Commentary  Arresting anonymity

The criminalization of dissent

Last weekend, 55,000 students, workers, and community members marched against the provincial governments’ planned austerity measures, including tuition increases. Before the march began, police officers on horseback surrounded a group of protesters dressed in black, arresting ten of them “preemptively.”

With individuals rounded up before the protest had even begun, there is no doubt that this mass arrest was the result of social and political profiling. This is the criminalization of dissenting bodies: the targeting of the unidentifiable, anonymous bodies of the black bloc.

Surveillance of protests allows for dissenting bodies to be integrated into security databases – categorizing and systematizing identities. In the security industry they call this “biometrics”: your fingerprints, your face, your retinas, the way you walk, or the way you talk.

The arrest of these ten individuals, whether or not charges are brought against them, served as a way to gain information. By arresting and interrogating these individuals, their identities were revealed.  Furthermore, their bail conditions stipulate that they cannot “associate,” destroying their ability to organize dissent or even have a frank conversation about what is going on.

Regardless of whether one agrees with black bloc tactics – which, in their attempts at direct action against violent systems of oppression, are often extremely confrontational – it is important to consider the broader implications of this arrest.

When we say that this surveillance controls and stifles dissent, it isn’t just limited to those who were arrested. Marchers apparently pointed out the bloc to police, and moved out of the way when police moved in. Those marchers who did this were unmasked, not protected by anonymity. The price of solidarity is raised every time your picture is taken or your identification asked for.

This form of preemptive arrest sets a precedent for future protests. It also instils fear in communities and sets restrictions on who can protest, and in what ways.

The ability to organize is destroyed when those making systemic critiques are separated, bodily, from others. Unions agree to police their own members, or risk riot cops showing up in force.

But it isn’t just about protecting dissent – or protecting dissenting bodies. We must ask: What are they fighting against?

The visibility of the black bloc, their conspicuous presence, their refusal to be viewed as anything but dissenting voices and bodies, is a good start to explaining this fight. We can see it as critique of a system that seeks to keep things going the way they are going, through knowledge about bodies.

When the black bloc shows up at many protests, without specific signs or explicit affiliation with organizations, they refuse a system that seeks to organize our bodies into disconnected interest groups: some care about austerity, others care about the environment, others still about prisons.

It’s also a refusal to be inserted into those processes where the habits and behaviours of bodies are examined and catalogued in order to make them more productive within the current juncture of capitalism: the management of “human resources.” Our time, energy, and creativity integrated into the creation of value.

The protest last weekend was against austerity. Austerity sucks the life out of the few structures of support that help us get through the working day and allow us to hope for something more – education, health care, utilities. It’s the piling of more and more pressures on the body. Class power is extended and perpetuated at the expense of people’s bodies.

This forces us more and more to manage our own bodies, to try to increase our productivity to pay off rising rents, rising food prices, student loans, and health costs. This imposed self-regulation of our bodies means more stress, more anxiety, more wear and tear.

Austerity becomes one more pressure in a system where we already see the slow wearing-out and death of poor people, racialized people, queer people, disabled people – those facing the many forms of violence manifested through systems of dominance and exploitation.

Which is why it seems so important to have a black bloc at a protest against austerity.  It is a form of protest that represents an attempt to reclaim the bodily sovereignty lost under the constant, invasive gaze of surveillance, and ravaged by capitalism’s relentless colonization of our bodies and lives.

Even if you disagree with its tactics, the anonymity of the black bloc challenges a system that relies on knowledge about bodies. The criminalization of anonymity threatens everyone’s ability to dissent. ο