Enforcing ‘civility’ in Pittsburgh

Nearly all is quiet today in Pittsburgh. Only the groaning over the most recent heartbreaking Steelers' loss breaks the silence.

The G-20 Summit concluded on Friday, so too the street clashes between the police and some of the G-20 protesters. The sirens now sound less frequently, and mirror the rhythms of violence and illness specific to the city, not the workings of the security-surveillance apparatus as it disciplines the burghers. The locals can be thankful Allegheny County's Long Range Acoustical Device can no longer be heard at all.

What remains of the G-20 for the Steel City?

For one thing, Western Pennsylvania's talk radio goons are working hard to keep the recent spectacle alive and present within the collective memory of the region. Their effort in this matter was to be expected. This is what they do, after all. They rouse the rabble by focusing on something disturbing or by creating a creating a disturbance when reality proves stingy in that regard. It is their job! They get a paycheck for it. Thus, it would be silly to expect them to say anything good about the anarchists who behaved so 'badly' last week, that is, who proved themselves willing to contend with the city's well-armed, well-fortified and militarized police forces while relying on the "weapons of the weak" available to them. In this they physically defied America's garrison state in the making. They refused to recognize the authority it claims for itself and implicitly appealed to the rights granted to them and to every American citizen by the Bill of Rights.

For another thing, the talk radio goons also want to defend the political repression that characterized the state's use of its policing powers in Pittsburgh. Why would these 'liberty loving' folk support the political use of the police? They seemingly did so because they despised the anarchists and everything for which the anarchists stand.

I believe this because the deeds, words and intentions of the anarchists made one thing clear to the goons: The anarchists belong to that social category — "the other" — which sits well beyond the fringe that separates the American from the non-American, the the friend from the enemy, the "one-of-us" from "one-of-them." The anarchists are "strangers" living among the 'real' Americans — living vicariously and illicitly among the 'producers. This, in any case, is the political space where the talk show goons and their followers want to place the anarchists and near to the place where, one suspects, the anarchists would place themselves.

While something like political peace has returned to the Steel City, looks can be deceiving.

Peacefulness does not imply civility! I say this because one crucial element of a modern civil society — the rule of law — had a bad time of it during the Summit. Events during the past week revealed once again that, in the United States today, the rule of law has given way, in part, to the rule by law. It has ceded ground to this kind of authoritarianism because the contest between the strong and the weak has become especially lopsided, to paraphrase Stephen Holmes (2003, 23). It is so lopsided that it is not even close to being a fair contest. Not everyone is subject to the law equally nor does every citizen participate equally in the creation and use of public power. This imbalance tends to make the law a technique of elite governance, not an expression of a democratically ordered, legally rational form of self-government. It transforms the law of a democracy into a repressive tool.

Thus, America's recent return to the imperial presidency, which it allegedly tamed when the Congress humiliated Richard Nixon and which surely looked dead after the Clinton impeachment. "Alas, the obituaries were premature," as Arthur Schlesinger observed in the latest edition (2004, ix) of his critical book on the problem.

How could the imperial presidency die when this is the America of, among other things, The Patriot Act, The Protect America Act, The John W. Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2006, The FISA Amendments Act of 2008, but also the America of preventative war, enhanced interrogation techniques or torture, extraordinary renditions, of an extensive prison system along with those laws that have made a prison system of this magnitude inevitable (e.g. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and The Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994). These legal mechanisms reveal that the United States has traded a generalizable concept of liberty for class-specific and therefore partial forms of security.

Barack Obama is only the latest executive charged with enforcing the prerogatives and operations of the neoliberal system. He has not often or effectively acted to reverse this trend towards governing the country through fear-mongering and its security-surveillance apparatus. Nor, most notably, has he worked to bring to justice America's torturers and those who authorized these illegal practices. The symbolic effect of Obama's act of omission is easy to discern. Despite the bombastic law and order sermons given by so many of America's political candidates since the 1960s, the Obama administration has already proved itself soft on crime when the criminals at issue sport white collars or khaki uniforms. The Obama administration thus prefers stability over rational legality. For some, crime pays.

Obama's discretion in this should surprise no one who has thought much about the matter. A law and order regime in the United States was always meant only for the "many" that lack self-discipline and the power needed to defend themselves; those few who sit atop the heap are mostly and thus effectively exempt from the limits set by the law when it is a matter of their meeting their system-consistent role obligations. Their effective restraints are few. They are deemed too big to fail and too powerful to bring to justice by those who also are too big and too powerful. Any threat to them and their power amounts to a system threat, and will thus not be tolerated by those charged with defending the system.

From the defense of the Bush administration's position on state secrets, habeas corpus, the Obama administration has already compiled a sorry record with respect to its handling of matters of right and justice. Should we be surprised, then, by the near state of siege or martial law that prevailed in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit? No. As a matter of fact, the situation on the ground in Pittsburgh during the Summit was not one of which Obama was at all ashamed. He seemed pleased by the fact that the G-20 protesters in Pittsburgh were not overly disruptive when compared to their predecessors. He did not comment on the police harassment of the Climate Convergence Project, the Seeds of Peace Collective and the use of the legal system to deny those who would protest the G-20 their rights to protest. He nevertheless treated Pittsburgh as though the city and its economy reflected the kind of world the G-20 wanted to promote.

Pittsburgh, in Obama's hands, was a Phoenix that rose from the post-industrial wasteland and achieved a regional renewal around the new economy. It counts as a neoliberal success story — a model city, as it were.

Ironically the Pittsburgh of the G-20 Summit was a neoliberal success story insofar as the American state could deploy its despotic powers to suppress a counter-public and its politics and this use of the state's powers is consistent with neoliberal dogma and practice.

The recent militarization of everyday life in Pittsburgh became apparent to me early on since I am a resident of the Western Pennsylvanian region and travel often enough to downtown Pittsburgh. By Wednesday (9.23), the security forces in the city had placed the David L. Lawrence Center within a 'secure' environment. They gave the Summit this kind of environment even though the protesters posed no significant physical threat to the conference participants or, for that matter, to the people of Pittsburgh. (Presumably, the security forces were also defending the Center and the Summit against a terrorist attack meant to eliminate the G-20 leaders, although it is unclear how effective this security would have been if it had to contend with a motivated and well-equipped terrorist group.) In other words, the state of siege seemingly was meant not to provide only for the physical security of the Summit participants but also to present a spectacle that represented to the world the power at their command and their comparative unaccountability to the pöbel. The messages this spectacle conveyed to the protesters in Pittsburgh, to the observers of the Summit and its environment as well as to those individuals who might choose to protest any future official event:

  • Do not protest
  • Do not speak you mind in public
  • Do not act politically
  • Do not act autonomously
  • Do not threaten the system in any way

The American legal system actually colluded in the construction of this spectacle by authorizing the militarized police forces to act as they did. The repression observed in Pittsburgh was legal, more or less. The protesters had a legally secure opportunity to protest. Yet, the repression would be characterized best as an instance of rule by law. Had the rule of law prevailed during the Summit and with respect to the protesters, then the protesters would not have had to fight for every bit of public space they had wanted, whether legally or illegally. The protests, rather, would have been a part of the Summit, and would have been included in the Summit even if the Summit organizers had kept the protesters from entering the Convention Center. Their recognition and inclusion would have made present a faction of a global civil society that the Summit did not and even refused to include. Thus, the early appearance of a political wasteland in the city.

There is, I believe, no reason to expect a return to the rule of law in Pittsburgh or in any other part of the country. Rule by force, through fear and for the sake of elite security remain an implicit feature of the American political system. Political passivity is the goal, especially when that passivity is imposed on the left. But, a pacified society need not be a civil society. It can be a society intimidated by the use of force, rendered dumb by incomprehension and hopelessness and prone to believe that the powerful stand as the real master of its fate.

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