Robocops, flowers & stones

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After half a century of the Prague Spring and May 68 in France, last year saw the emergence of a new wave of global protest against the establishment. Gilets Jaunes in France, young pro-democrats in Hong Kong, indigenous people in Ecuador, the urban poor in Chile, and many other social movements around the world triggered a global political upheaval whose consequences are still unknown. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed this movement, but police abuses and crimes in the United States that followed protests within the Black Lives Matter movement and other related events in France and elsewhere in the world, as well as the acute, unprecedented economic crisis resulting from the global blockade, have rekindled the wave of violence and protest. Although their context, causes, and objectives may differ from one movement to another, one factor common to all of them was the brutal and disproportionate repression applied by the police or other armed forces against civilians. This repression, made possible by an increasingly sophisticated infrastructure and technology of repression, contrasts with the effectivity and simplicity of a thrown stone, the beauty of a flower in the barrel of a gun, or the power of two threatening naked breasts fighting the patriarchal system we live in. Although innovation and creativity are always at hand in the lines of the demonstrators, their tools, instruments, strategies, and weapons remain more or less the same (how many times have the stones in our streets been removed to be thrown to the public forces and replaced by them in the same street?). Conversely, police and state coercive forces are always acquiring new equipment, weaponry, and technological devices to better contain citizen protests. The latest global protest showed a plethora of new technologies deployed to repress, hurt, and frighten as many citizens as possible. This project was originally conceived as a “real world” exhibition made of images, artifacts, and other objects that would show the evolution of both: the technologies of repression and the arts of protest and resistance in different times and parts of the world. Given the current context, we present here only the first step of the research process behind the original exhibition project that resulted in a website containing a database of descriptions and images of the entire history of demonstrations, protests and strikes around the world recorded on Wikipedia. The website allows one to navigate in time and space to find information and images about each of these events and can be used for further exploration and research. The main idea is that this online device allows an approach to the globality of these events. The next steps of this project include the development of an image recognition tool to identify repression and protest technologies within other image databases and build a “real world” exhibition with the objects and artifacts identified through this process.

Why the protest and the answer to it?

On the one hand, the objective of the coercive forces of the states has always been legitimized by the urgent preservation of social order. To fulfill the exercise of this prerogative, these forces have permanently used up technology. On the other hand, the unusual and intense nature of social conflicts and their accelerated evolution has also been linked to the urgency of social collectives to legitimize their demands through their increasingly perspicacious actions. If, on one side, the police and military forces have made effective use of technical progress to be efficient, on the other side, social collectives have exacerbated the acute capacities of imagination and emotion beyond the need of appealing the benefits of technological modernization. While the intervention of violence has been regular in containing protests, it has not always been so in the way of demonstrating. This opposition between one side and the other, however, has kept the conflict alive, which is inherent to the existence of the democratic regimes through which the world currently flows. The motto “It is better to have a conflict with freedom than to have order without it “shows the essential regulatory function that conflict fulfills in society. As the essence of politics and a universal phenomenon, conflict throughout the history of humanity has allowed us to see the acute antagonism between the strategies, maneuvers, and cunning of the multitudes on the one hand, and the rigidity of the despotic model of power on the other.

The variety of the nature of protests across history is infinite as are the ways in which protest operates. A retrospective journey through time allows us to notice this diversity. For example, in 1159 B.C., the first workers’ strike in history was recorded in Egypt under the reign of Ramses III. A breach of the monthly payment by the tomb diggers, the most significant working class in Egypt in that period, caused their discomfort and decided to break into the inner rooms of the king’s palace armed with sticks and stones in a way of protest, then blocked the access to the royal valley preventing the flow of food for the royal family. The police forces of the time, which had been created to solve only domestic problems which until then had not been turned into collective protests, were clearly disconcerted and unwise.  These events forced them to develop new techniques of containment and coercion that they would apply in future attempts at uprising. In today’s tumultuous world, we have witnessed over the past 50 years countless protests in pursuit of demands, sometimes more general, bringing together various social groups, sometimes very specific representing the demands of very particular sectors of society. Two features are characteristic of all of these protests, the first being their global nature. We see them happening in all regions of the world. The other is their temporality, they have been permanent. Since May 1968 we have witnessed, if not uniform, a long-lasting cycle of protests around the world. Protest has become a way of demonstrating, and even more, of speaking and expressing. The recent protests in the United States and in other parts of the world since the death of Georges Floyd have led to the emergence of an unprecedented claim against the very institution of the police. The incandescent arrogance of the police institutions to contain the discontent of the crowds seems to have exceeded the limits. A large part of the current protests, in addition to having social demands at their core, seek to denounce the irrational use of violence by those forces. To a large extent, such excessive use of force is facilitated by the deployment of increasingly modern and invasive technological devices. A number of defense equipment are put into practice every day, these include uniforms with thermal visors for night time, the implementation of facial recognition technologies and other biometric features, the use of robots and drones of various types, as well as the massive extraction of personal information from protesters for subsequent monitoring and harassment.

How to look at the evolution of the protest and its response?

In the turbulent historical journey of the protests, the record that the internet allows access to, is astounding. On the one hand, it is amazing because the number of protests registered is enormous, but on the other hand, it is also amazing the diversity of the reasons for protest. Of course, the means of protest are also infinite in that they include an enormous diversity of repertoires and strategies. If seeing this diversity from the simple textual register is already unexpected, it is even more so when we begin to delve into the depths of the graphic registers. We have been surprised to find images, for example, of a protest whose symbol has a Pinocchio with no strings of control demanding justice, or within the same protest collection a Mickey with evident signs of anger to expose the dissatisfaction of Disney animators already in the 1940s. In that process of review, iconic images such as that of the lone protestor in front of several tanks in the middle of Tiananmen Square in 1989, emblematically called “tank man”, are but a few testimonies to the record of protest throughout history.

What we have set out to do is, by using technology to look precisely at the technological developments of protest and repression, to explore the plurality of expressions available on the Internet on this matter. Our interest lies in the possibility of looking, on the one hand, at the globality of these events and the actions carried out by their actors, but at the same time, at the extent of their geographical existence and their varied interpretation. Analyzing history from the Internet is not an individual task as it has been commonly done by major historians. Wikipedia, for example, perhaps the most widely used encyclopedia in the world, currently has more than 20 million articles, all of them collaborative. Beyond inquiring into the limitations and inaccuracy of many of its contributions, we know that the logic of such a resource contributes towards a dispersed production of knowledge. On Wikipedia, but also in the nebula in which big data operates, each contribution expresses an interest in some aspect from some particular place on the planet. These collaborative devices, we believe, contribute to the de-centering of thought and accentuate the need to see phenomena on a global scale. The project presented here shows graphically the points where protest events have occurred worldwide. In order to give it a historical sense, it seeks to locate these events over time. This allows us to see their repetitions, their concurrences, and differences. The objective is to encourage debate on the spatiality and temporality of protest and the use of technological devices in it. Having a series of events, presented graphically, will allow, if it is the case, to explore in-depth any of those events.

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