Speech and the Politics of Presence
Democracy exercised in the presence of riot police. Free speech adjacent armored vehicles. Perhaps this is an overly dramatic way of describing otherwise unremarkable events of little consequence in the city of Denver during the Democratic Party convention. After all, relatively small protests in Denver will not amount to much practically speaking. Feared public disorder failed to manifest itself, and the poorly named “recreate 68” group failed to generate large crowds of protesters. If this failure means that the mayhem of 1968 has been avoided, then this failure is good for democracy. We want public political places to be occupied by persons exercising mutual respect, not engaging in violent confrontation. We also want public places to foster the presence of democratic participation. And that’s the problem with the reported large numbers of riot police in Denver. Public order is one thing, but public order with a heavy police presence is another. To state my concern simply: free speech requires a place in which one can speak, free from the dominating presence of the state; where fears of disorder allow government agents to dominate public places, then we suppress speech by suppressing the place of speech. Where we speak can sometimes be as important as what we say.
These pictures from the NY Times tell the story: a “free speech” cage constructed for “free speech,” a convention location completely fenced for security, riot-gear police controlling public space. These kinds of “free speech” tactics have become a staple at President Bush’s venues, rendering dissent invisible, and were used at convention sites in 2004, surviving judicial challenges. Timothy Zick has written about this problem here at CoOp in posts like this one, and I have written about this issue here. There is something discordant in the idea of free speech located in a guarded cage. There is also something discordant about a public sphere ringed by riot police. Yet, there is also something that has become increasingly ineffectual about politics in public – at least spontaneous public politics.
Hannah Arendt, for one, proclaimed the central importance of public speech and the public appearance of persons who could engage each other in discourse over public matters. Without the place of public appearances, she argued, we lose something central to both politics and personal identity. I think she was right about this, which is why I find the riot police, the cages, and the control of public space troubling. It is easy to find these official practices of no moment. As I’ve already suggested, it is not as if we expect any of the public appearances led by protesters to amount to much practically speaking. But our expectations are shaped by the very scripting of political events as they occur in carefully controlled environments like each political party’s conventions. Nothing, or very little, spontaneous happens, and there is no place in which undifferentiated members of the public encounter each other in a political setting. I do not intend to criticize conventions on this score – of course they want to control message, allow only party stalwarts to speak, etc. But the very event of the convention becomes a place of politics, and thus a place where others – call them dissenters, or those who want to emphasize their views – would like to make their views visible, even if only on the fringes. One group, the Iraq War Veterans Against the War led a peaceful “protest” march through Denver. Yet, the LA Times reports that the protest, as it approached the Pepsi Center, was increasingly enclosed by riot police, and unable to approach close to the venue. Here’s where the riot police, isolating the main political attraction and dominating all other public places, seem discordant with democratic practice. It becomes difficult to tell whether the show of state force is meant to provide security against the “threatening hordes” outside, or to say that politics shall only happen here, in the Pepsi Center, and nowhere else.
The importance of speech at specific places, and the form of public address, are ineliminable parts of our democratic practice. Martin Luther King’s speech on the mall was surely significant in part because of where it occurred and because of the number of people who could hear it in person. In this vein, Sen. Obama’s speech at the Democratic Convention at Mile High Stadium to over 75,000 people was significant for the public appearance in the presence of so many people. Public presence matters to our politics. This fact is why we cannot replace a politics of presence with a digital politics. Many people like me watched Sen. Obama’s speech on television, others on the web. One might argue that for us it did not matter whether Obama gave the speech in a studio or in a stadium. Yet it does matter – a lot – because presence and place matter to speech and politics.
Public presence, on the more spontaneous, small scale, has become relatively ineffectual, I would argue, because of the increased use of state power to control politics in public. Who wants to risk getting rounded up when the police decide to conduct a mass arrest? When they do so, because the arrests are not individualized, everyone in the area gets arrested, participant and observer alike. The persistence of these kind of practices make dissent more costly, and therefore less likely. No doubt, public dissent can become public disorder, creating risks for injuries and property as Seattle in 1999 demonstrated. Just the same, however, political dissent and discussion rendered publicly invisible creates its own risks for the vitality of our democracy. These latter risks are of far more consequence.