The ugly scenes of Australian PM Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott being whisked away has certainly captured the attention of journalists and commentators. I don’t have much to add to Ben Eltham’s piece in New Matilda except to point out that there is a slippage in the way these events are being discussed around definitions of ‘violence’.
Julie Gillard is reported as describing the event as ‘turning to violence’:
The Prime Minister said she respected the right to protest, but the activists went too far.
“What I utterly condemn is when protests turn violent the way we saw the way we saw the violence yesterday,” she said.
The AFP deals with ‘risks’ however. If they ever had to deal with actual violence, then they would largely have failed in their primary responsibility. This is not a criticism of the work of the AFP at all. Rather it is a description of their work in protecting Gillard and others. You can see the slippage here in this Daily Telegraph piece where the journalist describes it as a ‘violent clash’ but Assistant AFP Commissioner Outram describes the event in terms of an awareness of risk:
Assistant Commissioner Outram said police had begun an investigation into yesterday’s violent clash between police and protestors.
He said some activists could face charges of assault or breaching public order.
“The AFP are looking into whether criminal offences have been committed,” he said.
“And an investigation is underway.”
It’s believed the protestors arrived at the restaurant looking for Mr Abbott after an earlier comment about the Aboriginal tent embassy.
The protestors were angered that he may have wanted their unofficial settlement torn down.
Assistant Commissioner Outram said a risk assessment was conducted before Ms Gillard arrived at the restaurant and police had no reason to believe she was in any danger.
“And in our view when the Prime Minister arrived there was no significant risk,” he said.
“Before the Prime Minister arrived the risk was low.”
To give a better idea of this process of identifying and mitigating the impact of risks, here are some of Outram’s other comments (as reported in the Herald Sun):
“We had no information or reason to suspect there was going to be any problem,” he said.
Police officers had acted appropriately, he said.
“Our first priority yesterday was the security of the Prime Minister,” he said.
Asked whether the Lobby restaurant, which was near the tent embassy, was the most appropriate venue for the prime ministerial event, Mr Outram said: “The AFP doesn’t select the venues – we manage the risks around the venues.”
“The AFP members on the ground yesterday took a decision and formed a view there was a threat and a risk to the safety of the Prime Minister and it was essential to remove the Prime Minister from that threat and risk as quickly as possible and that’s what happened.”
There is a slippage here that collapses ‘threat’ (ie the risk of violence) with ‘violence’ without there being a question of whether or not there was any actual ‘danger’. This observer from the Canberra Times states it clearly:
Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott were in any direct danger from Aboriginal protesters yesterday, but those concerned for their security must be appalled that they were allowed to be put in the situation they were in.
After a brief siege, security personnel decided, probably rightly, that Gillard and Abbott should be removed from a scene which would probably not calm down and, might get worse. By now they had the advantage of having significant numbers of ordinary police also on the scene. These were quite capable of clearing a way for a dignified exit.
Instead, the appearance was given of the Prime Minister being used as a battering ram by a close security officer. It appears that Gillard’s loss of the horizontal owed more to her stumble and loss of shoe – and by the security officer’s retrieving her as she fell. Yet it – and the faces on some of those around – illustrate an appearance of panic and not of control.
At no stage did it appear that Gillard made contact with any protester, or that any lunged towards her.
The stumble was a function of the extrication , not crowd pressure.
Yet reasonably close behind the Prime Minister was Abbott – at no stage in any appearance of danger.
He was grinning, in what some will claim, probably unfairly, was Gillard’s discomfort. And around him were a number of police, had he been in any danger.
I am not commenting on the legitimacy of any actions by any party (police, protesters, politicians, etc.), what I emphasising is the way ‘risk’ as perceived by AFP staff on the ground was manifest, how this ‘risk’ became a ‘threat’, and how this ‘threat’ is reported in the news as ‘violence’.
It is a clear example of what Brian Massumi calls the ‘Birth of the Affective Fact’. There are a few version of this paper around, the link is to one online from a conference (edit: link fixed). In his discussion of the overlapping power relations of the mode of governmentality in the War on Terror and ‘security’ as a mode of governmentality, Massumi writes:
[T]he interaction of the modes of power in play are dedicated to managing threat to ensure security, for which there is no objective measure, any more than there is of a mood.
So what is an affective fact? The mechanism is quite simple:
Threat triggers fear. The fear is of disruption. The fear is a disruption.
The mechanism is a capacity that affect itself has to self-effect. Paradoxically, as with command, its self-effecting produces certainty, even when the trigger is the opposite, the looming uncertainty of ill-defined threat. You’re not left cringing, wondering what may come. As soon as there is any sign of threat, its most feared effects have already begun to materialize. If an elaborate security apparatus has already been put in place, drawing the state-of-the-art in disciplinary and biopolitical response, the nascent disruption can be nipped in the bud. The repercussions of the feared event have been controlled. The event as been preempted. Preemption is not prevention. Prevention corresponds to neoliberal Cold War politics. Preemption does not prevent, it effects. It induces the event, in effect. Rather than acting in the present to avoid an occurrence in the future, preemption brings the future into the present. It makes present the future consequences of an eventuality that may or may not occur, indifferent to its actual occurrence. The event’s consequences precede it, as if it had already occurred. It event remains virtual – future-past — but is real and present in its effects. The present reality of its effects mean that it can be responded to pragmatically all the while remaining virtual.
The best way for governmental action to get a handle on threat is to be ready for it by directing where its effects will be felt. This is the function of the alarm. The alarm signals the threat, triggering fear. This induces the affective time-slip that is of a piece with preemption. Governmental intervention in the security sphere is no longer corrective, but inductive — this time in the sense of inducing the event it to which it responds. The emission of signs of alarm become its instrument of choice.
Signing threat to induce fear to control its effects snatches certainty from the jaws of uncertainty. The security equivalent of the logical tautology is the certainty of the affectively self-fulfilling prophesy, falling on secured ground.
The AFP focuses on threats, and so they should! They seem to have no mind for disruption and the danger of disruption. I wonder if this is part of the training? There is a danger in the threat of disruption actualised in the threat presented by possible dangers.
It will be interesting to see how the AFP uses the language of affect in their investigation into these events, using words such as ‘mood’ and ‘feel’, and how this is constrasted with a post-hoc risk assessment in terms of the capacities of polie, the capacities of protesters, the probabilities of various forms of action, the shifting field of probabilities as various forms of action were taken and so on.