Reflections on the blockade of IMARC, police violence and how to act politically against it.
For a few days in late October, protesters attempted to shut down the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) because fuck mining and capitalist resource extraction as it murders Indigenous peoples, devastates the environment and creates the conditions for the world to burn. Numbers weren’t large enough and tactics not fluid enough* to be entirely successful but there was significant disruption.
And so the police went hard. And people were staunch. And the police went harder. I’ve been up close with plenty of scenes of police violence and even still it was distressing as I stood there unable to see – having lost my glasses in the scuffles – but hearing people wailing and being sick from the effects of copious amounts of capsicum spray used viciously at close quarters.
So lets say that the police violence that occurred at IMARC was for me, and i’m sure many others, exceptional. And lets hold that for a moment and recognise it as subjectively true. Maybe you’re a little more fearful of going to demos in future. Maybe your body is still a little banged up. Maybe you’re exploring different forms of militancy for next time. Maybe you have the legal system to deal with now. Maybe you had a real light-bulb ACAB moment and it feels a little exciting/ liberating. Maybe you had to deal with depression and anxiety in the period following. Maybe some/all of these things happened in various combinations. And all of them (and many more) are real and valid. Hopefully you’re having good debriefs and chats with trusted crews.
Also, lets recognise that these situations where subjective experiences are transmitted into a shared moment of collectivity are significant. By the end of the IMARC protests, the often articulated disdain for the police became a viscerally understood basis of commonality and – although there wasn’t too much we could do to act on it in that moment – it still felt powerful. The issue now becomes one of not diminishing that sense of power or allowing it to be channelled back into the arms of the State through appeals to the ‘right to demonstrate’ and liberal suggestions that police violence is unacceptable when it is deployed against ‘well-intentioned’ protesters. Instead, how we choose to politicise our response to state repression and police violence – giving real consideration to the scope and purpose of how it is deployed – can become a point of connected-ness and solidarity because, if not everybody, a lot of people do hate the fucking police.
*(‘Be Water’ scream the streets of Hong Kong, as everyone here shrugs their shoulders and proceeds to render our collective mass immobile and entirely at the mercy of a vindictive and tooled up, blue army. But this article is not conceived as a discussion about tactics, we’ll have those in other spaces. For now, let’s just agree that we hate the police together and think about what that means politically.)
Exceptional state violence, all the time
Just a couple of weeks after the IMARC protests, police burst into a house in the Northern Territory community of Yuendumu and shot dead a young Aboriginal man, Kumanjayi Walker. The murder of Walker reinforces what all of us should already understand: that exceptional state violence (murder) is mostly unexceptional, commonplace. We have come up in a country where the resistance of First Nations’ people has ensured that ‘deaths in custody’ isn’t just a phrase describing how things are, but a site of struggle. We have also seen that the use of that phrase is unceasing, with new names constantly being added to the list. This constant state violence is a reminder – if one was needed – that the police are institutionally an occupying, colonial force that continues to treat Indigenous communities and bodies as abject and exterminable.
It is not the legacy of colonial genocide that sees the police continuing to murder and brutalise Indigenous people – that would suggest that there is a separation of sorts between policing and colonialism. No. The police have always been, and remain, integral as the armed enforcers who control, discipline and murder those that aren’t easily incorporated into the ‘order’ of capitalist, colonial states (a point that I’ll return to later). Indigenous peoples bear the brunt of this as their unceded, sovereign relationship to country ensures that their existence will always be a problem for the State’s righteous claims to sovereign rule.
State violence such as murder is not exceptional, it is recurrent and normalised within the logic of colonialism. But there’s something else that goes missing when we position policing as ordinarily neutral or as not being violent until they murder someone (or use horses, capsicum spray, batons on protesters). That is, the ‘ordinary’ presence of police amongst Indigenous communities (or at protests) is only established on the grounds of prior acts of violence and its accepted ordinariness functions through the continuous threat of further violence – a threat that is often enough carried out. Their violence is their existence: the ever-present, watching and disciplining, colonial, patriarch.
The community of Yuendumu knows this violent presence well, having been one the communities impacted by the militarised incursion into Indigenous communities that the Australian government called the Northern Territory Intervention. That military operation might have lacked the outright violence of carpet-bombing or massacres, but through bureaucratic intercession managed to position policing and state control at the centre of NT Aboriginal communities. Amy Thomas has described in more detail the implementation of these repressive measures backed by increased policing, arguing that the government’s idea of a solution to the fallout wrought by two centuries of racism, dispossession and genocide, “was the free market, delivered by the State’s jackboot”. All this occurred against the communities’ recommendations for resolving their own issues and with the obvious corollary of being a land-grab to facilitate further exploitative resource extraction.
The point here is to demonstrate a trajectory that contextualises the police violence at IMARC within the broader violence of the colonial state. It is to follow Natasha Lennard’s argument (in ‘Riots for Black Life’ from this book). that “even the rhetoric of police turning violent during a specific protest ignores that policing, as an institution in this country, functions as a force of consistent violence against black life”. Lennard is a white writer writing from the USA, but it is clear that this quote is directly applicable to policing here. So, even as we tend to our wounds and trauma, we can step back from the police violence at IMARC to recognise it as relatively unexceptional when considered next to the violence of police murdering Aborginal people. And from there, we can step back again to recognise that police violence isn’t only about these most brutal moments, but is established as a permanent presence in the ongoing functioning of the colonial state.
A constant state of exception
A few days after the IMARC protests had finished, one mainstream news channel reported from the police academy about a series of training exercises that the riot squad were undertaking in relation to dealing with crowd control and riotous situations. The riot squad spokesperson, speaking to camera, makes reference to new tactics as well as “keeping it contemporary”, through paying attention to what’s going on around the world (and mentioning how “they” – all of us who’ll have every reason to be in confrontation with the police/state – have evolving tactics as well). What we should glean from hearing this is the awareness that those in positions of authority have that this conjunction of crises (environmental, economic) is entirely global and that the upsurge in resistance around the world could potentially occur here. Even in this country, where protest tends to be polite, placid and un-threatening, there is the expectation that we aren’t more than a trigger away from seeing an upsurge in militant resistance that mirrors so many other parts of the world.
While the capitalist drive to profit and resource accumulation has always and consistently generated social crises, any suggestion that this is merely part of inevitable, cyclical periods of calm-upheaval-calm, is being exposed as one uprising leaks into the next, crossing diverse geographical and geo-political terrain (some articles about different uprisings here, here, here and here). And of course, the unalterable nature of environmental destruction and climate change ensures no realistic endpoint can be envisaged within the current systems. In this context, policing takes on an ever-more totalising role in the protection of wealth and state power. Not simply the armed thugs, they are in fact the guarantors of the State’s existence and are leveraging the importance of that position to gain more power and resources.
Within this situation, the feared upheavals to “our (white Australia’s) way of life” caused by social, economic and environmental disorder is used as a mandate to ensure a constant state of exception that allows the State to assign itself (and the police) ever more authority and the means to enforce it. As such, the police’s capacity for violence is multiplied through new laws, increased powers, hi-tech weaponry and in simply being a constant presence. This follows the Invisible Committee’s line that the police are “the persistent and constant expression of the state of exception – that which every sovereign wishes it could hide, but which it is regularly forced to exhibit in order to make itself feared”. In the current climate of crisis-afflicted governance, the state of exception becomes the norm and the full repressive apparatus of the police is permanently mobilised against more and more people.
We should note here that crisis and the state of exception are not the same thing, but they do have something of a symbiotic relationship. The key difference being that we are the crisis, while a state of exception is what the State introduces in its attempts to establish ‘order’ against unruly populations. There is a symmetrical interplay to this: as this system throws our lives into crisis by only creating insecure and unsustainable forms of existence, we return the crisis to it through our acts of collective solidarity and struggle. These are varied in form, with no singular underlying cause or desired outcome (and certainly, at times, some of them provide space for the manifestation of reactionary forces) but they are part of an upsurge in resistance that threatens state power.
This multitude of diverse rebellions against the economic exploitation and environmental degradation inherent to colonisation and capitalism is now unceasing and cannot be retrained without even more excessive state violence. As the news reported from the police academy, it is the riot squad that is the fastest growing section of the police. This underscores the importance of their role as the government, business, intelligence agencies and police in this country are all aware that conditions are becoming less easily recoverable through typical governmental or capitalist strategies (such as the ‘green-washing’ of capitalism). And with that we are seeing increasing evidence of the constant state of exception.
Bringing an ACAB attitude, instead of ‘the right to demonstrate’
Within this larger context, to plead for the State to guarantee a ‘right to demonstrate’ or that police should be nicer towards protesters is to act out our resistance in a space that both – police and the government – are familiar with and in control of. It allows them to set the terms of engagement, appearing to be in dialogue with whatever dissent confronts it, but firmly drawing the line about what is allowable well short of anything that might threaten it. Instead of recognising the context of how the police are mobilised in this moment and acting politically to create space beyond that, the impulse tends to be to fallback into what is known and comfortable. It all has a similar resonance to proposing green capitalism as a response to climate change – a ‘solution’ that would allow all the same exploitative and destructive mechanisms of the market to remain while appearing to be doing something.
Situating our actions within this type of civil society discourse suggests that there is a level of equilibrium between ‘rights’ and policing that can be attained. As I have already argued, there is no ‘ordinary’ level of policing that does not serve a violent, murderous function. It is a mis-direction to plead for a ‘normality’ that cannot exist and which, in any case, is simply an incubator for the state violence that takes more overt forms now. And of course, any ‘normality’ that has previously existed was the normality of the white, colonial Australian state that perpetrates acts of genocide and dispossession against Aboriginal people. As such, asking the state for ‘rights’ in this way is simply giving legitimacy to the conditions of its sovereign rule.
There are, of course, occasions where creating a bit of room to manoeuvre within the current state apparatus is a required move. This is exemplified by Aboriginal resistance across this continent, where assertions of sovereignty and anti-colonial struggle challenge the very the basis of so-called Australia, but also necessarily occur alongside demands made of the state that seek to redress the violence perpetrated upon Indigenous bodies (see this powerful statement from the family of Tanya Day).
But lets be clear in differentiating this as a strategy from the almost instinctive ‘right to demonstrate’ insistence that occurs whenever protesters face police violence. Too often, when this demand is made after a protest, it reads as a desperate attempt to cling to the position of governable subject within liberal democracy. This subject position cannot simply be extended to Indigenous people (or refugees, or even certain other migrant groups), because their position in relation to the colonial state is peripheral, that of the dangerous ‘other’ that can barely be incorporated into the citizenry and so will always be something of a threat. When you have always been considered marginal, on the outside, it is a strategy of survival to fight for what those in the centre have and that is not a comparable situation.
Arguing for the ‘right to demonstrate’ quickly seems irrelevant next to the actual struggles for survival that are occurring on this continent and around the world. And while the impediments for Indigenous survival are most brutally exemplified in the murder of Walker and deaths in custody, it isn’t reducible to just these moments. It is about the entire apparatus of colonisation as administered by the State and enforced by the police. To be appealing to that same system to treat us better even as we know it cannot be salvaged is neither courageous nor an act of solidarity. It is to suggest that in protesting we are acting within the bounds of governablility, in such a way that will never seek to actually upturn it, and therefore should not be met with punishment. Rather than constraining the rebelliousness of our actions and the extent of our solidarity within the limits of liberal, civil society, maybe we could try pushing the commonality of that ACAB attitude we discovered and see what new alliances emerge from there.