By Roland Watson
In addition to problems with the military, there is much to fear in the current growth of paramilitaries and police, ostensibly to counter crime more effectively, but which could easily be turned against the general population. For instance, virtually all municipalities in America, including the most rural and bucolic, are lobbying for or have already created well-equipped and deadly SWAT teams. Of course, you do want good training and preparation against armed criminal threats. But the need for the type of paramilitaries that we have created is actually quite small: it exists for the most part only in urban environments. The other side of the story is that to the police, the training is fun; it allows them to live up to the media's glamorous image of them; and it keeps them busy, and employed, when there is little criminal activity. (It's better than writing parking tickets!)
As another example, through increasing the security surveillance in schools, and in many other public environments, America is taking significant steps down the road to becoming a police state. Crime and violence in schools is abhorrent, but if the politically expedient solution creates a greater problem, it should not be used. You put the two together, highly trained paramilitaries and greatly increased surveillance, and you have the potential, even the likelihood, for some very serious abuse.
As an example of such abuse, which already exists, we need look no farther than the common police response to activism. Police are "taught" to think of unarmed, non-violent protesters as enemies of the state, on whom violence on their part is fully justified. Such "education" is accomplished via form, the creation of volatility.
"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 concentration of power and granting of trust has been subverted by form. There is a very thin line between an officer in blue and a Nazi brownshirt or stormtrooper, between the police in developed nations and those in such places as Burma and China. For example, U.S. police have been trained, along with the military, to suppress popular uprisings. This is effectively planning for a military coup, and it is your tax dollars that have paid for it.
The police response to activism varies by country. In such nations as 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 media's game. Instead, they act, and the media is 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 David 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 Chain's fellow activists. (As background, the group was protesting illegal logging practices, and the timber company's license was revoked for these violations shortly after Chain's 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 the 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 instance, 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 the article: Attn: FBI Action Alert, Mike Cassidy and Will Miller, Earth First! Journal, August-September 1999, page 28)
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 they must not only document and protest social and environmental wrongs; they also must defend themselves against surveillance, harassment, assault, grand jury subpoenas and false arrest. Fortunately, activists have right on their side, and this is sufficient, if not to counter all oppression, at least to preserve one's motivation.
"The bearing of injustice is an inspiration to stay strong."
- Jailed animal rights activist Justin Samuel
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.
"If a society needs a large, powerful law enforcement establishment, then there is something gravely wrong with that society; it must be subjecting people to severe pressures if so many refuse to follow the rules, or follow them only because forced."
- Kaczynski, note 26
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. This isn't to say that they don't 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 example, the following trend is 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 Watson 2016