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Dissent Through Destruction: American Political Activism and the Utilization of Property Disruption as Protest

Cushnie, Lawrence J. 2014. "Dissent Through Destruction: American Political Activism and the Utilization of Property Disruption as Protest"

Despite the extensive academic scholarship considering political resistance and activism within the United States, little has been done to orient acts destroying property as a form of political participation. I argue that dissent through destruction, as a mode of protest, is a consistent phenomenon in American political development. This dissertation considers the roots of American understandings of property as a right leading to virulent surveillance, labeling, and punishment of those indulging in destruction as participation. I argue that the state pursues political acts of destruction at levels beyond simple criminality and into the realm of retributive punishment.

Chapter 1 develops the foundations for American understandings of property and the sanctified place it enjoys in the popular imagination. I argue that the liberal roots of property, as a right to exclude, sets the stage for modern forms of categorizing destructive dissent as irrational, crazed, and beyond criminal. The second chapter considers historical case studies enjoying folkloric status as symbols of American resistance—each using the destruction of another's property as a tactic. I analyze the Boston Tea Party, Underground Railroad, and the radical temperance movement to forge connections between the radical political past and contemporary realities of dissent through destruction. Chapter 3 continues the theory building of the previous chapter by comparing movements of the New Left including the sit-in movements challenging segregation and bombing campaign of the Weather Underground confronting American imperialism at home and abroad.

In the fourth chapter, I dive into a modern case study contemplating the rising level of punishment issued to militant environmental activists in the political milieu of the 'War on Terror.' I argue that levels of punitiveness from the state increase as the political climate redefines moments of vandalism and arson as terrorism, thus requiring prison sentences in decades rather than months. Chapter 5 considers what my assertions mean to the future of dissent through destruction by considering what effects the erosion of physical public space and the growth of digital space mean for modern protest. Investigating the black bloc, Occupy, and Anonymous as the latest vanguard for radical protest; I theorize about the future choices for activists and state actors responding to new political demands.

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