The Next Page: Hot trends in protest technology
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Darrell Sapp/Post-GazetteMembers of Pittsburgh Organizing Group at National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville, March 2.
By PATRICK YOUNG
On March 2 members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group used lockboxes, bicycle "U locks" and a 22-foot tripod to blockade entrances to the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville. The latest in a string of anti-war protests directed at Carnegie Mellon University's relationship with the Department of Defense, this action marked the first large-scale use of lockboxes and lockdown devices in the Pittsburgh area.
But these tactics are not new. Activists have been using heavy-duty hardware and homemade devices to lock themselves in front of weapons factories, banks and trade summits for decades.
To be sure, locking down is not a pleasant undertaking. The general range of possibilities -- pepper spray, chemical weapons, tasers -- is terrifying; and for most protesters, the prospect of facing almost certain arrest is frightening. These tactics also tend to be physically taxing. Most activists experience numbness and circulation problems after one to two hours in position. In many situations, the weight and awkward construction of the devices forces activists into strenuous positions.
Good planning and proper equipment and training can go a long way to alleviate some of these problems. But the fact remains : There is no comfortable way to use these devices.
They do, however, help people get their point across.
TACTICS: R&D IN THE FOREST
THE USE OF LOCKDOWN DEVICES in protest situations first gained popularity in North American protest culture during anti-nuclear protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these early lockdowns included handcuffs or chains with padlocks. Protesters would string chains around their waists or handcuff themselves to the front gates of nuclear power plants, research centers or weapons manufacturing facilities.
While this tactic created dramatic images and even allowed activists to hold space for a while, these early lockdowns were very limited and often short-lived. Police departments quickly adapted to the tactic. They began to show up at protests with a simple set of bolt cutters, which could easily defeat these early devices. Some handcuff manufacturers also marketed a "universal" key to police departments that would allow officers to unlock activists without even bothering to cut through the devices. Stories of protesters being unlocked and then carted off to jail in their own handcuffs were not uncommon.
It wasn't long before these lockdowns were adopted and adapted by early forest-defense campaigners. As major paper and lumber companies moved to cut centuries-old redwood trees in the Pacific Northwest, forest-defense activists supplemented years of legislative and advocacy work by taking direct action to block these projects.
These early forest-defense activists combined centuries-old traditions of civil disobedience with tree-sitting tactics first tested and employed by Native Americans. Using the sturdiest and most advanced hardware available, they developed a new model for direct action. With a bicycle "U lock," protesters locked their necks to demolition equipment and logging vehicles. Heavy steel tubes dubbed "black bears" were fashioned to lock protesters' arms into the ground or around trees. The climbing gear used for outdoor adventuring provided for a relatively quick, although not-so-easy, ascent high into the forests' canopy.
Perhaps the most iconic tactic used in these forest-defense campaigns are the months-long occupations of platforms mounted in trees, hundreds of feet off the ground. These "tree sits" put activists out of reach of loggers and law enforcement officials, preventing the cutting of both the occupied trees and trees in some radius of the platform.
Forest-defense work shot into the mainstream political dialogue in 2000 with Julia Butterfly Hill's bestseller "The Legacy of Luna." The book chronicles her 2-year vigil in a thousand-year-old Northern California redwood tree and her successful effort to stop the clear-cutting of an old-growth forest grove.
But well before Julia Butterfly ever ascended to her legendary perch in Luna, many environmental groups had already taken their tactics out of the woods and into the streets.
Throughout the 1990s, groups like Rainforest Action Network employed many of the tactics that had been developed and tested in the Pacific Northwest woods to target the corporate giants that were perpetrating the degradation of the rainforest. RAN, Greenpeace and other major environmental action organizations used lockdown tactics to blockade everything from corporate headquarters to retail stores to shareholder meetings as part of broader "corporate campaigns" aimed at pressuring corporations to act more environmentally and socially responsible.
Then, in the late 1990s, the global-justice movement exploded with inspiring actions at trade summits and annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank -- most notably the shutdown of the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. Many of these activists were veterans of earlier environmental campaigns. Not surprisingly, many of the tactics that had been made famous by earlier forest-defense campaigns appeared deep in the urban jungles -- only now activists were blocking traffic, not loggers.
LOCKDOWNS: JUST ONE ARROW IN THE QUIVER
THESE LOCKDOWN TACTICS and devices did not go unchanged as they moved out of the woods.
Many of the devices used in forest defense work were large and bulky and constructed out of heavy steel. They also often took hours to set up and deploy. While time may be a luxury that's available deep in the woods, timeframes and margins for error are much tighter at urban, heavily policed targets. Because lugging several 80-pound "black bears" into midtown Manhattan is somewhat implausible, PVC and chicken wire have often replaced steel lockboxes. Other devices grew smaller, lighter and easier to deploy.
Today, lockdown tactics are still in use in forest-defense campaigns across North America and they have become commonplace at global-justice actions. We are also witnessing the emerging use of these tactics at anti-war, labor and even student protests.
While these lockboxes and lockdown devices have been used to great success in myriad actions around a diversity of issues, it is important to note that, as with any tactic, lockboxes are used inside a complex political framework.
Lockdown actions have drawn attention to important issues. In successful instances, they have caused some material disruption as shipments are blocked, clear-cutting is halted or delegates are shut out of their meetings. But, in virtually every instance of a successful blockade or lockdown, these tactics have been used to augment, escalate or punctuate a broader campaign employing other tools of public advocacy: letter-writing, petitioning, public meetings and permitted marches and rallies.
The participants in these tactics also exist in a complex political landscape. Activists employing lockdown tactics put themselves in incredibly vulnerable positions, often literally risking life and limb. Protesters using these tactics have been confronted with almost lethal doses of chemical weapons and bone-crushing blunt object force. While this use of police violence on non-aggressive protesters is overtly illegal, participants have no recourse until months or years after the fact -- well after they've already suffered possibly debilitating injury.
It's clear that some political and demographic groups are "safer" in utilizing these tactics than others. Students locking themselves in their chancellor's office to protest tuition hikes are much less likely to elicit a violent police response than a group of working-class people of color protesting a major gentrification project. Similarly, groups who have already mobilized major political and popular support for their causes are more likely to use the public lens as a shield to protect them from state violence.
THE LONG ARMS OF THE LAW
NOT SURPRISINGLY, PROTESTERS employing lockdown devices often find themselves in trouble with the law.
After being physically separated and carted off to jail, activists have faced the traditional charges associated with civil disobedience -- failure to disperse, trespass, disorderly conduct, failure to obey a lawful order and a hodgepodge of other misdemeanors and summary offenses.
But recent protests have also brought along new, more serious charges that include resisting arrest and, most recently, "possession of an instrument with criminal intent." Because statutes and prosecutors' dispositions vary drastically from location to location, there isn't yet a clear body of case law to guide tacticians and their attorneys on these issues. It's likely that many of the legal questions surrounding the use of lockboxes will be hotly debated in courtrooms across the country in the months and years to come.
COMING SOON TO A PROTEST NEAR YOU
GIVEN THE RELATIVE SUCCESS of lockdown devices in dramatizing issues and non-violently escalating activist campaigns, it is likely that these tactics will continue to be used in the months and years to come. As the devices become more and more common, we can expect that law enforcement officials will take steps to familiarize themselves with these tactics and show up at protests armed with the appropriate saws and tools to dismantle the lockboxes.
The amount of time and effort that is required to plan, train for and execute these lockdowns is great. The costs -- both financial and legal -- are significant. As a result, it is unlikely that we will see any major explosion in the use of these tactics.
But an unpopular war is raging into its fifth year. The global-justice movement is rapidly re-emerging. It would not be surprising to see significant use of lockdown tactics at major demonstrations in Washington, around corporate annual meetings and during the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Patrick Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a 2006 graduate of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. He works as a researcher for United Steelworkers and is a member of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (www.organizepittsburgh.org).
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First Published March 18, 2007 12:00 am