[This is the text of a talk delivered in Barcelona on 29 April 2022 at a workshop titled “From Disobedience to Solidarity: Confronting Authoritarianism” co-organized by the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs and the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona.]
In March 2021, in the parliament of the liberal democracy where I live, namely the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s conservative government proposed a new law titled “The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill” to reform the criminal justice system. Numbering 314 mighty pages, the bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that amends existing laws dealing with a diverse array of issues ranging from trespassing to crimes against children.
What I would like to highlight today are the bill’s provisions concerning public order, public assemblies, and political protests. As disclosed by the authorities, these sections of the bill were formulated as a governmental response to the direct action campaigns undertaken by Extinction Rebellion—as well as Black Lives Matter activists, as many observers have noted—actions that have become particularly visible since 2019 in the United Kingdom. Notably, these mobilizations have employed disruptive tactics: the blocking of roads and highways, the obstruction of commuter trains, and in one instance, the toppling of a public statue, that of the slave trader Edward Colston, in Bristol last year.
According to the office of the Home Secretary Priti Patel, “the measures in the Bill will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public”; the bill will broaden “the range of circumstances in which police may impose conditions on a protest” if the latter is determined to cause “serious disruption to the life of the community.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, under the new bill, the Home Secretary herself will have the power to define which actions constitute a “serious disruption to the life of the community,” actions that will be punishable by months and years of imprisonment.
In the judgment of the British civil rights organization Liberty, what has come to be known as the anti-protest bill will “give police the choice on where, when and how people can protest.” Let me repeat that: the proposed law will give the police the power to decide where, when and how people can protest. For this reason, since its public release last year, the proposed bill has been passionately opposed under the banner of Kill the Bill mobilizations across the United Kingdom. Kill the Bill activists have seen clearly that the new bill is the Johnson government’s attempt to criminalize non-violent direct action—including large and noisy demonstrations, occupations, and blockades—whose very goal is to cause “serious disruption to the life of the community” in order to render political dissent visible, audible, and effective. In fact, many forms of dissent resembling the ones we witnessed during the Arab Spring, the Gezi Park uprising in Turkey, the Occupy movement, or the Black Lives Matter protests could be rendered inescapably criminal under the new bill that has passed review by the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the UK and is now awaiting royal assent.
If this week’s verdict at the trial of Gezi Park activists in Turkey is any meaningful measure, and I believe it is, the slippery slope of criminalizing dissent can even lead to aggravated lifetime imprisonment. To cite the surreal—yet real, all too real—opening sentence of an article in the Guardian on Monday this week: “A Turkish court has sentenced a leading philanthropist to life imprisonment after finding him guilty of ‘attempting to overthrow the government by force’ in connection with the Gezi Park anti-government protests in 2013.”
Osman Kavala, the philanthropist in question, was accused by the Turkish state of financing (with Soros) the nationwide (even transnational) Gezi uprising that came close to overthrowing President Erdogan’s government a decade ago. Other defendants in the case have been leading activists in various civil society organizations in Turkey—including the architect Mucella Yapici and the film producer Cigdem Mater who are now women of two different generations serving eighteen years in prison for attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. If the Gezi uprising was a crime, however, millions of people participated in it. This Monday, in effect, the political dissent of millions was criminalized while the defendants in the Gezi case were made to pay for this collective crime.
I am not using the word crime in quotation marks here in order to avoid on purpose an act of ironic distancing from the law as if the law and legal institutions themselves were not part of the problem here. On the contrary. If Osman Kavala, Mucella Yapici, Can Atalay, Cigdem Mater, and others are now rendered criminals for attempting to overthrow the Turkish government a decade ago, it is a most meaningful act, to my mind, to declare ourselves criminals, too. Some of the most common, collective slogans used in solidarity with the defendants, in this case, have been “Hepimiz Gezi’deydik,” “Hepimiz Oradaydik”: we were all at Gezi, we were all there. To that, one must now add, I think: We were all at Gezi, We were all there, We are all criminals.
When the law is used to criminalize dissent so consistently, so thoroughly, so inescapably, it seems to me, we are left with only a few options. One is to insist, in the Gezi case for instance, that the trial and the verdict were “unlawful” in reality, that they contravene some higher secular law, say of human rights as applied by the European Court of Human Rights, or some other legal body. Let’s call this the liberal option, which is most commonly taken. But another possibility is to declare the law itself unjust, according to another ground, another source, another vision: let’s call that justice. Here, a concurrent possibility opens up: to declare an act of dissent criminal indeed, to embrace criminality according to the prevalent law of the land, and to do so in acts of collective defiance and disobedience to the law. To my mind, in civil rights movements, anti-apartheid struggles, and all sorts of uprisings and mobilizations to resist liberal and illiberal states alike, there has got to be room for all these strategies and more. In Turkey today, and perhaps in the UK already, one must be able to say: yes, if this is the law, very well then: we are all criminals; we are all illegals. Under the rising tide of authoritarianism and even “new fascism” according to some commentators, including Judith Butler, the slogan “no one is illegal” will make less and less sense. Actually and potentially, more and more, “we are all criminal, we are all illegal.”
Here, questions may arise as to who has the “privilege” of declaring themselves a criminal when so many communities, racialized minorities, migrants, working classes, feminists, LGBTQ and Kurdish solidarity activists in Turkey, to give a few examples, are already criminalized, already persecuted, already punished by the law. What I am saying is this: if things continue to develop across the world as they are, from Russia to the UK, from Turkey to Hungary, from India to France and Egypt, we will all taste criminality sooner or later to the extent that we dissent, protest, rise up, and transgress. Our very criminality, in other words, actual and potential, can be a ground of our solidarity within and across national borders.