How does one prepare for martial law?
July 15, 2012 5:25 AM   Subscribe

So... A friend of mine's predicting martial law here in the UK by Christmas. As a thought experiment, how does somebody in the western world prepare for martial law? Are there any examples of western countries where this has occurred in recent times? What happened? What advice is there?
posted by humblepigeon to Law & Government (19 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Canada, The October Crisis. Similar to martial law, but the military was "in a support role" rather than superseding civil authority.

As for how to prepare: "martial law" could take a lot of different forms. If you want to pursue the thought experiment, ask your friend what the specifics of the martial law situation would be - are the military trying to control widespread rioting? were the police all teleported away and there's a power vacuum?
posted by dubold at 5:46 AM on July 15, 2012

It depends on what your friend thinks of when he says "martial law". Is it "OMG FASCISM!!!"? Your friend would perhaps also need to reveal his preferences: is he a collaborator or resistor, etc.

In the United States, you may have marital law declarations when the civil police forces are unable to do their duty. This can have a number of causes, but natural disaster are a usual example, as is wide-spread rioting that overwhelms the local police forces (e.g., the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict). In most of these circumstances, people perceive a relatively limited time frame for the state of martial law, and expect a return to civil authority after the crisis passes. So, again, why does your friend think there will be martial law in the UK later this year, and what does he mean by it?
posted by chengjih at 5:49 AM on July 15, 2012

I suspect that you mean "martial law to quell rioting and prevent further political agitation since the UK is sort of spiraling toward soft fascism",thus stepped-up penalties for assembly, substantial state control of the media, more violence toward citizens, curfews, possible rationing of 'dangerous' (spray paint cans, etc) or scarce substances. Lots of either militarized police or actual troops. Arrests of "dangerous" people.

Some of this happens briefly in the US before major political events - I've had friends 'pre-emptively' arrested, I know people whose computers were seized and houses broken into, I know people whose media work was stopped.

Here is what I would expect:

1. You won't recognize it as it's happening, and most people will strive as much as possible to 'normalize' the process because it's very scary. So everyone will start saying that if someone is arrested or beaten they must be an "agitator" or a "scrounger". People will talk about how the police are needed, even though things were fine before. People will put a positive face on it and rationalize what the state is doing - "we need to stop protestors using Twitter for security reasons", etc etc.

2. You'll see a very strong class/race narrative about scroungers, chavs, etc which will be used to justify sweeps of the streets, mass arrests, driving out the people made homeless by benefit cuts. Or possibly you'll see work camps. But you won't think "OMG, work camps! This is just like the USSR!" because they will be disguised under benign language. Unless you know people who are being kicked around, it will be very difficult for you to believe that it is happening. Everyone always thinks that they'll recognize and resist fascism, but it seldom happens - I've been on both sides, the 'everything is normal' side and the "OMG, you have to believe me, they just arrested my friends by night and I don't know where they were taken!" side.

3. No one will say "ok, the UK is now under Martial Law! Please check your rights at the door!" It will be accomplished by a set of emergency measures that may, individually, seem harsh but fair. Some middle class people will be totally unaffected and not notice anything. This is how it was in Pinochet's Chile, in terms of the middle class.

4. Here is what I would do

- start keeping a journal, but be aware that there is a small but non-negligable risk that it could be seized if you are political. (I've had friends whose papers were seized. Oh, everyone was later cleared of all charges - these were political arrests intended to get people off the streets, cost them money, scare them, use up our energies on bail, legal fees, etc) The reason to keep the journal is so you can notice how and when things happen.

- if you are the type to go all French Resistance, stock up on permanent markers and paint now before those purchases get complicated.

- Have a check-in system with your political friends. If things really go pear-shaped, you'll want to be aware when people get arrested. Make a plan for how much you're willing to do to get them out - are you willing to risk arrest yourself by refusing to disperse, etc etc?

- Have a non-electronic communication plan - if something big happens and it is not safe to use the phone, how will you talk to people?

- Have a bicycle and know how to use it. Have a bike basket or panniers. Transit may be limited or watched, but things would have to go total-Stalin for all ordinary walking or biking to be monitored.

- Get rid of distinguishing marks ahead of time - don't have white-person dreads or really obvious piercings, etc. (Unless you are already famous - if you're already famous then stay as visible as possible). The police already know who the big agitators are (the UK police were some of the first people to really get into taking photos to give out for officers to carry around at demos) but no sense in making it easy.

- Maybe stock up on favorite snacks, books, etc. Make sure you have a way to play music that isn't the internet, just in case (I bet internet will still be available since it's so important but certain music-sharing sites might be shut down) Martial law will be depressing, and being able to dance and have parties at home will be important.

- Make sure your friends stop committing petty infractions, if possible. No sense in being vulnerable to arrest for Trivial Thing as a proxy for Big Thing. \

- Be careful who you talk to, as there will be informants.

Mostly what I'm betting on in the UK is soft fascism. It will be disguised as an intensification of the attacks on scroungers, chavs, 'lazy' disabled people, 'radical Islamists' and unruly students that are already going on. People will be afraid and broke, so they won't kick too much. It will be papered over with nonsense like the Royal Wedding. You won't recognize it at first. It will not look like you think.
posted by Frowner at 6:10 AM on July 15, 2012 [96 favorites]

Response by poster: As I hoped the question implies, I'm not that interested in a discussion of my friend's prediction. I don't even know his full thinking but I suspect he's paranoid about the continuing banking crisis, plus a weak British government (a coalition of young, inexperienced politicians), plus the olympics drawing all our resources. All it might take is a major negative event at the right time, whether that's terrorism, an outbreak of influenza, the death of the Euro, or even another run on British banks (perhaps caused by the on-going Libor scandal).

So while I don't want the cause of the martial law to be the thought experiment, as fun as that is, the context is important, and I'd guess it takes the form of some kind of major event happening after which politicians decide to place the country on lockdown.

My questions are really basic. Things like: Does money still have any value during martial law?
posted by humblepigeon at 6:11 AM on July 15, 2012

Oh, and there will be a lot of lies about what the 'dangerous' people are up to. In 2008 during the run-up to the Republican National Convention here, there were a huge number of actual, bald-faced lies told by the state and the police to the media about 'plans' they had uncovered. (As you can tell from my posts, I knew some of the people involved in this.)

There will probably be police stings (probably against Muslims) to lure a few sad, crazy individuals into making dangerous threats, and then that will be used to justify violent aggression. Most people will believe this, even if it comes out later that it was lies. That's what happened here.
posted by Frowner at 6:14 AM on July 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

In the US, I think the canonical example is Lincoln suspending habeas corpus and imposing martial law during the Civil War. (See this article.) But 150 years isn't particularly recent.

Then there's the whole military commissions thing.

One could, I suppose, argue that conscription amounts to an imposition of martial law because it subjects people who would otherwise be civilians to military law.

Are the police allowed to strike in Britain? That's probably where I'd look for an example of getting the army out in place of the police (given that they got the army out when the firemen went on strike), but whether you want to call it martial law is debatable. It's certainly giving the military police powers, but retaining civil law.

Of course, they're apparently getting the army out for the Olympics, as G4S (who seem to get police powers on occasion) can't fulfill the contract.
posted by hoyland at 6:20 AM on July 15, 2012

Does money still have any value during martial law

Yes, most likely. I mean, it's not a radical coup we're talking about here, where every structure is overturned, right?

The purpose of "martial law" is to make sure that power is continued to be held by the regime, in the face of pressure from those not in power. So it's in the regime's interest to keep the currency working, although I imagine a tremendously devalued currency could be another way of keeping people in line.
posted by dubold at 6:43 AM on July 15, 2012

Lord Hennesy's The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 - a meticulous administative history of the Civil Service's plans for a post nuclear war Britain, recently updated for the new terrorist age - might be a very good guide for the practical imposition of something like martial law without recourse to either conspiracy theory or fantasies of the jackboot.

Alternatively, one could look at the history of British military involvement in Northern Ireland for some pointers...
posted by bebrogued at 7:16 AM on July 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hide a small boat somewhere around Dover. Keep a pile of euro under your mattress. Abscond to mainland Europe when you decide you've had enough.
posted by adamrice at 9:02 AM on July 15, 2012

From an American perspective, most times that "martial law" is invoked -- in my experience -- are to do with short-term natural disasters or severe social unrest (i.e. widespread urban rioting).

In these situations, it's usually pretty understandable that there would be unusual restrictions on people's activity. If there's been a hurricane and power lines are down everywhere and roads may be impassable, yes, you tell people to stay home. If there's rioting going on, most people are not going to want to be a part of it, anyway, and are going to stay home. (E. G. the police want to make it easy to pick out the people on the way to loot stores from the people who are just going out to pick up a carton of milk at 2am, just because it's the time that works for them.)

So I would say that if it's something like this that your friend is predicting, the best thing to do is to stay flexible, have emergency preparedness supplies at home, and keep in mind the reasons for the inconvenience/temporary loss of civil liberties.

Re money specifically. In my experience dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes (and I'd imagine that other natural disasters would probably fall into this category), yes, of course, though the economics of everyday life get weird. For example, there might be price gouging. Also, in my experience this is where the haves vs. the have-nots gets thrown into stark relief. If you have resources (financial, but also social, educational, etc.), you can deal with these temporary difficulties pretty well. If you don't, you're at the mercy of the authorities. And in those cases, temporary martial law due to a disaster probably feels a lot more fascist than it would to someone who understands what's going on, lives in a nice safe house, has money to get what they need despite price gouging, etc.

If your friend is worried that there will be permanent martial law due to encroaching fascism? I don't know what to say for that, because it just seems so incredibly unlikely. And even if it were true, what could one person really do about it? And because that scenario in 2012 would look very different from the archetypal fantastists' example of WW2, it's hard to say what the right way of preparing would be. I don't think that's something you really can prepare for, besides being observant, knowing your rights, recognizing when they're being taken away, and understanding your political options both within and outside the system.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind too, re Frowner's answers, that martial law was never specifically invoked during the RNC protests, and a lot of what she's talking about happens all the time and is not actually martial law.

This is worth remembering because there are plenty of modern day examples of political suppression and removal of civil rights without martial law being part of it, and also because most modern day examples of martial law being implemented are not political in nature. So if you're looking for the former/what Frowner is talking about, you're probably not looking for martial law. And if you're talking about actual martial law, all the bicycles and hair dye in the world aren't going to change anything.
posted by Sara C. at 9:43 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is some evidence that parts of the British establishment were considering a coup in the early 1970s during the Harold Wilson government, so you should read up on that to see what their plans were. Here is a good place to start, and there is more detail here.
posted by baggers at 1:50 PM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems pertinent to mention, following baggers, a 1982 instance of political apprehension which inspired Chris Mullin to write A Very British Coup.

There are also two (both very good, though neither is perfect) dramatizations of the occupation of the Channel Islands under Nazi Germany: Enemy at the Door and Island at War. These both show, for example, how a system of martial law has to make allowances so that some semblance of normal life is possible, or else things collapse and become unmanageable.

This is worth remembering because there are plenty of modern day examples of political suppression and removal of civil rights without martial law being part of it

There's always the old quote misattributed to Sinclair Lewis that when fascism comes to America, it will [either be] "wrapped in the American flag" or "called anti-Fascism". I feel certain that in a modern democracy such as the US or UK martial law that does NOT follow an obvious natural disaster, military invasion, or nuclear destruction would certainly not be obviously billed as martial law. I don't think either country is really in danger of becoming a police state as such, but we are seeing broad acceptance of militarization of the police and a number of restrictions of civil liberties that could have seemed unthinkable a generation ago. It's likely that any further restrictions would come in the form of the pot containing a frog being boiled on the stove. But then, look how quickly things changed after 9/11 -- even for countries that weren't attacked.
posted by dhartung at 6:43 PM on July 15, 2012

"- if you are the type to go all French Resistance, stock up on permanent markers and paint now before those purchases get complicated."

I think there is a loss of the sense of scale here if you think that midnight raids to hang protest banners is equivalent to a movement that operated underground presses, conducted guerrilla raids and anti-materiel strikes, and performed intelligence services for the Allies. Tens of thousands of Frenchmen in the Resistance fought during the Normandy invasion. If you genuinely wanted to encourage someone to 'go all French Resistance,' I think you might be better served by telling them to learn how to perform anti-materiel demolitions, or how to fire a Garand. How to encrypt messages or move in squad formation at night. Markers, not quite so much.

If I can speak to the original question, it sounds more as though you're interested in how civil society operates and how one prepares to live in such a society, rather than the perfervid plans of we internet dorks about how you can crush the Cylon menace\WOLVERINES!. I suggest that descriptions of life in occupied countries might be useful? Someone better read than I could perhaps recommend literature on what daily life is like in Iraq for the better part of the last decade, although the utility of that example might be limited due to the substantial difference in pre-war civil society there compared to the UK. What about life in occupied Paris? Anyone can poke a million holes in this example, but in some fundamental ways the organizing principle underlying pre-war French society is perhaps not quite so radically different from those by which our own operate.

I would second the recommendation of Dee Extrovert's comments about life during the Balkan war.
posted by samofidelis at 6:49 PM on July 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Chocolate, liquor, cigarettes, and other things to which people are addicted, and that people really want, are east to store, and if not needed for an emergency, hey, you have booze, chocolate and smokes. There have been threads on having an emergency kit (jump bag, bug-out bag). If you use prescription meds, make sure you have extra. Have a good radio that can be cranked and/or uses solar; information is critical. Think about what you really have to have, and every time you buy, say, condoms (tampons, shampoo, etc.), buy an extra pack.

Having good skills, some useful tools, and having a strong network is incredibly useful. If you can fix bikes, you can trade work/expertise for other stuff. If you have a sewing machine, you can mend clothes in exchange for stuff, etc. If you have a good network, you get news, support, help, and a group to share resources with.
posted by theora55 at 9:06 PM on July 15, 2012

In the US, at least in modern times (the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, etc.) martial law usually includes a mandatory dusk-to-dawn curfew. So, you should probably assume you'll be stuck at home (or someone else's home) 10-12 hours at a time. Hopefully you've got a book and magazine stash, right?

And candles, too -- because I would assume that any prolonged "event" would also include disruptions to the power supply, or rolling blackouts. So you might want to think about checking out those new foldable solar panels that fold up to the size of a laptop. You can get them on Amazon for surprisingly little. They can trickle-feed a battery, or be daisy-chained together for higher drain items. Some of the larger ones actually can charge an iPad or laptop while you use them. (I'm not sure how well they'd hold up in the UK fog, though.)

Of course, that assumes that you'll have an uncensored Internet to browse with said laptop. You probably won't, although hacker-built workarounds will come eventually. Maybe you should brush up on your Linux skills, or learn about networking protocols, or mesh networks, or Tor, or get a ham radio licens, while these things are still easy to do.

If things really go south economically, some sort of black market and/or barter economy will pop up eventually. You might want to think about storing supplies solely to trade them with your neighbors later on. Six months into an awful crisis, I bet a lot of otherwise upstanding people would be happy to get their hands on a pack of cigarettes, a box of tampons, a chocolate bar, coffee, birth control (including morning-after pills), and so on.

Finally, this list is geared more towards the "zombies attack" type of societal collapse scenario than a government clampdown, but it's a good read anyway: The First 100 Items To Disappear During An Emergency. There are many variations of this list online on survivalist-tupe forums and blogs, but in my opinion they always seem to be missing an important concern, though: what if the (local) government passes an anti-hoarding law? It's unpatriotic, doncha know.

Which is why you might want to learn about geocaching...
posted by Asparagirl at 9:15 PM on July 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

My questions are really basic. Things like: Does money still have any value during martial law?

Yes; the point of martial law is to enforce order, not diminish it. If "martial law" is a repsone to a temporary emergency, like a riot or disaster, this is especially so. If by "martial law" you mean prelude/result of a coup, the answer will ultimately depend on the forces now controlling the jursidiction. However, it's unlikely a group would seek to dominate a polity only to remove all systems of control and order.

Basic society would only break down if armed resistance to martial law, or the disaster that lead to it's enaction, had shut down civil society; which is sort of a different question.
posted by spaltavian at 6:38 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

What will instigate martial law? (that will strongly determine what to prepare for):

The purpose of martial law is to ensure the continuity of the state following the loss of the rule of law. Causes of loss of rule of law? Five broad scenarios: (1) financial crisis; (2) energy crisis; (3) terrorism crisis; (4) food crisis; (5) climate crisis.

Conditions for (1) and (2) already in place (Closure of Straits of Hormuz, catastrophic cascade of loss of confidence in global finance system, etc.). Controls for (3) in place to some extent. (4) and (5) not in the next 5 years at least. Plan around (1) or (2). (1) and (2) will trigger each other, so plan for both.

Proximate effects? Money stops working (more accurate - current illusion that it does work evaporates) - look at Iceland collapse aftermath. Local currency/barter/reciprocal obligation replaces money. Failure of transaction fulfilment processes - failure of just-in-time food and fuel distribution systems - food, fuel, gas and electricity rationing/failure. Violent competition for scarce resources exceeds civil disorder control resources. Revenge taking. Seasonal effect: if winter, rapid increase in infant/geriatric cold related mortality.

I find Orlov, Greer and the Transition Network valuable in my practical preparations. I haven't thought too much about Frowner's stuff of actual martial law, mine is more about preparing for the causes of it. So I:

1. am reducing my dependence to the largest extent possible on everything that comes from more than 20 miles away;
2. have joined a community and am building relationships - this will be the framework of reciprocal obligation and mutual trust that will replace financial transactions;
3. abandoned my pre-crisis career (oil, ironically) and am learning a skill that others will find valuable;
4. am participating in a local currency system;
5. am replacing 50% of my food with stuff I grow myself (on an annual basis);
6. have built a zero energy home with (potentially) no grid dependence.

How all that will function under martial law I don't know. But my assumption that it is necessary if not sufficient.

[By the way - I had no idea others were asking this question, or thinking about it. Thank you, and to all the posters above, for this excellent thread which I am learning so much from.]
posted by falcon at 11:19 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

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