‘Violent’ Protests and the Illegitimacy of Symbolic Violence

(Before beginning to read this post, I recommend you refer to my post about symbolic violence, whose ideas were foundational for the questions I ask as I describe and analyze the contents of the text.)

In contrast to the Euronews video I discuss that highlights police presence and refers to protests as “peaceful,” this video from The Guardian on June 18th, 2013 frames the protests as violent but does not portray any police visually at any point in the video, except through text:



In direct contrast to the Euronews video, this video contains no audible narration and, with the exception of the Guardian’s intro sound, has only sounds recorded along with the video footage. In contrast to the other video, which was characterized by music and voice-over, this video’s sound emphasizes the sounds of the protests — at least, the ones that were portrayed. Note that none of the protesters’ words are subtitled or translated.

The video starts by showing a number of protesters dancing around a fire, with text on the screen saying that “Up to 200,000 people are out protesting nationwide in Brazil on Monday night in violent demonstrations.” Are we to assume, then, that dancing around a fire is a form of violence? What kind of violence is this? What is the meaning of “violence” in the context of this video?

The next text that appears on the screen is to explain that “Buildings and cars are set alight by masked protesters in Rio de Janeiro, where an estimated 100,000 took part.” Is the burning of buildings and cars a form of violence, then? Is it property violence? Is the burning of a car more violent than shooting somebody with a painful and potentially lethal rubber bullet?

The protesters’ demands are summarized with the next text that appears. It says that “People are angry about poor public services, tough policing and high spending for the World Cup.” As the “Public Screen” article argued, the portrayal of violence seems to lead, in some way, to the representation of protesters’ demands. Still, this text is the only thing in the video that talks about the protests as something political; the rest of the video seems to focus on “violence” and a sort of non-narrated representation of chaos.

The next shots show a large number of protesters on the street moving in a similar direction, and text explains that these images “show protesters storming a congress building in the capital, Brasilia.”

The next images show footage of a bank that has been ransacked, and there is what appears to be a looter who runs away from the bank with a bag that is perhaps assumed to contain money. The text explains that “At least one bank in Rio is looted and firefighters struggle to contain the blaze.” The battle is between looters, presumably seeking their own profit, and firefighters, who “struggle” to contain the blaze and the chaos. (The possibility that protesters used symbolic violence on the bank to send a political message about established capital and the banking system is not considered; only the looters become the focus of this particular media representation.)

The next images show somebody kicking a piece of metal on a somewhat ransacked building, along an empty street lit with reddish lights with the sounds of helicopters and ambulances in the background. Soon after, we see images of somebody putting out a fire on a sidewalk with a fire extinguisher, with text that reads: “Police use teargas and rubber bullets against protesters – tactics they have been criticised for in the past days.”

It is important that the “criticisms” of police were included in the text; the video has, at least, the impression of not being entirely one-sided. If we analyze this for a brief moment, however, things become more problematic. Note that the title of the video, and the very first text that appears in the video, labels the protests as “violent.”  The initial text referred to the protests as “violent demonstrations.”‘ Meanwhile, while the criticism of police is mentioned, this is mentioned as criticism, and is not explicitly referred to as violence. In other words, whether or not the police were engaging in violence is a matter of political position and criticism, while the “violence” of demonstrators is assumed throughout the video.

That’s not to mention the fact that the police being criticized for violence “in the past days” completely misses the context of the Brazilian police system, which is often studied specifically in terms of its violence, since the military police are trained in military tactics. [Citation: Me. Based on my own knowledge. This could be wrong, and could be influenced by my ow interest in studying institutionalized violence as well as my own experiences with the military police.]

The final text that appears in the video explains that “The marches, which coincide with the Confederations Cup, come after smaller protests over a bus fare rise.” Protesters are shown in a crowd with a huge variety of flags and banners with a huge variety of slogans, but the chants of the protesters are not translated or referred to in any way.

As the video ends, the name of The Guardian again appears on the screen, with the subtitle, “the whole picture.”

The whole picture of what? Presumably, “the whole picture” must not include any visual representations of police violence. It must not include any attempt to interpret and translate demands and voices of protesters except in a relatively depoliticized, generalized way. It must not include reflexive representations of the people making the representations. In short, there’s a lot of things that aren’t part of “the whole picture.”

[Admittedly, there are a lot of limitations to watching only a single video. Ideally I would look at the video in the context of the Guardian and in the context of other Guardian videos about the event. Also, the video has only 8,000 views, so there is also the question of how relevant this video is. Still, based on what I saw in the video, it was very representative of the news media portrayals of the protests that I remember from June 2013. The protests were characterized mainly in terms of their violence.]

 

Violence and Dis/placement

So, where exactly is the dis/placement in this video?

Perhaps you can tell from my summary and my comments, but I have been trying to imply that the video uses the selection of its visual representations to displace the possibility of police violence. That is, while police violence could have theoretically been central to the visual representations in the video, the video instead pushed aside (displaced) that possibility in favor of showing fires and looting instigated by (potentially rather small) groups of protesters. While the police use of tear gas and rubber bullets is referred to as something that was “criticized,” it is not referred to as a sort of violence, at least not explicitly. Thus, when I say that the “possibility” of police violence is displaced, I mean to argue that the video’s presentation of protesters without presentation of police is a way to displace the police as actors in the situation and thus displace them from a position where they might be easily criticized or blamed by viewers of the video.

The rubber bullets and tear gas of the police are not seen, and thus they seem as if they must be insignificant and of small magnitude. At least, that’s the impression I got when I watched the video; it was as if any police action was useless in the face of such a large crowd, thus negating any potential problems with the use of rubber bullets and thus legitimating the [invisible] actions of the police. In this way, police violence is made to seem natural and not newsworthy, just like the timeline and summaries I analyzed from the Estadão coverage in early June 2013.

The text of the video also “displaced” other interpretations by asserting that the demonstrators were violent and by naturalizing that assertion. The text never questions itself; in its minimal and silent presence, it seems to claim to show “the whole picture,” in a distanced and objective way not immediately involved in the events being portrayed.

So, using my dis/placement framework, what was emplaced in this video, if anything?

As with my more theoretical example, I’d like to suggest that what’s being emplaced here is a sort of authority, on two levels. On one level, the authority of The Guardian is being emplaced, through the action of displacing other potential interpretations. By displaying “objective” and minimalist text along with the video rather than narrating and covering up the sounds with music, The Guardian seems to minimize its presence in the video, naturalizing its role as film recorder, editor, and interpreter. By minimizing its visible presence, The Guardian emplaces the ability to select and interpret events “for” the viewing audience, thus establishing a relationship between audience and performer (The Guardian) that emplaces The Guardian’s authority while displacing other possible meanings, such as the majority of those sought by the protesters themselves.

In this sense, The Guardian takes on the role of an “expository agent” as discussed by Szorenyi in her piece about refugee coffee table books. The protesters are shown and their voices are “heard,” making them (seem) really present in what is being shown. The Guardian “merely” takes on the role of an “expository agent,” perhaps rephrased as “actor that exposes something,” in this case “exposing” the violence of the protesters and “the whole picture.” The video gains rhetorical power because the protesters are “present” in the images, and because their voices are “heard,” even while their actual political demands, diversity, and individuality seems to largely be erased by the “expository” process.

One example of The Guardian’s role as expository agent is visible in the portrayal of the large number of protesters marching towards the Congress building. The bodies of the protesters are shown in the image, while the text explains what is shown in the image (i.e., protesters “storming” the congress building). The Guardian takes on the role of an agent that voices the protesters’ actions; The Guardian “exposes” the images in a way that is supposed to communicate “what’s really happening” to a viewing audience.  Meanwhile, by placing itself in the role as expository agent, The Guardian displaces other possible explanations of what is happening, such as, “Demonstrators  take physical control of the Congress building in response to widespread feelings that the majority of citizens have no voice in the dealings of corrupt politicians.” (This interpretation is problematic as well, of course. I merely wanted to illustrate some other options that were displaced, perhaps inevitably, by the representation of an interpretation.)

Another example of The Guardian’s role as expository agent involves the footage of an Itaú bank. Yes, there is nearly incontrovertible visual ‘evidence’ that one particular bank is being ransacked by a particular group of protesters in a particular place, but the Guardian uses this footage to argue (somewhat implicitly and somewhat explicitly) that “violence” and looting were widespread on the part of demonstrators during the nationwide protests. Thus, the Guardian takes on the role of “expository agent” to “expose” the violence of the protesters, even while effacing the protesters’ political agency by displacing their politics and demands.

In some sense, then, what is being displaced in the video is “the political,” or, specifically, the politics of protesters’ demands. What is being emplaced is a certain type of authority on the part of the Guardian, partly in terms of its role as an “expository agent.”

The other level of emplacement in this video could be seen as the emplacement of the natural authority of the state, which happens through the process of displacing the possibility of police violence by representing the demonstrators as violent actors. By displacing visual representations of the policing agents of the state, the video seems to imply that state absence is correlated with “violence” and fires and chaos. (At least, that’s the impression I got.) While police actions are up for criticism according to The Guardian, they are not significant enough to be visible in the video footage. They are displaced from the field of visual dialogue, and thus not up for direct questioning, at least in the discussion between viewer and audience.

 

Szörényi, Anna. “The images speak for themselves? Reading refugee coffee-table books.” Visual Studies, 21:1(April 2006), 24-41. Web.

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