Resistance through Surveillance?
‘Among the obligations of the state’s highest official is the job of informing the nation regularly by means of the radio about his activities and their justification. The task of the radio does not end, however, with the transmission of these reports.
Beyond this, it must organise the collection of reports, i.e. it must transform the reports of those who govern into responses to the questions of those governed. Radio must make exchange possible.
Should you consider this utopian, then I ask you to reflect on the reasons why it is utopian.’
Bertolt Brecht, 'Radio as a Communications Apparatus' (1927)
I don't think it lessens the force of the various critiques of the G20 'riot' from participants and non-participants if we acknowledge that we missed a trick here somewhere. One of the most irksome things about the day itself, other than the kettling of course, was its overwhelming mediatisation. That had already been signalled by whoever wrote the Zizekian graffito 'enjoy your spectacle!' on the steps of the Royal Exchange, and is fully, depressingly visible in the images of photographers outnumbering crusties as the windows of RBS were smashed in. And yet, while there's still no question that as an attempt to provide direct resistance to capital (which, as I tried to argue before, was not really the point - these things are self-described 'street parties', self-governing encampments or attempted temporary autonomous zones, not Make Poverty History-style Oedipal 'protests', and need to be judged on their own terms, which are deficient in a very different way) the G20 manifestations have, almost accidentally, generated the biggest archive of police brutality seen in this country since the Miners Strike.
This is still a failure, as capitalism as an economic system and as a totality, partly through its most symbolic citadel (and that symbolism is deeply dated), the Bank of England, was the target. But nonetheless, for the majority of the population, the police have always been the people who help you if you're burgled, who you want as 'bobbies on the beat', occasionally disdained as the dozy plod but certainly not thought of as a paramilitary force like the French CRS. The record of police brutality as it affected Brixton or Toxteth, Orgreave or Wapping, has never quite been mainstream. In this case it suddenly has gone mainstream, and the reasons for this are inextricably to do with both the police's own desire not to be surveilled, and the self-surveillance in which we all now indulge. First of all, this record was compiled soon after a law was passed making it effectively illegal to photograph a policeman if a connection, however tenuous, could be established between their activities and 'the war on terror'. I noticed myself when trying to get out of the kettle with a press pass how anyone, be they American cameramen or South African news anchors, were subject to its strictures, enormously pissing them off - but to make an exception for them would totally destroy the kettle's overwhelming logic - many press people were kept in for 7 hours. Secondly, the record was not just compiled or distributed by the usual suspects. Much as I wouldn't want to slag off the likes of Indymedia (glad they do what they do, etc), what is noticeable about this is the unexpected uses of mainstream new media.
Usually, when people film political events on their cameraphones or budget DV cameras, it's to put a macabre spin on events where the trajectory is already known in advance. Nothing new about the 7/7 bomb attacks came out of the commuters' self-surveillance other than the bleak vistas of lines of people filing along tube tunnels, making jerkily, grainily clear something we already knew was latent. Yet these acts of political tourism, self-surveillance, call them what you will, have given us a record of policemen whacking women in the face, crashing with their shields into crowds of climate campers with their hands in the air chanting 'this is not a riot', of beaten photographers in orange visibility vests, Police Medics with truncheons raised, and most obviously, in the act of manslaughter, all of them viewed by thousands on YouTube. And although there has indisputably been a rise in the level of police aggression over the last year, there's little new here. What is new is that we now have the record, and can hold them to it, and these records are documented by entirely mainstream news sources. This isn't just based on photography and film, but the slippages in the ego-projections of the social networking sites - Facebook messages incriminate coppers out for 'beating up some long haired hippys', marchers asked to spy have evidence against their would-be spymasters.
In all this we can see outlines of the media-as-response envisaged by Bertolt Brecht at the turn of the 1930s, the democratisation of the technological apparatus creating the possibility for 'responses of the governed', presaging the total democratisation not just of art, but of the media in its widest form. We should be careful not to get carried away, as this has huge limitations - as anyone who recalls Los Angeles 1991 could attest - and the conspiratorially minded could fairly consider the whole thing a cover-up to save the bankers, the armed guard of capital setting itself up as one gigantic patsy. Nonetheless, not only have we seen media usually employed for inane self-promotion suddenly turned into a self-surveillance turned outwards at those who obsessively survey us, we have also ensured that the next time this happens - as it will - there's a chance we can break out of the old circuits, as police tactics will be very, very closely scrutinised. That's if we use the opportunity as something other than proof of our own righteousness.