Cathy Schneider of American University discusses situation in Ferguson
On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York.
More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march — environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups — which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.
As a few of the march’s organizers, though, we can give some sense of why we, at least, are marching, words we think represent many of those who will gather at Columbus Circle for the walk through midtown Manhattan.
We march because the world has left the Holocene behind: scientists tell us that we’ve already raised the planet’s temperature almost one degree Celsius, and are on track for four or five by century’s end. We march because Hurricane Sandy filled the New York City subway system with salt water, reminding us that even one of the most powerful cities in the world is already vulnerable to slowly rising ocean levels.
We march because we know that climate change affects everyone, but its impacts are not equally felt: those who have contributed the least to causing the crisis are hit hardest, here and around the world. Communities on the frontlines of global warming are already paying a heavy price, in some cases losing the very land on which they live. This isn’t just about polar bears any more.
And we march for generations yet to come, our children, grandchildren and their children, whose lives will be systematically impoverished and degraded. It’s the first time one century has wrecked the prospects of the millennia to come, and it makes us mad enough to march.
We march with hope, too. We see a few great examples around the world of how quickly we could make the transition to renewable energy. We know that if there were days this summer when Germany generated nearly 75% of its power from renewable sources of energy, the rest of us could, too — especially in poorer nations around the equator that desperately need more energy. And we know that labor-intensive renewables would provide far more jobs than capital-intensive coal, gas and oil.
And we march with some frustration: why haven’t our societies responded to 25 years of dire warnings from scientists? We’re not naïve; we know that the fossil fuel industry is the 1% of the 1%. But sometimes we think we shouldn’t have to march. If our system worked the way it should, the world would long ago have taken the obvious actions economists and policy gurus have recommended — from taxing carbon to reflect the damage it causes to funding a massive World War II-scale transition to clean energy.
Marching is not all, or even most, of what we do. We advocate; we work to install solar panels; we push for sustainable transit. We know, though, that history shows marching is usually required, that reason rarely prevails on its own. (And we know that sometimes even marching isn’t enough; we’ve been to jail and we’ll likely be back.)
We’re tired of winning the argument and losing the fight. And so we march. We march for the beaches and the barrios. We march for summers when the cool breeze still comes down in the evening. We march because Exxon spends $100 million every day looking for more hydrocarbons, even though scientists tell us we already have far more in our reserves than we can safely burn. We march for those too weak from dengue fever and malaria to make the journey. We march because California has lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to the fierce drought that won’t end, and because the glaciers at the roof of Asia are disappearing. We march because researchers told the world in April that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun to melt “irrevocably”; Greenland’s ice shield may soon follow suit; and the waters from those, as rising seas, will sooner or later drown the world’s coastlines and many of its great cities.
We don’t march because there’s any guarantee it will work. If you were a betting person, perhaps you’d say we have only modest hope of beating the financial might of the oil and gas barons and the governments in their thrall. It’s obviously too late to stop global warming entirely, but not too late to slow it down — and it’s not too late, either, to simply pay witness to what we’re losing, a world of great beauty and complexity and stability that has nurtured humanity for thousands of years.
There’s a world to march for — and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn’t march. More
The horror we saw in Ferguson may be just the start. Here’s some other police gear our military is working on.
Now that the sight of American police decked out as if they are replaying the events of Blackhawk Down has alerted the American public to the militarization of our police agencies, perhaps they will finally be receptive to the warnings that some of us have been making for years about the next generation of weapons that are being developed for “crowd control.” As we’ve seen over the past few days, regardless of whether it’s created for military purposes, this gear tends to eventually end up on the streets of the United States.
In Ferguson this week the police used one of these new weapons, the LRAD, also known as a sound cannon. These were developed fairly recently as an interdiction device to repel pirates or terrorists in the aftermath of the attack on the USS Cole. But their use as a weapon to disperse crowds quickly became obvious. In Ferguson it seems to have served mostly as a warning device, but it can cause substantial pain and hearing damage if it’s deployed with the intent to send crowds running in the opposite direction. It’s been used liberally by police departments for the past few years, even at such benign public gatherings as a sand castle competition in San Diego, California. The police chief (as it happens, the former FBI agent in charge at the Ruby Ridge standoff) explained that it was there in case they needed it. Evidently, San Diego takes its sand castle competitions very seriously.
But the LRAD is a toy compared to some of the other weapons the military industrial complex has been developing to deal with “crowd control.” Take Shockwave, the new electric shock weapon developed by Taser International, a sort of taser machine gun:
The cartridges are tethered by 25-foot wires, which can be fired from a distance of up to 100 meters in a 20-degree arc. The “probes” on the end of the cartridges can pierce through clothing and skin, emitting 50,000 volts of electricity in the process.
“Full area coverage is provided to instantaneously incapacitate multiple personnel within that region” Taser explains.
“Multiple Shockwave units can be stacked together (like building blocks) either horizontally or vertically in order to extend area coverage or vertically to allow for multiple salvo engagements.” The product description states.
The weapons can also be vehicle mounted or “daisy chained” according to Taser. Clearly it is anticipated that these things will be used on sizable crowds, meaning an increased likelihood of indiscriminate targeting.
The Department of Defense touts the use of these weapons as battlefield devices, but considering the huge market for military gear among police forces, it’s fairly obvious that they have been developed for domestic use as well. You can watch a demonstration of the device here. You’ll note the demo opens with the question: “What if you could drop everyone in a given area to the ground with the push of a button?” (They leave out the part where they are all screaming and writhing in terrible pain …)
And then there’s Taser’s new shotgun style taser called the XREP (for Extended Range External Projectile).It has the advantage of being able to be shot from a real gun and it delivers 20 long excruciating seconds of unbearable pain as opposed to the wimpy 5 seconds of the regular taser — which kills people with regularity. (You can see a demonstration of that one here.) The Taser drone is still in development but it’s sure to be a very welcome addition to the electroshock weapon arsenal.
If we believe, as Joe Scarborough does, that citizens are required to instantly comply with police regardless of the situation, these devices are perfect enforcement tools. On the other hand, if you believe that citizens have a right to peacefully protest and that police are not automatically entitled to deference in all circumstances, then you might want to think twice about the use of these weapons. They are only barely better than allowing police to shoot into crowds with bullets. Tasers can kill people and cause them to badly injure themselves and they are far too easy for police to use indiscriminately since the public has been brainwashed into believing they are harmless.
But there’s more. The military has been developing something called the Active Denial System, also known as the Pentagon’s Ray Gun. “60 Minutes” did a laudatory story on it a few years back in which it showed the training exercises the Army was using to test the weapon for potential use in Iraq. The funny thing was that the exercises featured soldiers dressed as protesters carrying signs that said “world peace,” “love for all,” which the “60 Minutes” correspondent characterized as something soldiers might confront in Iraq. (Who knew there was a large contingent of American-style hippies in Iraq staging antiwar protests?) The weapon itself is something out of science fiction: It’s a beam of electromagnetic radiation that heats the skin to a painful 130 degrees allegedly without inflicting permanent damage. They claim there have been almost no side effects or injuries. It just creates terrible pain and panics the peaceniks into dispersing on command. What could be better than that? Imagine how great it would be if any time a crowd gathers and the government wants to shut it down, they can just zap it with heat and send everyone screaming in agony and running in the opposite direction.
In his thorough Harper’s investigation on this subject, reporter Ando Arike explained the purpose behind all these new technologies:
[We have] an international arms-development effort involving an astonishing range of technologies: electrical weapons that shock and stun; laser weapons that cause dizziness or temporary blindness; acoustic weapons that deafen and nauseate; chemical weapons that irritate, incapacitate, or sedate; projectile weapons that knock down, bruise, and disable; and an assortment of nets, foams, and sprays that obstruct or immobilize. “Non-lethal” is the Pentagon’s approved term for these weapons, but their manufacturers also use the terms “soft kill,” “less-lethal,” “limited effects,” “low collateral damage,” and “compliance.” The weapons are intended primarily for use against unarmed or primitively armed civilians; they are designed to control crowds, clear buildings and streets, subdue and restrain individuals, and secure borders. The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.
As I wrote earlier, in a couple of weeks the Soft-kill Convention, also known as Urban Shield, will be holding its annual trade show in Oakland, California. Police agencies from all over the world will attend to try out the various types of modern weapons that will be on display there. The super high-tech weapons described above are probably some years away from the commercial market. But it’s highly likely they will make their way to the police eventually through one of the many ways the weapons manufacturers manage to put this equipment in the hands of civilian authorities — if the federal government continues to make money available for that purpose.
Hopefully, Ferguson has alerted the public to the danger to our civil rights and liberties brought by the federal government arming police forces to the teeth with military gear. But it’s going to take vigilance to ensure that the next time we see civil unrest and peaceful protests on the streets of America, the authorities won’t be responding with electroshock or laser weapons or electromagnetic radiation devices designed purely for the purpose of gaining instant compliance from people in a crowd. If Americans foolishly accept these weapons as an improvement on the harsher methods we might see today there is a grave danger that we will be giving authorities much more power to quell dissent. In a free society it shouldn’t be easy to quell dissent. If it is, that society won’t be free for very long. More
Is the Ferguson Movement the begining of a Nationwide Movement driven by Racism and Economic Disparity?
In the eight days since Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old, was killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, what began as an impromptu vigil evolved into a sustained protest; it is now beginning to look like a movement. The local QuikTrip, a gas station and convenience store that was looted and burned on the second night of the protests, has now been repurposed as the epicenter for gatherings and the exchange of information. The front of the lot bears an improvised graffiti sign identifying the area as the “QT People’s Park.” With the exception of a few stretches, such as Thursday afternoon, when it was veiled in clouds of tear gas, protesters have been a constant presence in the lot. On Sunday afternoon the area was populated by members of local churches, black fraternity and sorority groups, Amnesty International, the Outcast Motorcycle Club, and twenty or so white supporters from the surrounding area. On the north side of the station, a group of volunteers with a mobile grill served free hot dogs and water, and a man stood on a crate, handing out bright yellow T-shirts with the logo of the National Action Network, the group led by Al Sharpton.
The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics. Two men I spoke with pointed to the disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby. Another talked about being pulled over by an officer who claimed to smell marijuana in the car as a pretense for searching him. “I’m in the United States Navy,” he told me. “We have to take drug tests in the military so I had proof that there were no drugs in my system. But other people can’t do that.” Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.
Ferguson had, instead, recently seen two highly visible African-American public officials lose their jobs. Two weeks before Brown was shot, Charles Dooley, an African-American who has served as St. Louis County Executive for a decade, lost a bitter primary election to Steve Stenger, a white county councilman, in a race that, whatever the merits of the candidates, was seen as racially divisive. Stenger lobbed allegations of financial mismanagement and incompetence, and worse. Bob McCulloch, the county prosecutor appeared in an ad for Stenger, associating Dooley with corruption; McCulloch would also be responsible for determining whether to charge Darren Wilson. In December, the largely white Ferguson-Florissant school board fired Art McCoy, the superintendent, who is African-American. Those who were gathered at the QuikTrip parking lot on Saturday were as inclined to talk about the underlying political issues as they were about the hail of bullets that ended Brown’s life.
When word came that afternoon that the governor had announced a curfew, to take effect at midnight, the mood shifted to defiance and disbelief. Few thought that the curfew would do much practical good; many thought it was counterproductive, a move back to militarized police response earlier in the week. Curfew or no, the protesters felt that, with the exception of last Thursday, when Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, a black Ferguson native, took charge of operations, the amalgam of county and local law enforcement rolling through Ferguson had tried to clear the streets each day at dusk.
On Johnson’s first night in charge, the police presence in the neighborhood was hardly visible; officers withdrew to the perimeter and removed a roadblock that had cut off Florissant Road, which runs just south of the QuikTrip. The protests that night had a giddy quality. Cars drove up and down the strip, the sounds of honking horns accompanying shouts of Brown’s name and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” which has emerged as the signature slogan here.
But as early as Friday morning people began to wonder if Johnson really was in charge, in any meaningful way. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson began the day by releasing Officer Wilson’s name, which had been kept from the public until then. He undercut that gesture by simultaneously releasing a video that appeared to show Brown menacing a local store owner soon before his encounter with Wilson—thus suggesting that Wilson had been pursuing Brown as a suspect. It took a few hours, and a second press conference, for Jackson to acknowledge that Wilson hadn’t stopped Brown because he thought he was a robber but because Brown was walking in the street and not, as Wilson believed he should, on the sidewalk.
Ron Johnson had to concede that he had not even known that the video would be released; he saw it on television just as everyone else had. (“I would like to have been consulted,” he said at his own press conference.) After sporadic looting on Saturday night—halted largely by other protestors who rushed to protect the establishments being vandalized—Governor Jay Nixon declared a curfew, further undercutting Johnson’s authority. In the span of twenty-four hours, Johnson had gone, in the community’s eyes, from empowered native son to black token. One of the local activists I’d met in Feguson sent me a text message after the curfew announcement saying, “Johnson has good intentions but no power. This is beyond him.”On Sunday, Johnson stepped into the pulpit at Greater Grace Church, the site of a rally, and apologized to Brown’s family, saying, “I wear this uniform and I feel like that needs to be said.” With that, he implicitly condemned the Ferguson Police Department for their failure to do so. Johnson had promised not to use tear gas in the streets of Ferguson but, during a skirmish with looters on Saturday night, police tear-gassed the crowd. Johnson’s address at the church carried the message that his allegiances were, nonetheless, with the people of Ferguson. James Baldwin remarked that black leaders chronically find themselves in a position of asking white people to hurry up while pleading with black people to wait. Johnson finds himself asking black people to remain calm while imploring white police officers not to shoot. The problem here is that few people in Ferguson believe that the former is any guarantee of the latter.
Brown remains unburied. His family, whose faith evaporated early on, refused to simply trust the autopsy performed by local authorities and held out for a second post mortem, by federal authorities. Attorney Eric Holder granted that request late Sunday morning. It might produce a definitive answer to some of the basic questions—like how many times Brown was shot, and whether any of the bullets hit him in the back—that, a week later, remain murky. From the outset, the overlapping bureaucracies in Ferguson handled the case in ways that suggested ineptitude. Yet subsequent developments—the stonewalling followed by contradictory statements, the detention of reporters, the clumsy deployment of sophisticated military equipment—all point not to a department too inept to handle this investigation objectively but one too inept to cloak the fact that they never intended to do so. One protestor held a sign that said, “Ferguson Police Need Better Scriptwriters.” More
In an article by Alex Kane entitled 11 Eye-Opening Facts About America’s Militarized Police Forces the author writing in AlterNet states; The “war on terror” has come home — and it’s wreaking havoc on innocent American lives. The culprit is the militarization of the police.
The weapons that destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq have made their way to local law enforcement. While police forces across the country began a process of militarization — complete with SWAT teams and flash-bang grenades — when President Reagan intensified the “war on drugs,” the post-9/11 “war on terror” has added fuel to the fire.
Through laws and regulations like a provision in defense budgets that authorizes the Pentagon to transfer surplus military gear to police forces, local law enforcement agencies are using weapons found on the battlefields of South Asia and the Middle East.
A recent New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo reported that in the Obama era, “police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.” The result is that police agencies around the nation possess military-grade equipment, turning officers who are supposed to fight crime and protect communities into what looks like an invading army. And military-style police raids have increased in recent years, with one count putting the number at 80,000 such raids last year.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought more attention to police militarization when it issued a comprehensive, nearly 100-page report titled, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. Based on public records requests to more than 260 law enforcement agencies in 26 states, the ACLU concluded that this police militarization “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
The information contained in the ACLU report — and in other investigations into the phenomenon — is sobering. From the killing of innocent people to the almost complete lack of debate on these policies, police militarization has turned into a key issue for Americans. It is harming civil liberties, ramping up the “war on drugs,” impacting the most marginalized members of society and transforming neighborhoods into war zones. Here are 11 important — and horrifying — things you should know about the militarization of police. More
One has to question the reason for militatising the police departments in the United States and where this is leading? Is the government expecting insurrection or invasion? Are their citizens now enemies of the state? Editor
Sometimes a single story has a way of standing in for everything you need to know. In the case of the up-arming, up-armoring and militarization of police forces across the country, there is such a story. Not the police, mind you, but the campus cops at Ohio State University now possess an MRAP; that is, a $500,000, 18-ton, mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle of a sort used in the war in Afghanistan and, as Hunter Stuart of the Huffington Post reported, built to withstand “ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IEDs and nuclear, biological and chemical environments.” Sounds like just the thing for bouts of binge drinking and post-football-game shenanigans.
That MRAP came, like so much other equipment police departments are stocking up on — from tactical military vests, assault rifles and grenade launchers to actual tanks and helicopters – as a freebie via a Pentagon-organized surplus military equipment program. As it happens, police departments across the country are getting MRAPs like OSU’s, including the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota. It’s received one of 18 such decommissioned military vehicles already being distributed around that state. So has Warren County which, like a number of counties in New York state, some quite rural, is now deploying Afghan War-grade vehicles. (Nationwide, rural counties have received a disproportionate percentage of the billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military equipment that has gone to the police in these years.)
When questioned on the utility of its new MRAP, Warren County Sheriff Bud York suggested, according to the Post-Star, the local newspaper, that “in an era of terrorist attacks on US soil and mass killings in schools, police agencies need to be ready for whatever comes their way… The vehicle will also serve as a deterrent to drug dealers or others who might be contemplating a show of force.” So, breathe a sigh of relief, Warren County is ready for the next Al Qaeda-style show of force and, for those fretting about how to deal with such things, there are now 165 18-ton “deterrents” in the hands of local law enforcement around the country, with hundreds of requests still pending.
You can imagine just how useful an MRAP is likely to be if the next Adam Lanza busts into a school in Warren County, assault rifle in hand, or takes over a building at Ohio State University. But keep in mind that we all love bargains and that Warren County’s vehicle cost the department less than $10. (Yes, you read that right!) A cornucopia of such Pentagon “bargains” has, in the post-9/11 years, played its part in transforming the way the police imagine their jobs and in militarizing the very idea of policing in this country.
Just thinking about that MRAP at OSU makes me feel like I grew up in Neolithic America. After all, when I went to college in the early 1960s, campus cops were mooks in suits. Gun-less, they were there to enforce such crucial matters as “parietal hours.” (If you’re too young to know what they were, look it up.) At their worst, they faced what in those still civilianized (and sexist) days were called “panty raids,” but today would undoubtedly be seen as potential manifestations of a terrorist mentality. Now, if there is a sit-in or sit-down on campus, as infamously at the University of California, Davis, during the Occupy movement, expect that the demonstrators will be treated like enemies of the state and pepper-sprayed or perhaps immobilized with a stun gun. And if there’s a bona fide student riot in town, the cops will now roll out an armored vehicle (as they did recently in Seattle).
By the way, don’t think it’s just the weaponry that’s militarizing the police. It’s a mentality as well that, like those weapons, is migrating home from our distant wars. It’s a sense that the US, too, is a “battlefield” and that, for instance, those highly militarized SWAT teams spreading to just about any community you want to mention are made up of “operators” (a “term of art” from the special operations community) ready to deal with threats to American life.
Embedding itself chillingly in our civilian world, that battlefield is proving mobile indeed. As Chase Madar wrote for TomDispatch the last time around, it leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court. Today, Madar returns to explain just how this particular nightmare is spreading into every crevice of American life. Tom
The Over-Policing of America
Police Overkill Has Entered the DNA of Social PolicyBy Chase Madar
If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves “solving” social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.
By now, the militarization of the police has advanced to the point where “the war on crime” and “the war on drugs” are no longer metaphors but bland understatements. There is the proliferation of heavily-armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war. (All of this is ably reported on journalist Radley Balko’s blog and in his book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop.) But American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct. It’s also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
It starts in our schools, where discipline is increasingly outsourced to police personnel. What not long ago would have been seen as normal childhood misbehavior – doodling on a desk, farting in class, a kindergartener’s tantrum – can leave a kid in handcuffs, removed from school or even booked at the local precinct. Such “criminals” can be as young as seven-year-old Wilson Reyes, a New Yorker who was handcuffed and interrogated under suspicion of stealing five dollars from a classmate. (Turned out he didn’t do it.)
Though it’s a national phenomenon, Mississippi currently leads the way in turning school behavior into a police issue. The Hospitality State has imposed felony charges on schoolchildren for “crimes” like throwing peanuts on a bus. Wearing the wrong color belt to school got one child handcuffed to a railing for several hours. All of this goes under the rubric of “zero-tolerance” discipline, which turns out to be just another form of violence legally imported into schools.
Despite a long-term drop in youth crime, the carceral style of education remains in style. Metal detectors — a horrible way for any child to start the day — are installed in ever more schools, even those with sterling disciplinary records, despite the demonstrable fact that such scanners provide no guarantee against shootings and stabbings.
Every school shooting, whether in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or Littleton, Colorado, only leads to more police in schools and more arms as well. It’s the one thing the National Rifle Association and Democratic senators can agree on. There are plenty of successful ways to run an orderly school without criminalizing the classroom, but politicians and much of the media don’t seem to want to know about them. The “school-to-prison pipeline,” a jargon term coined by activists, is entering the vernacular.
Go to Jail, Do Not Pass Go
Even as simple a matter as getting yourself from point A to point B can quickly become a law enforcement matter as travel and public space are ever more aggressively policed. Waiting for a bus? Such loitering just got three Rochester youths arrested. Driving without a seat belt can easily escalate into an arrest, even if the driver is a state judge. (Notably, all four of these men were black.) If the police think you might be carrying drugs, warrantless body cavity searches at the nearest hospital may be in the offing — you will be sent the bill later.
Air travel entails increasingly intimate pat-downs and arbitrary rules that many experts see as nothing more than “security theater.” As for staying at home, it carries its own risks as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates found out when a Cambridge police officer mistook him for a burglar and hauled him away — a case that is hardly unique.
Overcriminalization at Work
Office and retail work might seem like an unpromising growth area for police and prosecutors, but criminal law has found its way into the white-collar workplace, too. Just ask Georgia Thompson, a Wisconsin state employee targeted by a federal prosecutor for the “crime” of incorrectly processing a travel agency’s bid for state business. She spent four months in a federal prison before being sprung by a federal court. Or Judy Wilkinson, hauled away in handcuffs by an undercover cop for serving mimosas without a license to the customers in her bridal shop. Or George Norris, sentenced to 17 months in prison for selling orchids without the proper paperwork to an undercover federal agent.
Increasingly, basic economic transactions are being policed under the purview of criminal law. In Arkansas, for instance, Human Rights Watch reports that a new law funnels delinquent (or allegedly delinquent) rental tenants directly to the criminal courts, where failure to pay up can result in quick arrest and incarceration, even though debtor’s prison as an institution was supposed to have ended in the 19th century.
And the mood is spreading. Take the asset bubble collapse of 2008 and the rising cries of progressives for the criminal prosecution of Wall Street perpetrators, as if a fundamentally sound financial system had been abused by a small number of criminals who were running free after the debacle. Instead of pushing a debate about how to restructure our predatory financial system, liberals in their focus on individual prosecution are aping the punitive zeal of the authoritarians. A few high-profile prosecutions for insider trading (which had nothing to do with the last crash) have, of course, not changed Wall Street one bit.
The past decade has also seen immigration policy ingested by criminal law. According to another Human Rights Watch report — their US division is increasingly busy — federal criminal prosecutions of immigrants for illegal entry have surged from 3,000 in 2002 to 48,000 last year. This novel application of police and prosecutors has broken up families and fueled the expansion of for-profit detention centers, even as it has failed to show any stronger deterrent effect on immigration than the civil law system that preceded it. Thanks to Arizona’s SB 1070 bill, police in that state are now licensed to stop and check the papers of anyone suspected of being undocumented — that is, who looks Latino.
Meanwhile, significant parts of the US-Mexico border are now militarized (as increasingly is the Canadian border), including what seem to resemble free-fire zones. And if anyone were to leave bottled water for migrants illegally crossing the desert and in danger of death from dehydration, that good Samaritan should expect to face criminal charges, too. Intensified policing with aggressive targets for arrests and deportations are guaranteed to be a part of any future bipartisan deal on immigration reform.
As for the Internet, for a time it was terra nova and so relatively free of a steroidal law enforcement presence. Not anymore. The late Aaron Swartz, a young Internet genius and activist affiliated with Harvard University, was caught downloading masses of scholarly articles (all publicly subsidized) from an open network on the MIT campus. Swartz was federally prosecuted under the capacious Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for violating a “terms and services agreement” — a transgression that anyone who has ever disabled a cookie on his or her laptop has also, technically, committed. Swartz committed suicide earlier this year while facing a possible 50-year sentence and up to a million dollars in fines.
Since the summer, thanks to whistleblowing contractor Edward Snowden, we have learned a great deal about the way the NSA stops and frisks our (and apparently everyone else’s) digital communications, both email and telephonic. The security benefits of such indiscriminate policing are far from clear, despite the government’s emphatic but inconsistent assurances otherwise. What comes into sharper focus with every volley of new revelations is the emerging digital infrastructure of what can only be called a police state.
Sex is another zone of police overkill in our post-Puritan land. Getting put on a sex offender registry is alarmingly easy — as has been done to children as young as 11 for “playing doctor” with a relative, again according to Human Rights Watch. But getting taken off the registry later is extraordinarily difficult. Across the nation, sex offender registries have expanded massively, especially in California, where one in every 380 adults is now a registered sex offender, creating a new pariah class with severe obstacles to employment, housing or any kind of community life. The proper penalty for, say, an 18-year-old who has sex with a 14-year-old can be debated, but should that 18-year-old’s life really be ruined forever?
Equality Before the Cops?
It will surprise no one that Americans are not all treated equally by the police. Law enforcement picks on kids more than adults, the queer more than straight, Muslims more than Methodists – Muslims a lot more than Methodists — antiwar activists more than the apolitical. Above all, our punitive state targets the poor more than the wealthy and blacks and Latinos more than white people.
A case in point: after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, a police presence, including surveillance cameras and metal detectors, was ratcheted up at schools around the country, particularly in urban areas with largely working-class black and Latino student bodies. It was all to “protect” the kids, of course. At Columbine itself, however, no metal detector was installed and no heavy police presence intruded. The reason was simple. At that school in the Colorado suburb of Littleton, the mostly well-heeled white families did not want their kids treated like potential felons and they had the status and political power to get their way. But communities without such clout are less able to push back against the encroachments of police power.
Even Our Prisons Are Over-Policed
The over-criminalization of American life empties out into our vast, overcrowded prison system, which is itself over-policed. The ultimate form of punitive control (and torture) is long-term solitary confinement, in which 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are encased at any given moment. Is this really necessary? Solitary is no longer reserved for the worst or the worst or most dangerous prisoners but can be inflicted on ones who wear Rastafari dreadlocks, have a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in their cell or are in any way suspected, no matter how tenuous the grounds, of gang affiliations.
Not every developed nation does things this way. Some 30 years ago, Great Britain shifted from isolating prisoners to, whenever possible, giving them greater responsibility and autonomy — with less violent results. But don’t even bring the subject up here. It will fall on deaf ears.
Extreme policing is exacerbated by extreme sentencing. For instance, more than 3,000 Americans have been sentenced to life terms without chance of parole for nonviolent offenses. These are mostly but not exclusively drug offenses, including life for a pound of cocaine that a boyfriend stashed in the attic; selling LSD at a Grateful Dead concert; and shoplifting three belts from a department store.
Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world — triple that of the now-defunct East Germany. The incarceration rate for African-American men is about five times higher than that of the Soviet Union at the peak of the gulag.
The Destruction of Families
Prison may seem the logical finale for this litany of over-criminalization, but the story doesn’t actually end with those inmates. As prisons warehouse ever more Americans, often hundreds of miles from their local communities, family bonds weaken and disintegrate. In addition, once a parent goes into the criminal justice system, his or her family tends to end up on the radar screens of state agencies. “Being under surveillance by law enforcement makes a family much more vulnerable to Child Protective Services,” says Professor Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania Law school. An incarcerated parent, especially an incarcerated mother, means a much stronger likelihood that children will be sent into foster care, where, according to one recent study, they will be twice as likely as war veterans to suffer from PTSD.
In New York State, the Administration for Child Services and the juvenile justice system recently merged, effectively putting thousands of children in a heavily policed, penalty-based environment until they age out. “Being in foster care makes you much more vulnerable to being picked up by the juvenile justice system,” says Roberts. “If you’re in a group home and you get in a fight, that could easily become a police matter.” In every respect, the creeping over-criminalization of everyday life exerts a corrosive effect on American families.
Do We Live in a Police State?
The term “police state” was once brushed off by mainstream intellectuals as the hyperbole of paranoids. Not so much anymore. Even in the tweediest precincts of the legal system, the over-criminalization of American life is remarked upon with greater frequency and intensity. “You’re probably a (federal) criminal” is the accusatory title of a widely read essay co-authored by Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit of the US Court of Appeals. A Republican appointee, Kozinski surveys the morass of criminal laws that make virtually every American an easy target for law enforcement. Veteran defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate has written an entire book about how an average American professional could easily commit three felonies in a single day without knowing it.
The daily overkill of police power in the US goes a long way toward explaining why more Americans aren’t outraged by the “excesses” of the war on terror, which, as one law professor has argued, are just our everyday domestic penal habits exported to more exotic venues. It is no less true that the growth of domestic police power is, in this positive feedback loop, the partial result of our distant foreign wars seeping back into the homeland (the “imperial boomerang” that Hannah Arendt warned against).
Many who have long railed against our country’s everyday police overkill have reacted to the revelations of NSA surveillance with detectable exasperation: of course we are over-policed! Some have even responded with peevish resentment: Why so much sympathy for this Snowden kid when the daily grind of our justice system destroys so many lives without comment or scandal? After all, in New York, the police department’s “stop and frisk” tactic, which targets African-American and Latino working-class youth for routinized street searches, was until recently uncontroversial among the political and opinion-making class. If “the gloves came off” after September 11, 2001, many Americans were surprised to learn they had ever been on to begin with. More
Any journalist should hesitate before saying this, but news can be bad for you. You don’t have to agree with the analyst who reckons “news is to the mind what sugar is to the body” to see that reading of horror and foreboding hour by hour, day after day, can sap the soul.
This week ended with a double dose, administered within the space of a few hours: Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza and, more shocking because entirely unexpected, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.
So in Gaza we look at the wildly lopsided death tolls – nearly 300 Palestinians and two Israelis killed these past nine days.
It’s quite true that if the US truly decided that Israel’s 47-year occupation of Palestinian territory was no longer acceptable, that would bring change.
There is an interesting article by Chris Hedges entitled It's NOT going to be OK on the current economic disparity which, he believes could lead to a drastic decline in democracy as states respond to social protests. The question I ask is what can be done to slow or erradicate this process? Editor