Following the fascist riot at the US Capitol, progressives and liberals have begun to mimic the calls for “law and order” of their conservative counterparts, even going as far as threatening to expand the “war on terror”. While this may be well-intentioned, it fits neatly within the trajectory of attacks against civil liberties over the last two decades. A Biden administration with a 50-50 Senate will seek unity and compromise wherever it can find it, and oppressing political dissidents will be the glue that holds together Biden’s ability to govern.
A wide array of actors within the United States government have long predicted, and begun to prepare for, a new age of protests and political instability. In 2008 the Pentagon launched the Minerva Initiative, a research program aimed at understanding mass movements and how they spread. It included at least one project that conflated peaceful activists with “supporters of political violence” and deemed that they were worth studying alongside active terrorist organizations.
All the pieces are in place for Biden to attempt to unite the parties by being a ‘law and order’ president
A 2018 war game enacted by the Pentagon had students and faculty at military colleges create plans to crush a rebellion led by disillusioned members of Gen Z. This hypothetical “ZBellion” included a “global cyber campaign to expose injustice and corruption”. A campaign that would in real life no doubt be monitored by the NSA’s Prism program, which captures the vast majority of electronic communications in the United States. Prism was developed in 2007, partially out of fear that environmental disasters might lead to a rise in anti-government protest.
These steps further the already oppressive post-9/11 surveillance apparatus developed through the Patriot Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation championed by President-Elect Biden. Though some of these tools were developed to “fight terrorism”, in practice they’ve also been used to monitor and interfere with the work of activists – leading to violations of civil liberties such as the placement of undercover NYPD officers in Muslim student groups across the north-east. And every post-9/11 president has added to this, steadily increasing federal and local agencies’ power to surveil, detain and prosecute those who appear to pose a challenge to the status quo.
This level of repression is also being carried out by states. Since 2015, 32 states have passed laws designed to discourage and punish those who engage in boycotts against Israel. Many states have also worked to dismantle once-institutionalized statewide student associations such as the Arizona Student Association and the United Council of Wisconsin, in one blow destroying opposition to tuition hikes and eradicating an important ally to social movements, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Republicans have long called for the increased repression of activists, but the chorus has reached a crescendo in the age of Black Lives Matter and climate protests
Republicans have long called for the increased repression of activists, but the chorus has reached a crescendo in the age of Black Lives Matter and climate protests. In the last five years, 116 bills to increase penalties for protests including highway shutdowns and occupations have been introduced in state legislatures. Twenty-three of those bills became law in 15 states. Following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings, we’ve seen another flow of proposals. For example, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida would like to make merely participating in a protest that leads to property damage or road blockage a felony, while granting protections to people who hit those same protesters with their cars. Following the storming of the Capitol, DeSantis, a Trump ally, has expanded these proposals with more provisions and harsher consequences. The only thing preventing the passage of many of these laws thus far has been opposition from Democrats.
But now the Democrats have caught the tune and returned to their post-9/11 calls for heightening the “war on terror”. Joe Biden has already made it clear that he intends to answer these calls. He has named the rioters “domestic terrorists” and “insurrectionists”, both terms used to designate those whose civil liberties the state is openly allowed to violate. He has declared he will make it a priority to pass a new law against domestic terrorism and has named the possibility of creating a new White House post to combat ideologically inspired violent extremists.
These moves are not to be taken as empty threats by Biden. All the pieces are in place for him to attempt to unite the parties by being a “law and order” president and effectively crush any social movement that opposes the status quo. Much of the Patriot Act itself was based on Biden’s 1995 anti-terrorism bill, and Biden would go on to complain that the Patriot Act didn’t go far enough after a few of his provisions to further increase the power of police to surveil targets were removed. Biden will be desperate to both prove his competency and demonstrate that he isn’t the protest-coddler that Trump framed him as. This, combined with demands for repression from Democrats, Republicans and large segments of the American public, is a perfect storm for a radical escalation in the decades-long war on civil liberties and our right to protest, at a time that we need it the most.
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