Preempting Dissent

Cover of 'Preempting Dissent' book
The Preempting Dissent documentary builds on the book of the same name: you might also want to read ‘Infrastructure Critical’ for more on the Toronto G20.

Today I went to an advance screening and Q&A on Preempting Dissent, about the application of the ‘Miami model’ of policing to the G20 protests in Toronto.

The documentary started with an overview of changes to policing tactics in North America, looking at how Giuliani’s ‘broken window’ theory got applied to protest policing: no loss of control should be allowed, lest it get out of hand. In particular, following the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle police have begun to treat events which might attract protest as national security events. The US PATRIOT act exacerbated this tendency, with a further shutting-down of the space for protest.

The ‘Miami model’ includes cooperation between police and federal agencies; extensive surveillance in the lead-up to protests, including raids on meeting spaces, preemptive arrests and searches; the (mis)use of ‘less than lethal‘ weapons during protests; and the development of ‘free speech zones’ which separate protesters from events and contain them.

Preempting Dissent points out that a Canadian government investigation has acknowledged that protesters had no way to know in advance that the police were enacting previous wartime legislation to, in effect, bring in martial law during the G20. Even protesters who took care to educate themselves about the law surrounding protests ‘had no way of knowing they were walking into a trap’.

A line of riot police with helmets and shields
Image by Joshua Scott

The documentary ends by talking about the need to challenge the ‘security logic’ that underpins the Miami model of policing. In the Q&A session afterwards Greg Elmer talked about the need to move away from planned events which lead to protesters walking into a trap, suggesting that more mobile and fluid protest tactics are one way of responding to changes in policing. He also emphasised the need to respond to intimidation tactics which try to scare protesters off the streets.

One of the questions about the shift from surveillance to preemption brought up an important point: that ‘surveillance’ often isn’t about information-gathering. It’s simply another form of intimidation, a way of letting activists know that they’re being watched, and of undermining organisation. The discussion session brought up quite a few other interesting issues: the need to consider race (and particularly racism) when thinking about the dynamics of protest policing; the ethics of showing images of protesters in the current surveillance environment; and the ethics of making sensitive footage available under a creative commons license which might allow for problematic uses.

There was also some useful sharing of resources: I liked the suggestion that protesters carry a self-addressed envelope with them so that if necessary they can mail their SD cards back to themselves to prevent police wiping phones used to document violence, and someone from the What World Productions team mentioned their documentary on police violence against homeless, poor, and other marginalised groups in Toronto.

I highly recommend watching Preempting Dissent and reading the companion book for more detail, as well as Infrastructure Critical.


Trigger warnings: there’s some quite intense footage here, including of protesters being kettled, tazed, pepper-sprayed, and violently arrested.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s