PM Press author and legal/media activist Kris Hermes spoke at Groundwork Books Friday evening about the ways that activists can use the legal system to push back against state repression. Drawing on his experience organizing with ACT UP and against the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Kris described collective strategies that dissidents planning an action or caught up in the legal system could implement to avoid or reduce charges, including jail solidarity such as withholding identity, clogging up the court system by demanding a jury trial and refusing to plead out, and developing a coordinated media strategy that paints a sympathetic picture of activists and their cause for the general public.
Kris' book “Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000” describes the development of a new model for policing dissidents (as a response to the then growing anti-globalization movement) engineered by then-police chief of Philadelphia John Timoney, including pervasive surveillance and infiltration, pre-emptive arrests of activists, aggressive, violent, behavior at protests, and trumped up charges to weaken political movements. Philadelphia was a particularly apt location to develop the model because of its history of violent, over-the-top policing, such as in its highly illegal and outrageous repression of the MOVE organization.
Timoney went on to apply that model in policing the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami in 2003 (captured in the epic Indymedia Film “The Miami Model”) and is now a consultant to the dictators in Bahrain, who with Timoney's assistance are suppressing a liberation movement that came to the fore during the “Arab Spring.” Kris argued that elements of this policing model are prominent in the repression of recent movements in the u.s., including Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
In the wake of repression of protests at the 2000 RNC, a legal collective composed of law students, attorneys and activists and led by defendants was formed to provide support for and coordinate collective actions in interacting with the injustice system. The collective resistance of hundreds of activists charged with misdemeanors in support of 43 dissidents charged with felonies resulted in a situation where almost all charges were dropped and no activists spent any time in jail beyond their initial arrests.
In response to questions, Kris gave a brief history of repression of resistance, going back to Hoover's establishment of the f.b.i., cointelpro, the public reaction to cointelpro that resulted in a more gentle strategic management, and the development of the “Miami Model” approach that Kris documents. (To which could be added the earlier and recurring role of private security, such as the Pinkerton Agency, in policing dissidents and the origin of dissident policing, public and private, in capturing escaped slaves.)
The discussion touched on a number of issues of local interest. Several participants noted the role of the university in suppressing student movements, including Black Lives Matter; complicity in promoting the racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist and ableist oppressive academic environment, citing the 2010 Compton Cookout racism crisis; and the close ties of UCSD with repressive organizations such as c.i.a., f.b.i. and n.s.a. Experienced activists talked about the resistance to the 1996 RNC in San Diego, which brought out an almost unprecedented thousands of protesters, and the plan to hold the 1972 RNC in San Diego – because of very strong Black, Chicanx, and Native American liberation movements in the region, the elites freaked out, and developed elaborate plans to kidnap key activists, but ultimately moved the convention to Miami. The collective resistance of hunger-striking prisoners under the most difficult circumstances at Pelican Bay and Guantanamo was cited as a source of inspiration.
A question was raised about the positive role that smart phones and social media can play in organizing. Kris responded by acknowledging that such tools can be useful for organizing some categories of actions that don't put the organizers in legal jeopardy, but cautioned that reliance on these tools limits what can be done to push against the system.
Despite the well-documented pervasive surveillance of electronic communications and the documented widespread infiltration of dissident organizations, activists mostly seem to have lost the careful security culture and organizing within tightly-knit affinity groups that were common features of resistance fifteen years ago. Perhaps revitalization of security culture appropriate for the current repressive situation could expand opportunities for effective resistance.
The event was organized by Groundwork books and co-sponsored by San Diego Indymedia.
Groundwork Books is a worker-run co-operative at UC San Diego founded in 1968. It is “a political collective and non-profit book store that stocks radical, social justice, progressive and socialist literature. Groundwork is working toward social change to enable people to take control of their own lives.” Groundwork organizes a books for prisoners project.
The San Diego Independent Media Center is an anarchist collective founded in 2001 “seeking to collaborate with communities and activists to challenge all forms of illegitimate authority using technology, the internet and all means at our disposal.” San Diego Indymedia runs an open publishing web site controlled by members of the community rather than multinational corporations, is part of a worldwide network of Independent Media Centers, and organizes ~monthly media- and community-related events.