The ‘Welcome to Hell’ anti-capitalist demonstration took place on 6 July where Hamburg played host to the G20 Summit in Germany and police officers and protesters were left injured after violent clashing took place. People threw glass bottles and stones, vehicles and shops were set on fire and the police responded with teargas and water cannons. About 180 protesters were detained with over 200 in custody while roughly 470 police officers suffered injury.
Much of the civil movement literature tends to conceptualise resistance as an opposition of power, and this dichotomy of power and resistance is more pronounced when discussing protests. Protests are performative, involving chants and banners usually seen as a form of resistance in direct confrontation with the power they oppose. But analysing this demonstration through the lens of Foucault’s power relations would reveal a different narrative, one which sees this movement not as a complete rejection of government, but a counter-conduct, a diffused form of resistance whose behaviour simply says ‘we do not want this truth’. This shift from sole focus on the actions of the protester allows us see G20 protesters as rejecting the way in which they are being conducted through capitalism, and the way they are told to resist. Things they see as catalyst for the ongoing refugee crisis and the innocent lives lost following the war on terror. Instead, Foucault allows us to focus on how protesters actually act within the field of power relations amongst themselves, and the government, without judging the merits of their behaviour.
Street demonstrations are one of the few tactics available to communities or groups with little formal power. Foucault provides a more nuanced contribution to the traditional understanding of power. He brings an instrumental shift from the idea of power as a means of coercion towards the idea of power as dynamic and exercised from multiple standpoints. Power relations exist everywhere wherever people interact; we are continuously subjecting it and being objects of it. Thus, this avoids an ‘actor-centric’ approach which narrows the scope of evaluation when trying to comprehend the dynamics of power and government. Rather than focusing then on the protester, Foucault allows us to consider the effect and contribution of power on the protest itself.
For Foucault, governmental forms of power attempt to regulate the ‘conduct of conducts’. This covers shaping actions and norms through tactics and technologies of the State such as schools, prisons, police force and many others. Counter-conduct is the struggle against the processes implemented for conducting others, resistance to the processes of governmentality. Rather than simply a rejection of government power, it rejects a particular governmental direction. It is ‘the art of not being governed quite so much’. The counter-conduct approach looks within government to see how forms of resistance rely upon the techniques, strategies and power relations they oppose. Reading protests this way allows us look beyond simply resistance to see the G20 protests as counter-conduct.
The violence that erupted outside the G20 Summit – the burning cars, the smashed store fronts, the water cannons and the tear gas – marked the latest manifestation of Black Bloc protests, a European resistance that recently surfaced in American political demonstrations. The one thing both ends of the spectrum regarding Black Bloc protests agree, is that it is a tactic, not a group. Participants wear black masks and hats covering their face and heads as they engage in protest. As University of San Francisco associate professor Jeffery Paris has written, there is no formal network or ideology. What they share is a belief that peaceful demonstration is not as effective as rage. For Foucault, this embodies counter-conduct at its core. It represents a rejection of the perceived right way to protest that we have been fashioned to accept as the only acceptable way.
Because of the somewhat inherent violence associated with Black Bloc protests, they have been accused of hijacking what would ordinarily have been peaceful protests and are often described as anarchists. The question then becomes in the context of the Black Bloc movement, to what extent was the police force used justifiable when there are just a few violent individuals?
In the Hamburg protests, the police chief Ralf Martin Meyer expressed concerns of imminent violence, and the interior minister Thomas de Maizière announced that 15,000 police would be on duty at the summit. From the summit venue at Elbphilharmonie hall to the tourist area of Pferdemarkt, protest marches were met with a plethora of armed police presence responding with the use of force. The strong presence of police in riot gear as police helicopters circled above, the water cannons and the tear gas used on the protesters exemplify that. The military tactics used only fed the chaos few violent anarchist individuals sought. Rather than suppressing the rally, the heightened police presence created an atmosphere of viewing demonstrators as criminals, suppressing the resistance to governmentality by rejecting how the protester actually acts. This type of modality depoliticises the policing of radical protesting by tagging it as a crime. The implication being, that protesters not only become criminals, but are also seen as posing a threat warranting heightened police response. A telling example is the German Justice Minister Heiko Maas labelling the protesters ‘extremist criminals’ , much like Donald Trump’s recent characterization of the Charlottesville demonstration and attack on demonstrators as a display of hatred, bigotry and violence ‘on many sides’. This brands the protesters as violent and disruptive by virtue of their march. The story then becomes a rebuttal of a sort of conducting power defining the right way to resist, which outlaw’s behaviour that does not fit within this label.
Violent protests during G20 summits have become almost routine since the first G8 summit in Genoa whose heightened police presence caused a number of fatal incidents. Thus, one should not overstate their transformative potential in terms of law and social policy. For Foucault, because counter-conduct functions within the boundaries of governmental forms of power, it may reinforce established ways of doing things. In this case, the forms that violent protests took reinforced the established attitude by the authorities when dealing with such demonstrations. This shows the limited extent to which one can practically apply Foucault to demonstrations resulting in violence. The question then becomes whether this alternative perspective can ever shape the way the law treats protests and demonstrations and what change it can bring. Counter-conduct allows us begin a conversation about an alternate view of demonstrations without judging the merits of their behaviour. Perhaps with time, law and social policy will begin to reflect this.
Kufre-Obong Medo is a graduate student at the Nigerian Law School in Abuja, and a former undergraduate in law at the University of Sussex.