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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Human Chain as a Non-Violent Weapon


One of the main weapons of non-violent uprisings are human chains. The latter's power is, as with all chains, its continuous physical form: a line of protesters interlocking arms and blocking the mobility of state agents. This is the breathing, striving material form of a collective body unified in its aim to wrest space from the control of the state. Paul Virilio wrote that “a place changes in quality according to the facility with which it can be crossed” (Bunker Archaeology, p.19). Human chains qualitatively transform and politicize space because they make it hard for state agents to move, cross that space, and control it. This striation explicitly made against the state may in most cases be purely local and temporary; but it can disrupt the fake smoothness of corporate space deeply enough to expand, as it happened at Davis, the spatial reach of insurrections.

The pepper-spraying of protesters sitting on the ground with their interlocked arms at the UC Davis campus made apparent the physical and affective power of this bodily weapon. This is a form in which bodies are no longer dispersed but become interconnected nodes within a physically continuous assemblage. Only a few days earlier, the police had tried to violently disarticulate the solidity of exactly the same type of assemblage at UC Berkeley, recurrently hitting it with batons. In both Davis and Berkeley, individual bodies on the chain were hurt and the chain was briefly shaken. But the spatial striation was not broken. Furthermore, the affective shock generated by the images of violence on bodies that were in no position to cause harm provided the insurrection with a formidable media weapon.

The images of the UC Davis police officer calmly pepper-spraying human bodies as if they were insects went viral because the most defining feature of the human chain is that it is defensive in nature (see this great piece by Rei Terada). By interlocking and immobilizing the main parts of the human body that can be used to cause physical harm, arms and hands, this is an assemblage that because of its form cannot be a source of violence. And human chains that sit on the ground make this defensiveness even more apparent, for even the legs of protesters are purposely immobilized.

Few images affect more than images of violence inflicted on people who are clearly unable and unwilling to inflict harm. And this power is enhanced when those people offer their bodies to be targets of the violence of the state without intention to strike back. The courage and discipline of the bodies making up the chain at UC Davis reveal the determination that guides the occupy movement. But that the pepper-spraying backfired does not mean that the chemical violence against the human chain was random or irrational. The police officer, following orders, attacked the chain because of its power to prevent the state from having full control of the local terrain. Those interlocked bodies partly diminished the state’s capacity to act and move. It is therefore not surprising that the UC Berkeley Chancellor argued, in a brilliant illustration of Orwellian double-speak, that the formation of a human chain at Berkeley was “not non-violent” and, therefore, that it was violent. Officials are often keen to redefine violence not as the production of bodily harm but as the interruption of the mobility of state agents and capital. For the state, anything that disrupts its spatial flow is framed as “violent” and therefore in need of eradication by state violence.



Human chains have a long historical genealogy. In being created by people firmly grabbing each other’s bodies, this form materializes the multitude as a physically interlocked entity made up of multiplicities. This collective chain was made famous in the United States by Martin Luther King claiming space from state repression. Human chains were also central to the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, where protesters created more solid, hard-to-break assemblages by protecting their inter-locked and chained arms with long tubes. The relative resilience of this form was key in its power to shut down key street intersections and access to the buildings hosting the WTO on the first day of the protests. And some of the images of police officers calmly pepper-spraying human chains sitting on the ground in Seattle anticipate the spatial and bodily composition we now see recreated, twelve years later, at Davis.

The physical fragility of the form of the human chain is certainly that of the human body. Its efficacy is therefore lower in authoritarian political contexts. Under conditions of state terror, the state can easily destroy human chains and turn them into lines of corpses. If the human chain at UC Davis had been formed in Cairo, it is likely that some of those students would be now dead or severely wounded. The over 30 deadly victims of state violence in Egypt in the last few days speak volumes of the uneven terrains in which the global insurrection unfolds. Yet both cases differ in degree, not in substance. The teargas and weapons used to hurt and kill protesters in Egypt are “made in USA.” And in both Egypt and the US the state is determined to suppress dissent by dispersing those collective bodily forms that prevent the state from controlling space. The shock and disbelief that many Americans have expressed at the surge of police violence against the occupy movement (“This can’t happen in America!”) also reveals that they have been affectively secluded from the fact that the US government has always been ready to unleash deadly violence to protect capitalist interests, at home and abroad. It is to be seen, given the growing unrest, whether state violence in the US streets remains non-deadly for too long. The Obama administration, it should not be forgotten, recently declared that it has the right, using its sole discretion, to kill citizens deemed enemies of the state in the name of the state of exception.

The dismantling by the police of the node of resonance in Liberty Park in New York only seems to have accelerated the spread of the rebellion and its adoption of even more rhizomic, mobile, unstable, unpredictable lines of spatial expansion. This expansion is leading to the creation of myriad human chains to protect encampments, to prevent families whose homes are foreclosed by banks from being evicted by the police, and to shut down banks, corporate offices, and university buildings. The occupation of everywhere is no longer just a slogan but an actual physical struggle for the control of myriad nodes of the national and global space. And one of the main weapons the insurrection relies on to challenge the police in public space has been the human chains that striate the smoothness of state space. The other fundamental weapon have been the images of state agents trying to violently disrupt these collective spatial occupations. The police attack on the human chain at UC Davis has triggered a massive call to occupy the whole of the spatial fabric of the University of California system on November 28. And yesterday in New Hampshire, protesters were able to reach the body of the President for the first time: by interrupting his morally empty speech with a "mic check!" and by handing him a note telling him that his silence condones state violence on peaceful protesters. The occupation of spaces on the terrain continues unabated and has even reached the tightly secluded, scripted eyes and ears of the Head of State.

The most important moment of the pepper-spray incident was not the act of chemical violence now immortalized in popular culture; it was the reaction of the multitude that surrounded the human chain and was deeply affected by an attack that they could personally see, hear, smell, and touch (it is worth watching the video of the whole sequence in detail). For several minutes and without interruption, the whole of the space was saturated with screams, cries, and chants of “shame on you! shame on you!” aimed at the cops. The chants gained momentum and made an indignant yet composed multitude slowly move onto the space held by the police. At one point, the cops could not but slowly begin retreating. But they did not retreat orderly, in a straight line and facing ahead, following formal training procedures. They backed away gradually but in relative disarray, looking nervous, intimidated, confused. Many moved their heads left and right, as if waiting for an unexpected attack. A few raised their guns, as if they were fearful soldiers on an imperial patrol chased by savages, moving in a terrain made hostile by a sonic and bodily saturation they did not understand. But the protesters were only armed with myriad filming devices pointed at them, the resonance of their chants, and the physical form of their massive numbers occupying space. After the police had been slowly retreating for several minutes, the chants shifted to "Whose university? Our university!" The final chant was the coup de grace. And it was an order: "You can go! You can go! You can go!" The police officers promptly obeyed the loud command to abandon that space that emanated from the multitude. They turned around and went away, relieved it was over. The students cheered and chanted, "Whose quad? Our quad!" They had secured, with the help of the human chain, the occupation of UC Davis.

4 comments:

  1. One thing is that, in this particular case, the chain actually didn't hinder the cops' movement. They could (and did) easily step over the students. As a barricade, the human chain here was entirely symbolic.

    Meanwhile, re. the second half of that video, and the chants of "Shame on You," and thinking also of the now famous video of Katehi walking to her car, it really is extraordinary how affect has become a weapon in the student protests.

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  2. Great comments Jon, thanks. It's true that the chain did not fully deter movement, but I don't think it was purely "symbolic" either (at least in the conventional sense of the term). Its symbolism was inseparable from the bodily-spatial obstacle it created to protect the students' encampment. While relatively weak, it was nonetheless solid enough to make movement more difficult.

    And, indeed, you're right about affect emerging here as a clear political weapon.

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  3. Just FYI, you appear to have posted this twice.

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  4. Not related to current post, but wanted to let you know "Space and Politics" is included in an attempt at comprehensive anthropology blog list and through 31 December, can vote for 10 best anthropology blogs.

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