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We Must Fight Repression With Solidarity — Not by Replicating Carceral Logic

A new tool helps activists think through the material impacts of the language we use to talk about protest and backlash.

People march against Israel's war on Gaza during a pro-Palestinian demonstration on May 11, 2024, in Orlando, Florida.

In June, a Florida appeals court upheld Gov. Ron DeSantis’s anti-rioting law. The law, which both increases penalties for existing crimes and creates new crimes aimed at, in DeSantis’s words, ending “the bullying and intimidation tactics of the radical left,” was challenged in a lawsuit that argued it would undermine free speech rights of protesters. The appeals court decided the law, which DeSantis championed as a response to the 2020 George Floyd rebellion, is acceptable, because further criminalizing protest that is “disruptive,” “violent,” or can injure people or property is distinguishable from “the peaceful, nonviolent exercise of First Amendment rights.”

DeSantis’s anti-rioting law is part of a significant trend, with jurisdictions across the U.S. considering and passing new legislation that enhances criminalization of protest tactics, such as blocking sidewalks or highways, wearing masks, or damaging monuments, and threatens social movement groups by targeting their financial transactions.

In times like these, the way we talk about repression is immensely important, and can generate norms that determine how we do, or don’t, practice solidarity. Recent waves of mobilization against the genocide of Palestinians — including the widespread public protests targeting politicians and weapons manufacturers, and the student encampments — give us an opportunity to improve the way we talk about resistance and repression.

When journalists, defense attorneys, organizers, academics, and others comment on resistance actions and the police responses, too often we lead with harmful liberal tropes that divide protesters into the “defensible” and “indefensible.”

In trying to justify resistance actions and criticize criminalization of protesters, we frequently use talking points that inadvertently undermine our struggles.

Assertions, such as, “This is not what our justice system looks like,” give cover to the persistent racism and arbitrary lawlessness inherent to colonial legal systems.

One way this happens is when our talking points legitimize repressive institutions like the police and the U.S. legal system as a whole. Another is when they isolate people who use bold resistance tactics, making them more vulnerable to attacks. A third is when they erase connections between current patterns of criminalization and the long histories of political repression that precede them.

When commentators present a current instance of repression as exceptional, it suggests that the legal system is usually fair and neutral. Assertions, such as, “This is not what our justice system looks like,” or “This is a threat to our democracy” give cover to the persistent racism and arbitrary lawlessness inherent to colonial legal systems here and elsewhere.

Similarly, invoking First Amendment rights implies that freedom of speech and assembly are universal and this instance is a shocking exception, which perpetuates a mythos that U.S. law has ever universally granted such rights. On the contrary, there is no actual commitment to freedom of speech or assembly in the U.S. Rather, liberals and conservatives alike invoke rights frameworks and constitutionalism to legitimize a legal system born out of and created to facilitate colonialism, white supremacy and ecocidal capitalist extraction.

Using terms like “peaceful” and “nonviolent” to describe protests perpetuates the fiction that following restrictive rules and norms laid out by the very systems we seek to dismantle could ever be the correct way to resist.

Talking points that separate “good” protesters from “bad” ones undermine movement solidarity. Using terms like “peaceful” and “nonviolent” to describe protests actually facilitates our opponents’ work to divide and conquer our movements. This kind of language wrongly implies that some people in the resistance movement actually deserve repression, and perpetuates the fiction that following restrictive rules and norms laid out by the very systems we seek to dismantle could ever be the correct or effective way to resist.

Since it is usually the police and prosecutors who apply labels like “violent” (meanwhile perpetuating brutal violence), we should be wary of adopting these distinctions to defend people in our movements. As mobilization heightens in the face of rising fascism, ecological crisis, genocide, worsening poverty, displacement and desperation, we particularly need to stand up for people who use bold tactics to resist, including illegal tactics. And as Peter Gelderloos reminds us, “If we find an effective tactic of resistance, they will turn it into a crime.”

It is understandable that most of us fall into these anti-solidarity talking points as a knee-jerk reaction, trying to legitimize resistance in the face of criminalization. And lawyers sometimes have to make these arguments inside the framework of laws and rules to get relief for an individual. However, the material costs of reproducing these liberal tropes beyond those specific moments of individual advocacy are high. People who take big risks and use bold tactics during moments of uprising often experience isolation or stigmatization instead of support. Many people arrested in 2020 (and many prior uprisings) are still behind bars, and we need a movement-wide commitment to supporting them.

Narratives about “peaceful protest” also encourage “peace policing” at protests, where activists actually try to prevent others from using bold tactics, and, at worst, bring police attention to those who are taking direct action.

Advocates making misguided arguments that distinguish the “deserving” from the “undeserving,” the “good” from the “bad,” can lead to further crackdowns on those deemed undeserving, from immigration enforcement to criminalization of all kinds. For this reason, carceral abolitionists have cautioned us away from such arguments, and demonstrated that we are more effective at beating back systems of control when we resist the pull to present some targeted people and protest tactics as exceptional or more permissible at the expense of others. Our job is to attack systems of criminalization and dismantle them, not reproduce discourses about how they can be refined to target the “correct” people.

Our job is to attack systems of criminalization and dismantle them, not reproduce discourses about how they can be refined to target the “correct” people.

To avoid some of these anti-solidarity pitfalls when we are talking about repression, we can take a few simple steps. First, we can avoid words like “peaceful” and “nonviolent” when describing protests, so that we stop endorsing the criminalization of some people in resistance movements to argue for the palatability of others. We should know by now that when they build apparatuses of repression based on boogeymen, they willingly sweep up everyone else in the resistance movement with their sharpened tools.

Second, we can invoke the long histories of repression which current efforts continue, rather than exceptionalizing the current moment and portraying the legal system as usually fair and just. Every chance to comment on repression is a chance to let people know about COINTELPRO, the Green Scare, the “war on terror” targeting of Muslim people and organizations, and countless other examples that have created the repression playbook that is coming down on us now. Sharing that information is a vital form of political education that exposes the illegitimacy of the legal system and the connections between all of our struggles for freedom.

Third, we can avoid distinguishing a group we are part of or advocating for from other resistance fighters in ways that throw them under the bus or contribute to damaging tropes. For example, when our opponents trot out their boogeyman terms, saying that the people they want to criminalize are “terrorists,” “anarchists,” “Black radicals” or “outside agitators,” rather than saying, “No they aren’t” or “Not everyone there was,” we should comment on the illegitimacy of what the police and prosecutors are doing, and reiterate what our people are fighting for.

This newly released tool from Community Justice Exchange, which I co-authored, provides some questions to ask about how we frame resistance and repression. The questions aim to help any of us root out these liberal anti-solidarity talking points. It can be as simple as asking ourselves, “Does this statement divide people engaged in resistance into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘violent’ and ‘nonviolent’?”

The stakes are high, and will only get higher as the crises we face become more catastrophic while our opponents further criminalize our resistance strategies. Now is a time to bring greater rigor to our practices of solidarity.

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