Aotearoa’s Criminal (In)justice System. II: Repression and Resistance

[This is the second part of a two part post. You can find the previous post here, Section I: Imperialism and Insurgency]

Introduction

In 2015, three student activists disrupted the Auckland Pride Parade, in protest against the inclusion of Police and Corrections, two repressive state apparatuses that have historically decimated queer and trans lives, and continue to do so through the penitentiary system. One of the students, Emilie Rākete (a trans Maori woman), was forcibly removed by a security guard, her arm twisted to such an angle that it broke. She was placed into the custody of the police. Rather than grant her medical attention, the officer in charge (a heavyset white man) sat on her for an indefinite period of time (Hume 2015). In 2016, five hundred activists disrupted the Auckland Pride Parade (Yeoman 2016).

For me, that moment in 2015 outlined everything PAPA stood against. It was a moment where multiple axes of oppression coalesced; where the irruption of privilege and power burst out of the sham tagline “Safer Communities Together”; where, in stark display, a white male police officer assaulted a Maori trans woman, at a corporate-sponsored pride parade, while a crowd of affluent white queers cheered on.

In this section, I analyse police violence and its role in generating mass mobilisation. I explore Pride 2015 and its follow up in 2016, through political process theory, as outlined by McAdam (1982), and frame analysis, as outlined by Snow & Benford (1988). I touch on the Stonewall riots and end on alternative visions of society.

Political Process Theory and Frame Analysis

Political process theory posits that social movements are both political and continuous, “rational attempts by excluded groups to mobilize sufficient political leverage to advance collective interests through noninstitutionalized means” (McAdam 1982, pp. 36-37). Such a definition aligns with conflict theories such as Marxism and radical feminism, emphasising the efficacy of direct action over formal state procedures. Excluded groups, while individually weak, are structurally powerful for they have the capacity of halting the political/economic/cultural machinery through civil disobedience, strike action, occupation, and the like.

prison 2 16946470987_33c63106aa_z
McDonald Workers Protest against Zero Hour Contracts, 2015.

McAdam (1982) outlines three determining factors of mass mobilisation: i) The structure of political opportunities, ii) indigenous organisational strength, and iii) cognitive liberation. As political structures change, so too do the opportunities they afford. Modernisation, war, economic crises—these events destabilise the status quo and open up anomic gaps. Such change can lead to an increase in political leverage for the insurgent group, and thereby decrease the chance of state repression (for it becomes more costly to enact, both materially and symbolically). Indigenous organisational strength is dependent on the number of members, the solidary incentives on offer, the strength and breadth of communication networks, and the charisma and outreach of leaders. The last feature, cognitive liberation, refers to meaning-making. I may be backed by both a strong organisation and presented with a plethora of political opportunities, but if I do not know how to act, when to act, and for what purpose, I simply won’t. Cognitive liberation requires three steps: i) the loss of state legitimacy, ii) a demand for change, and iii) the realisation of one’s own capacity to enact change.

Frame analysis, as outlined by Snow & Benford (1988), contests and extends political process theory. Rather than see cognitive liberation (what Snow & Benford (1988) call framing) as the last step towards mass mobilisation, Snow and Benford see it as the generative framework towards identifying any opportunity at all. It is not so much that a grievance or opportunity objectively exists, but rather that they come to be viewed as such through our subjective orientations. For example, if we believe the world a meritocracy, growing inequality is simply an everyday fact of life. If, however, we connect inequality to the dismantlement of the welfare state and the shoring up of capital to a minority neoliberal elite, it becomes an immense social and political grievance—the antithesis of democracy.

prison 2 student occupation
Student occupation of the University of Otago registry against harsh disciplinary measures, 1972.

For Snow & Benford (1988), mass mobilisation requires the reframing of previously unquestioned norms. This requires three core tasks: i) diagnostic framing, ii) prognostic framing and iii) motivational framing. Diagnostic framing is the identification of a grievance and subsequent attribution of blame. Prognostic framing is the formulation of a solution, of strategies, tactics and targets. Motivational framing is the rationale for action and a call to arms. Similar to political process theory, I may know my grievance and the solution to it, but if I feel incapable of enacting the necessary change, I simply won’t. Consensus does not immediately lead to action. Beyond theoretical or experiential knowledge, I must feel empowered. Both McAdam (1982) and Snow & Benford (1988) stress the importance of this factor—of the solidarity-making required to generate mass mobilisation.

Stonewall, State Violence and Pride 2015

The Stonewall riots of 1969 led to queer pride in the face of police violence (Tie 2017). However, Pride 2015, like the living dead, rose against its creators. Stonewall’s mongrel burst of rage and ire was smothered corporate pink and white. The repressive State apparatuses that had spurred Pride’s oppositional inception were integrated into a family-friendly, ‘apolitical’ event. The student demonstration against Pride 2015 was a political opportunity to not only connect the parade and the penitentiary (sites of symbolic and material violence, respectively), but to also highlight the intersecting oppressions of class, race, gender and sexuality, that operated through both. Core to the intervention was the demystification of State violence; a reignition of rage and memory, in the hopes of connecting the grievances of the past with those of the present.

Radical queer activists taking to the streets after the Stonewall riots.
Radical queer activists taking to the streets after the Stonewall riots.

“No Pride in Prisons” began as a banner, a triple entendre signifying the shameful aestheticisation of queer emancipation, the shameful treatment of queer prisoners, the shameful practice of imprisonment. Stonewall Inn had catered to the most marginalised and poor of the queer community—“drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth” (Wikipedia 2017). Pride 2015 had white male officers handing out rubber bracelets to queer middle-class youths. While Pride 2015 formally celebrated queer diversity, it instantiated an assimilatory homonormativity, targeted at affluent cosmopolitan queers. The most marginalised and poor were nowhere to be seen as Pride marched down Ponsonby Road, “known for shopping and dining . . . stylish boutiques, independent bookshops and trendy cafes” (Google 2017).[1]

It’s little wonder that many in the crowd cheered as Emilie was manhandled and dragged away. A parade is predictable, a protest is not. Anomalies must be rid of so that ideological production can continue unhindered. Homonormativity, the expanded discursive parameters of what constitutes productive/docile bodies, guarantees the reproduction of capitalism through the assimilation of counter-hegemonic force. Whiteness without white skin, marriage without straightness, rebelliousness without rebellion. The aestheticisation of politics reframes liberal capitalism as emancipatory—“an image of happy harmony surrounded by desolation and horror” (Debord 1994, p. 63). Ethical purchasing, lifestyle consumerism, normative integration; direct action comes to be seen as the enemy of spectacular, market-based freedom.

At the same time, however, Emilie’s encounter with security and police exposed the very violence and oppression the three activists had come to contest. Gramsci’s concept of contradictory consciousness is useful in this instance (Eagleton 1994): I may believe that the State has a legitimate monopoly on violence but at the same time that what I’ve just witnessed is a terrible injustice. This experience may conflict with additional other narratives in my head: pacifism, police brutality, mistrust of government. Through dialectical sublation, I may come to reframe the State as a terrible grievance that must be rid of.

Emilie and other PAPA members confronted by the police during the Auckland Pride Parade, 2015.
Emilie and other PAPA members confronted by the police during the Auckland Pride Parade, 2015.

Alternative Visions, Mass Mobilisation and Pride 2016

2016 saw the spontaneous outburst of the prior year reconfigured into a well-organised and coordinated protest, with banners and chants, and members capable of quick mobilisation, occupation and blockade. While Aotearoa’s political structure remained unchanged, the organisational strength of the now named No Pride in Prisons increased dramatically. In an interview I conducted with Ti Lamusse (research coordinator of PAPA), Ti outlined that while PAPA is committed to radicalising ordinary people, numbers initially came from pre-existing activists. Adding to this, I have heard from fellow Ōtepoti activists that multiple members of PAPA belong to the International Socialist Organisation (ISO). The upsurge in numbers, from three to five hundred, can be partially attributed to “established lines of interaction” (McAdam 1982, p. 44). ISO’s enduring presence, along with that of student activists at the University of Auckland, likely contributes to the continuing operation of an underground radical network.

While both Ti and I believe Emilie’s encounter was pivotal in generating outrage, Ti mentioned it alone would not have been enough to spur change. Beyond exposing and critiquing an issue, an alternative vision must be proposed—one in which everyday people can feel empowered enough to bring about, least they fall into reformism or fatalism (Snow & Benford 1988). Specifically, Ti argues we must look to already-existing alternatives (Tie 2017), real utopias in the here and now (Wright 2010). The pragmatism of Marxism grounds postmodern temporality, revisioning utopia as already arrived, but displaced by the haunt of Western imperialism. Decolonisation frees indigeneity from arresting orientalism, not in the hopes of returning to a lost past, but of rather, reclaiming the present. Such a framing shifts intentionality to the present, granting performative weight to the subject’s everyday routines, and thus, political responsibility. Emancipation becomes not only a right, but an obligation.

PAPA badge design.
PAPA badge design.

The chant “police are violent, we won’t be silenced” provides both diagnostic and prognostic frames. There is often not enough time on protests, however, to present an alternative vision. The spectacle of resistance then, must fascinate onlookers enough to generate further personal enquiry. Outside of protests, PAPA has developed a strong motivational frame through zines, interviews and speeches. Their most recent publication delves into transformative justice, an alternative approach to the status quo, which sees interpersonal conflict as inextricably linked to social grievances, rather than (biologically) essential individual traits (PAPA 2017a, 3-4). Particularly challenging is the idea that, if we wish to reform transgressors, we should support them, rather than throw them into a violent, dehumanising space. Criminality and harm are revisioned as socially produced—symptoms of a failing community. Both transgressor and community then, must be transformed, least the future repeat the devastations of the past.

Conclusion

Cognitive liberation requires the alignment of all three frames: knowledge of prisons and police as violent, a rejection of punitive justice for transformative justice, and, most importantly, the belief that mass mobilisation can bring about systemic change. I have explored the history of the penitentiary in Aotearoa in the hopes of generating exactly that—change. History has yet to depart us—it haunts our institutions like a vengeful spirit, burning with centuries old rage. It never will depart us. Layers of trauma lie beneath the psychic landscape of Aotearoa—knowledges and cultures repressed by a violent imperialistic machine, so powerful it has nearly effaced our ability to imagine alternatives to it. This machine is breaking apart our communities, lacerating the minds of our whanau, friends and coworkers, and creating untold death, destitution and hatred across the world. A better world is necessary, for the sake of everyone trapped within the gilded cage of neoliberal consumer capitalism—and this better world will not come about through the State.

badge1-2


Footnotes
1. Fran Wilde, the first female mayor of Wellington, said at Pride 2016 “I think it’s good there’s a lot of young people here, and families. That’s really good. I mean, this is kind of almost middle New Zealand, isn’t it? And that’s how it should be.” (Yeoman, 2016).

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