creating a closed community, with its own pathologies and hierarchies. This circled wagon approach also lead to attacks on activists who were critical of the project of ROAR, following in the tradition of ARA who also often took a similar, “you’re either with us or against us attitude.”
     I use the example of ROAR precisely because it doesn’t contain any of the excesses that I have heard around security culture. To point to those moments would be to allow security culture off the hook. After all, one could say that security culture within the day to day lives of activism is acceptable, but not under the excessive terms that the moments in the article suggest, but I want to go farther and argue that with few exceptions[2], security culture is far more damaging than it is productive. I think that ultimately security culture has been a hindrance upon us, as that it has kept us limited to a small community. We will need to take considerable risks, with personal issues, with security, etc. in order to expand beyond it.

     But beyond that, perhaps the most dangerous phenomenon connected with security culture is the exteriorriolization of problems. This has had comic effects such as the blaming of undercover police for the failure to raise the tripod at Mayday 2000[3], but it has had much more serious impacts on the practice and organization of the people engaged in security culture. It has allowed for the serious contradictions lying at the heart of our projects to flourish unnoticed and unexamined. We must recognize that ‘the enemy’, the society we so pathologically try to keep out, is already there. We were raised in its schools, families, and other institutions. We must recognize it in ourselves.
     This construction of the other also allows for certain individuals to accumulate the power to control through these mechanisms. For instance, security culture puts a great deal of emphasis on the policing of language, ranging from what is permissible to say to who one can speak to concerning these issues. These rules are frequently manipulated in order for individuals to quiet others, and enforce certain orthodoxies.

     Just as frequently, this mechanism becomes an isolating one, freezing people’s speech concerning controversial and dangerous topics. For example, the disastrous ISAG[4] protest was heavily marred by the use of security culture.[5] There was a lack of communication on the part of tactics; trainings were canceled because of police presence, etc. The result was that the protest was under-prepared and chaotic. Also, the large amount of allies that were sympathetic to the anarchist community, although not a part of it (what the old Leninists referred to as “fellow travelers”) were notably absent as they were in abundance at the Mayday demonstration earlier in the summer. This drastic use of said tactics also didn’t keep 50 undercover police officers from participated in the protest. And afterwards, criticisms of the demonstration were frozen out of discussions within large gatherings, and tended to occur within personal discussion. It took over a year to admit that the demonstration was a complete failure.

     But more significantly, shot through the ISAG protest and beyond, this logic became extraordinarily exclusionary. Protests were organized by small cliques of individuals who left out any outside participation same small, grainy, photocopied fliers that demanded attendance. One could see both ‘security culture’ as control and ‘security culture’ as universal fear could be seen in abundance. It became a way to enforce certain cultural and ideological codes, and a way freezing any criticism of those codes. The height of security culture became perversely, the culture of insecurity.

     There is a certain irony in this critique as that the era of security culture as a cultural dominant has come to an end, but I still think that the critique has value. The more militant tactics taken up between the Seattle WTO protests and their suspension after 9-11 point towards far stronger possibilities than the older, more traditional formations of protest. However, as old assumptions were questioned within that period, new assumptions were created and were often as destructive as the old ones were if not more. The point is that as we return to militancy, we challenge and do not replicate the forms of hierarchy and exclusion that were allowed under the cloak of security culture. The question will our militancy be based on the sprawling potential power seen in Seattle, Washington D.C. and other places, or will it be based on the closed sad militancy of the terrorist cell.

[1] There is another way of approaching this critique that would focus on the overemphasis on confrontational politics on the part of contemporary anarchist politics, but that will have to wait. There is also a critique that can be made concerning the neglect that activists often make concerning more boring and prosaic activities that nonetheless are essential, this will also wait.

[2] Those exceptions dealing with illegal direct action sabotage, I should note that, overall, my experience with the use of security culture tactics at large demos has been one of failure.

[3] For those not at the event, a number of activists tried put up a tripod in the middle of an intersection during the Mayday march of 2000. The attempt failed because neither the blac bloc nor the rest of the protesters were warned about the raising of said tripod. Typically, at the time, this was blamed on shady characters instead.

[4] The International Society of Animal Genetics held its conference within the Twin Cities in the late-summer/early autumn of 2000. Direct action street protests were organized in response. The expected national turnout didn’t pan out, and there were very few demonstrators, perhaps 150. The disaster around this protest lead to the freezing of the militant spirit that had came out of the Mayday demonstration.

[5] I should note that there was very little chance of ISAG being a successful protest. Some 600 police officers were at the demonstration, dressed in full riot gear, armed with batons, tear gas, beanbag guns, and pepper spray. However, I will still argue that if the preparations were more open, the event could have attracted more people, and simply could have been less disastrous.

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