9. ACTIVISM AND THE
(Note: This chapter is strongly critical of the police, which some readers may find objectionable. To such readers I must emphasize that the police, in many nations around the world, are a state sanctioned armed gang of criminals. In society after society the police rape, rob and murder with impunity. Good police officers are among the most admirable of people; these type of police, and there are a multitude of them, are the most despicable.)
I have already described how certain activist movements, such as the civil rights movement, required civil disobedience to achieve success. More generally, there is a risk of arrest with any form of direct action (and even simple protest). This chapter will explore the role of the law and the police in a society, including how they both inevitably become inflexible and intolerant, and the consequences this has for activists seeking positive social change.
The surface reason why you will be subject to arrest when pursuing direct action tactics is that you will almost certainly contravene some local law, such as one against trespassing. But, more deeply, and far more importantly, you will be arrested because in any society, either modern or traditional, the police serve only those who are in power. You are against institutions that abuse their power, but the police do not care about that. They are for the institutions they function as private security guards for them and against you. They do not enforce the laws, rather, they enforce the social order. Indeed, an extreme tendency of the process of social conditioning to which we all are subjected is that in certain societies, including totalitarian and police states, the established order, the controlling institutions, are completely above criticism. You must be highly sensitive and alert to anything that you cannot criticize, on punishment of the law, since this is an assault on your last defense, the foundation of activism, which is your right of self-expression.
(A common message of social conditioning is that we are taught to accept authority without question, if not revere it for example, in China. This predisposes us not to be critical, particularly of the sources of authority that are meant to be uncriticizable, such as the President, or police or religion.)
Even in a democracy, the evolution of the legal system is never accomplished with ease. In general this process the creation of a just set of laws, and also the impartial enforcement thereof occurs as follows:
- The people elect representatives, to form the government.
- That government passes laws.
- The people choose whether or not to follow the laws, i.e., they decide if the government truly has represented their interests.
- In cases where people disagree strongly with the laws, they break them.
- If enough people do this (or support those who do), the laws, and the judicial system, are not democratic. They do not represent the will of the people. In an intelligent and tolerant society, the representatives change the laws. In repressive and intolerant societies, they use the laws to control the public, particularly dissident and nonconformist individuals.
Governments, including supposedly democratic governments, regularly refuse to abide by the majoritys interests (there are a few circumstances where such behavior is appropriate, i.e., when the majoritys wishes are unethical). For instance, the United States government will not:
- end the exploitation and destruction of the nations remaining natural environments,
- require the labeling of genetically modified food and other products,
- and legalize the use of marijuana,
even though a majority of the public supports such moves. The reasons for this obstinacy include: the protection of government power; government collusion with other institutions; and the preservation of a means of legal repression. In addition, in many countries popularly elected officials attempt to transform themselves into dictators, by ignoring the publics wishes, and their own election promises, and by working to destroy their nations democratic institutions.
When activists oppose such behavior, this inevitably brings them into conflict with the police, and the police, in general, respond with either (or both) selective or overly enthusiastic application of the law. The law is regularly used to quell dissent, and a variety of provisions are typically brought to bear. In the U.S. these include the ordinances on the payment of income tax and the ownership of guns. If the government wants to get you, it will audit your taxes and find something wrong, or, as with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, it will use your possession of firearms as the excuse.
As an activist, you can also expect a lot of questions from the police. And lying to them, as they are well aware, is a crime. Because of this, they will interrogate you intensively, not to gather information, but to get you to commit in such a way that they can later say that you lied. Therefore, you should refuse to talk to the police. (In most cases you are only required to provide your name and address, and many activists, particularly following mass arrests at large protests, even refuse to give this.)
Probably the most common means of police repression, though, involves the selective enforcement of laws against illicit drugs. Furthermore, this practice serves a dual function since it is also used to create a common enemy (which all autocratic states require, as a means to misdirect the general public from its own repression). The following outline describes the practice:
1. Set legal standards, such as for the use of mind-altering substances, that young people, particularly young men, by their very nature ignorance, tendency towards experimentation and risk-taking, and high susceptibility to peer pressure will break in large numbers.
2. Target enforcement of the laws at selected groups, such as minorities. Also, premeditatively ignore other groups, notably the sons and daughters of the wealthy.
3. Arrest, convict and incarcerate many young men from the former groups. Under common social standards, such incarceration, however brief, constitutes lifelong punishment. Such individuals are expelled from normal society most importantly from normal employment opportunities. (Individuals who are convicted of felonies also lose the right to vote.)
4. As more young men are caught, and as a significant number of them continue to engage in the same, and related, activities since, among other reasons, they now have no other employment options, use this cycle to justify larger and larger spending on the police and on penal systems.
5. Use the former to catch more criminals. It is important to understand that the police need criminals. Its their job. If there are not enough around, their tendency will always be to create them by, with their political allies, enacting laws over things that people regularly do. Indeed, when the police (and the courts) falsely or wrongfully imprison so many people, they know they are creating not only a criminal class, but also an enemy class. And, they want this, since it justifies their continued existence: to control what they themselves have created.
(Note: Everyones a criminal now. There are so many laws that everyone, if only unwittingly, is guilty of something. Furthermore, no matter how small the infraction, the police can use it to invade, and destroy, your life.)
6. When crime becomes widespread, blame it on the minorities and wonder why more money is spent on law enforcement than education and what can be done about it.
7. Answer: legalize drugs, and use education about their ills to reduce the experimentation, and education about social influences to assist young people in their defense against peer pressure.
The existence of this complex and arcane form is the reason why it is impossible, in the United States today, to have a serious discussion about drugs and their effects on individuals and society. However, we will never solve the problem of rampant drug abuse, and the derivative problems that this causes, until we do.
Also, I want to make it clear that this is not an apology for criminal behavior. As we have seen, fighting form and expressing will is possible, and essential. I am not making an argument for modern determinists, who think that such young men are victims, and further that crime is acceptable: that it is an acceptable form of rebellion for the disadvantaged and the underprivileged. Real rebels do not engage in criminal activities, the types of criminal activities that injure other people. (Civil disobedience and noncompliance with unjust laws, though, particularly in authoritarian environments, is another matter.)
As Oppression 101 demonstrates, society is not above using a little force to repress its critics and malcontents, and will even engage in crime, break its own rules, if necessary. (It is important to recognize that laws are written and enforced largely for the benefit of the upper classes, particularly for the owners of property.)
I would further say that in a society that is rigidly conformist, there will always be a counter-culture. And in a society that oppresses, there will always be rebels. And some members of these groups will use drugs and they will commit crimes. But, although such individuals share the blame, because of the responsibility that derives from their will, the fundamental problem is not with them. The core problem is the structure of the society, particularly its direction by and for the elite, and its inflexibility and intolerance.
To return to activists, police are taught to think of unarmed, non-violent protesters as enemies of the state, on whom violence on their part is fully justified.
Incorrectly labeling people as communists, terrorists and fascists justifies a different response to that of a mere protester. They can be deemed a threat to national security, where protesters can not. It can also vindicate violence, harassment and surveillance of them by the state as has happened with the anti-nuclear movement.
- excerpt from Green Backlash, Andrew Rowell, as reviewed in the Earth First! Journal, June-July 1999, page 32
Police in a society are granted the greatest power of all: the license to kill members of that society. This is arguably the most profound relationship of trust that a society creates, and it exists for good reason. Police officers must enforce the law against the most unethical of people. They test their intelligence and exhibit great courage to the point of risking their life to do so. One of our most fundamental ethics is: if you can do something to help, you should. Good police officers do help, and to the greatest extent possible.
In many societies, though, this trust is completely misplaced. Indeed, as noted above, in dozens of nations, if not the majority, the police are a state sanctioned armed gang.
There is a very thin line between an officer in blue and a Nazi brownshirt or stormtrooper. The police in modern societies must continually guard against exhibiting the behavior of the police in such places as Burma and China. For example, U.S. police have been trained, along with the military, to suppress a popular uprising. This is effectively planning for a military coup.
The police response to activism varies by country. In Burma and China, it is harsh to the point of summarily executing dissidents. In the United Kingdom, though, it is relatively tolerant. Indeed, the vast majority of the police there are unarmed. It is interesting that in the U.K. some activists argue that media publicity of actions should not be courted. They refuse to play the medias game. Instead, they act, and the media are forced to come to them. In the United States, though, publicity is almost always sought, not only to air the activists concerns but as a defense against police repression. The tactics that U.S. police use have more in common with their counterparts in Burma and China than with the police in the U.K. and Western Europe.
A key characteristic of a police state is that the police punish without judicial process as a means to instill fear through intimidation.
- letter to the editor, Michael Van Brockhoven, Earth First! Journal, December-January 2000, page 26
Under this definition, the United States, regarding its treatment of activists, is a police state.
U.S. activists must actually confront two sets of police: the local authorities, and the FBI. Local police compile dossiers on activists, and use intimidation at actions to the point of assault, including applying pepper spray and gel to the eyes of non-violent protesters, and torturing them with pain holds. (This was on view to the world in the response of the Seattle police to the non-violent activists at the 1999 WTO meeting.) Further, they prosecute misdemeanors (and concocted felonies) against activists, while ignoring the felonies of the activist targets, and also the crimes perpetrated against the activists themselves. For instance, the local sheriff in Humboldt County, California, refused to prosecute the logger, Arlington Ammons, who killed Gypsy Chain, even though he had earlier threatened the group of activists of which Chain was a member. (This threat was taped, and could easily have been introduced as evidence.) Needless to say, he also did not prosecute Charles Hurwitz, Ammons employer. These individuals got away with murder. Instead, the sheriff tried to bring manslaughter charges against Chains fellow activists. (As background, the group was protesting illegal logging practices, and the timber companys license was revoked for these violations shortly after Chains death.)
The tactics of the FBI build on this and, of course, they work with the local police as well. In its suppression of activism the FBI makes great use of counterintelligence programs, or COINTELPRO. These programs were developed to counter foreign threats, and then were applied to domestic groups as well. In the 1960s and early 70s, they were applied to groups which engaged in armed resistance, but also to groups which simply disagreed with government policy (e.g., the Vietnam War). And this redirection of COINTELPRO meant that any group that opposed the government, via any tactic including only the use of freedom of speech, was perforce the enemy.
There was a reaction to this, particularly in light of such events as the killings at Kent State University, and COINTELPRO against internal dissidents was scaled back. But such efforts are now being revived, for example, against environmentalists, who are branded as eco-terrorists. Government anti-terrorism budgets are high, and they have to be spent. (If they are not, the funding may be lost in the next budget.) If there are not enough real enemies around, the tendency will always exist to create them.
FBI tactics which are applied against activists include the use of infiltrators and agent provocateurs; disinformation campaigns and psychological warfare, including forged correspondence and pamphlets, threatening phone calls, etc.; and harassment through the legal system. For the last, the FBI makes extensive use of grand jury subpoenas, which in a number of cases have been issued on spurious or fabricated evidence. When an activist faces a grand jury, he or she cannot have a lawyer present, or refuse to answer questions. The Fifth Amendment does not apply in a grand jury hearing. Failure to answer any question can lead to a charge of contempt and eighteen months imprisonment. (For guidance on how to respond to police inquiries and harassment, see Know Your Rights and Your Right to Protest from the National Lawyers Guild www.nlg.org, and then click on Resources.)
The power and sophistication of the police effort that is directed at activists greatly complicates the task of social reform, and it also raises significant internal security issues for activist movements. To be effective we must not only document and protest social and environmental wrongs; we also must defend against surveillance, harassment, assault, grand jury subpoenas and false arrest. Fortunately, we have right on our side, and this is sufficient, if not to counter all oppression, at least to preserve ones motivation.
What all of this makes clear is that we can never forget that as a social objective there should be as few police as possible. Our goal is to create a harmonious society, such that only a small number of police are required.
Obviously, we are not going to get rid of the police overnight. It may take many decades, even a century or more. And, the biggest hurdle in reducing their numbers is going to be ourselves, but not our criminal elements. Society is addicted to having police. They make it easy for us to ignore our underlying problems. As a first step, though, we must take away their power to intimidate. We must reject their unethical means to a supposedly ethical end. Police should not have qualified immunity, whereby they cannot be sued, personally, for their abuse. Also, another idea that should be considered is that any police officer found guilty of criminal behavior, any criminal behavior, should automatically be subjected to double the normal penalty for the crime.
In addition, the question remains, if there were no police tomorrow, what would happen? It might be terrible, a disintegration into anarchy, but what would come out of it? Many societies, even today, function without police (e.g., rural areas in lesser-developed countries, which generally have only a minimal police presence). This isnt to say that they dont have crime, or justice. The question is, under which system is there less, and more?
My basic point, though, in this entire argument, is that every time we take a step away from our goals, (1) we should recognize it; (2) we should ask if it is really necessary we should demand a well-supported explanation for the move, including why there are no better options and how and when it will be reversed; and (3) we should then, at most, take only half a step.
For instance, the following trend is also evident in the evolution of most democracies:
- An entrenched dictatorship is defeated, and a new democracy is established.
- New laws are drafted, to make things better!
- The laws are then enforced, which requires the creation of a new internal security apparatus and the hiring of many new police.
- Over time the laws are enforced more rigidly. The democracy becomes bureaucratic. It is impersonal and inflexible; there is no room for compromise.
- For some laws, their rational tenor expires. But the laws never, or very rarely, do. They are not repealed. And, the security apparatus, including the number of police, is never cut back. Instead, it is redirected to where it is not needed.
The moral of this story is as follows: society should be very selective in the laws that it enacts, and it should be very, very careful about enabling armed security forces.
© Roland O. Watson 2005