Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States

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Numerous books have been written that look at how the US government has responded to popular movements throughout this country’s history. Many have documented in great detail the suppression of organized labor while others examine the tactics used against the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States takes a somewhat different approach to its analysis of the many ways that suppression has been used against those who dissent in the United States. The author states in the introduction that the aim of this book is to address these questions:

“How has the state taken action to squelch the practice of dissent in the United States? How has the state interacted with the mass media to achieve this goal? How do these state actions get individuals and groups to stop participating in social movements or opt to never join them in the first place?”

The book is laid out in chapters that deal with what author Jules Boykoff has identified as categories or tactics of suppression including: Direct Violence, Public Prosecutions and Hearings, Employment Deprivation, Surveillance and Break-ins, Infiltration, Black Propaganda, Harassment and Harassment Arrests, Extraordinary Rules and Laws, Mass media Manipulation, Bi-level Demonization, Mass Media Deprecation, and Mass Media Underestimation. There is also a closing chapter on suppression after 9/11 which I won’t address since most of what the author identifies has been addressed in numerous other publications. Boykoff states that most of the attention by scholars on the issue of suppression by the state has tended to focus on outright violence. This is not to say that direct violence should be ignored, but that there has not been adequate attention paid to all the other forms of suppression, particularly in a way that presents them as part of a larger strategy of state-sponsored suppression. To view each of the previously mentioned tactics in isolation prevents us from having a more comprehensive analysis of how the state works to eliminate, limit, or prevent public dissent.

In the chapter on Direct Violence, the author looks at two examples – the Kent State University shootings and the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. What was instructive about his discussion of Kent State was the background information on the shootings and well as the pronouncements by the state after the shooting. For two years Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Black United Students (BUS) had organized sit-ins and numerous other actions to not only challenge the war machine on campus, but to get African American Studies as part of the curriculum. The level of campus organizing involved hundreds of students and faculty. After the May 1970 shootings the Governor of Ohio began a massive propaganda campaign against the students, as did President Nixon. Nixon’s White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler issued this statement after the shooting, “this incident should remind us that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” The Army National Guard shot and killed 4 students who were protesting. No charges were ever put on those soldiers and no one was ever tried for the killings. Even US Attorney General John Mitchell refused to investigate the killings.

With the assassination of Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton it was even worse. The trial was a complete sham since not only were the Chicago police were involved, but also the FBI. In this case, the FBI used an agent provocateur named William O’Neal to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and advocate that they move in the direction of more armed resistance. This advocacy of armed violence led some of the Panthers to become suspicious, leading in turn to more mistrust in the group as a whole. Some members advocated less group information sharing and others more of a hierarchy to limit who made decisions. To make matters worse, the FBI engaged in “black propaganda” by trying to undermine the efforts of the Black Panthers to unite with a black street gang known as the Blackstone Rangers. Letters, flyers and cartoons were created to give the appearance that these groups were talking trash about each other, which led to more suspicion and infighting. The last tactic that sealed the fate of the Panthers nationally was how the news media framed this movement. For example, Harpers magazine used the Chicago shootings as an opportunity to discredit the Panthers nationwide. Harpers made a comparison between Panther leader Bobby Seale and Adolf Hitler. Liberal writer Tom Wolfe even went so far as to demonize those who were public supporters of the Black Panthers. Jane Rhodes, in a study of media representation of the Black Panther Party concluded that “the media by and large depicted the Panthers as wrong-headed, anti-social, and a national threat and that the national press failed to provide the historical context that gave rise to the Panthers.” The example of the Panthers is good for analytical purposes, since multiple tactics were used by the state not only to suppress Party members, but towards supporters and even the general public who might have been sympathetic to their struggle.

The book provides numerous other examples, such as the Palmer Raids, the anti-Communist crusade during the McCarthy era, and suppression of movements that have been challenging corporate globalization in the US, especially since the WTO protests in 1999. The author has several chapters just on the role of mass media and suppression, a topic that too often is addressed in isolation or not at all. These chapters focus on 1999 to the present. Here Boykoff provides some important analysis on not only how much coverage protestors received and the location of the stories, but also how the stories were framed. Some of this data and analysis has been provided by other writers and organizations who monitor the media, but what the author has done that was a fresh technique that expands on the notion of framing and how it is manifested in news coverage. Boykoff identifies numerous types of framing that tremendously influences public perception of those protesting war and trade policies. The types of framing he identifies are: the violence frame, the disruption frame, the freak frame, the ignorance frame, and the Amalgam of Grievances frame.

Ever since the WTO protests in Seattle, the news media tends to begin reports of protest on whether or not any violence occurs. It is important to note that when they refer to violence, it is violence perpetrated by protestors. Rarely does law enforcement violence receive media attention. By beginning a story with a violence frame it already sets up the reader/viewer with a bias towards those who are dissenting. The disruption frame dovetails with the violence frame since it usually depicts protestors in a negative or disrespectful light. Violence and disrupting frames take up a tremendous amount of space and always precede any information as to why people are protesting. The freak frame is when news coverage focuses on individual protestors who many have what they perceive to be an unusual appearance or vulgar signs. This type of framing is an attempt to trivialize the seriousness of any actions and dismiss the protestors as nothing more than social misfits. The ignorance frame and the Amalgam of Grievances frame are linked in that the news media will often try to find people who either don’t know for sure why they are protesting and have a difficult time articulating their motives or have positions that are different that those presented by the organizing group(s). Boykoff’s assessment of the mass media’s role in state suppression was well thought out and confirmed the importance of dissenting groups having a media strategy.

Beyond Bullets is important on many levels and is an important book for those interested in organizing and movement building. It is important because it provides good historical examples of consistent tactics used by the state against those who dissent, thus a reminder of what any groups are likely to face in the future if they are seen as a threat to power. The book is also important, since it helps the reader to see what lengths the state will go to suppress dissent, marginalize their cause, and potentially prevent new people from joining. A better understanding of these dynamics are extremely useful for those who are struggling to get more people involved in organized campaigns and how to create group dynamics which can resist the tactics used by the state to attack movement building.

Jules Boykoff, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, (AK Press, 2007).

Author: mediamouse

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