Cult of Compliance: Attacking the Breasts of Female Protestors

At New Criticals, Alison Kinney has written a powerful piece comparing police violence against suffragists to the police violence against Occupy activist Cecily McMillan.

She starts with this story:

“Constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowd passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example…”

 The anonymous woman who reported these acts of police brutality was one of 300 British suffragists peacefully marching before the House of Commons on November 18, 1910. Journalist Henry Noel Brailsford and Dr. Jessie Murray took 135 statements from activists and eyewitnesses describing how police beat the suffragists with batons, punched, kicked, dragged, choked, stripped, and sexually assaulted them…Brailsford and Murray wrote:

“The action of which the most frequent complaint is made is variously described as twisting round, pinching, screwing, nipping, or wringing the breast. This was often done in the most public way so as to inflict the most humiliation…The language used by some of the police while performing this action proves that it was consciously sensual.”

At least two women died because of this six-hour campaign of police brutality, now known as Black Friday.

Kinney moves through other examples and popular reaction  to the suffrage movement, noting sexualized violence from both “the public” and agents of the state, comparing to McMillan’s experience, then writing what I think is so important [my emphasis]:

Once a social justice movement, like women’s suffrage, has succeeded in enshrining its goals in law and social acceptance, it is all too easy to dismiss the state violence against it as a relic of less enlightened times. But such violence often looks the same with each recurrence: wildly disproportionate; reifying racial, gender, class, and other biases; and trampling civil liberties. The rhetoric also looks similar, delegitimizing activism as frivolously idealistic, a distraction from “real” issues, and, simultaneously, dangerously irresponsible. The word “violent” has a sneaky way of attaching to protest, even—perhaps especially—when the protesters are the ones being bloodied; state violence, on the other hand, is supposed to be hygienic, orderly, responsible, sane, and necessary.

One of my questions about what I term the cult of compliance is the extent to which it is a product of our historical moment or an indelible aspect of the relationship between the state and its subjects. I’m an optimist, I want to believe that we can improve, that we can make things better. I’m also an historian, though, so it’s hard to ignore this kind of evidence as coming out of a fundamental place in the structures of our society in its reactions to protesters in general and women specifically.

I do think there are specific authoritarian strains our society that have intensified since 9/11 and manifest in the compliance activities I chronicle on this site. I also am sure that technology – our easy access to video and photo – means that we record and disseminate events that otherwise would be ignored or turn into one person’s word against another (a situation in which the state controls the permanent record of “truth,” all too often).

In the meantime, used war gear is flowing to police departments at an unprecedented rate as the war in Afganistan winds down. They’re going to want to use this stuff.

The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs.Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.”

So, now you can get your haircut safely. Do not, however, try to protest against the government.

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