“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” ― George Orwell, 1984.
Do we live in a police state? I argue that whether we live in a police state or not is the wrong question. The right question is – do we still have the institutions in place that protect us against a police state?
At its founding, one thing that differentiated the United States from other nations was the institutionalized protection of our rights so that we would not be abused by our own government. That protection did not depend on a particular benevolent leader, but on our natural rights —constitutionally codified, on the separation of powers between the branches of government meant to sustain those rights and on the ability of the people to enforce their will on their representatives through the power of the vote.
This institutionalized protection of our rights is breaking down as both government agencies and private corporations are being given permission to operate underhandedly with rules that either aren’t clear to the public or are even directly contrary to our constitutional rights. The secretive government agencies, unconstitutional legislation and operations, denial of due process, and the abuse of the prison system are all features of a police state.
Secretive Government Agency
One aspect of a police state is that there is an agency, often a secretive one, that operates using rules and methods that aren’t aboveboard. This agency or agencies, whether they be local, state, federal or even corporate, enforces the will of the leaders upon the people through intimidation, violence and imprisonment. We have such an agency in the United States – the Department of Homeland Security(DHS), an umbrella for, amongst others, the FBI and TSA.
Police overreach is most obvious with the pat downs and x-rays of anybody who would like to travel. But, those cameras placed at stop lights all over America are also visible reminders of DHS’s presence in our lives.
What is less obvious is the federalization process of the local and state police forces that are supplied training, equipment and grants to cooperate with Homeland Security. One of those cooperative activities is the surveillance of ordinary citizens through feeds to Fusion Centers — regional intelligence hubs where the FBI, other DHS agents and local police work together to spy on Americans. They use facial recognition technology, license plate readers, and intersection camera video feeds to watch and identify. In addition, Homeland Security is now able to deploy the local police to do their federal business by sending them to survey the places where the cameras don’t reach.
Unconstitutional Legislation and Operations
The Patriot Act allows the DHS to indiscriminately spy on US citizens, in violation of our rights to privacy, property and unreasonable search and seizure. There is no need for a court warrant requiring proof that you are suspected of a crime before information is collected about you. Passed by Congress, confirmed by the Supreme Court and enforced by the President through Homeland Security, the act commissions the DHS to intercept your private emails, phone conversations and text messages without your knowledge. They are empowered to collect not just the information that you send out on the public infrastructure of land lines and the internet, but also to search banking records, tax records, travel records, purchasing records — essentially any record about you that can be collected. Your phone, your computer camera and microphone and your GPS unit can be turned on and accessed remotely by DHS and other law enforcement agencies. In Michigan, police officers carry a device that allows them to turn on your phone without your permission or even knowledge and collect its contents during a regular traffic stop.
Police states tend, as a strategy, to keep secretive data about people, so that it can be used later in undisclosed ways to manipulate those who wish to stay in the good graces of government or to arrest those whom they don’t want influencing the public. Much of this data is stored in the Investigative Data Warehouse that is maintained by the FBI. It’s hard to tell what all is there and about whom because much of the actual contents are classified, thus, not available through the Freedom of Information Act. There are many privacy concerns based on what is known to be stored, including facial recognition data, surveillance records and other non-public records that are permitted by the Patriot Act.
Denial of Due Process
Of the institutionally protected rights that we supposedly have, the right to a trial is a last stand against the potential violations of all other rights leading up to it. Yet now, as we saw in Guantanamo, the federal government can arrest US citizens without even pressing charges or making it known that the person has been detained. That’s right. It’s legitimate, for a person to be held with no explanation.
Even worse, the President can order the killing of a US citizen on US soil, as the recent Department of Justice leak shows, with very little burden of proof of that person’s threat potential or guilt.
Another aspect of a police state is that the laws under which you may be detained are unclear and changing, leaving the people feeling intimidated and unsure if they can exercise their rights. L. Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal in his article about Harvey Silvergate , civil liberties lawyer and author of the book 3 Felonies a Day : How the Feds Target the Innocent, writes that the laws are so ambiguous that the average American commits felonies unwittingly. Though under the institution of common law, intent was a central concept that had to proven, the US law originally based upon common law has moved far away from the centrality of intent. Now ordinary people are being accused of crimes that they didn’t realize they committed. Those crimes can often be identified via a search of the FBI data warehouse.
Abuse of Prison System
A police state cannot function without the means to incarcerate people. Currently, the US holds half of the global prison population in our huge prison-industrial complex and our local jails. In 2011, DrugWarFacts.org reported that 1 in every 34 US adults was under some form of correctional supervision and 1 in every 203 was in jail. Of those, only 17% committed either violent or property crimes such as burglary. That means that of the 1,598,780 incarcerated in 2011, 1,326,987 did not commit the kinds of crimes that would indicate that they are a direct danger to the public.
What’s more disturbing is that many of these prisons are essentially tax financed labor camps for our military defense contractors and other large corporations. Sara Flounders at Global Research reports that the prison workers earn anywhere from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour making weapons parts and other military supplies keeping these jobs out of a regular labor market that demands higher wages and benefits. State governments and non-military corporations are beginning to use prison labor to lower their operational costs also. Our nation is becoming increasingly dependent on the supply of prisoners to help keep the economy afloat and America at war.
One large purchaser of military equipment is the Department of Homeland Security. Some recent purchases that have hit the news are an extremely large quantity of bullets and explosives, armored vehicles, surveillance and armed drones. Along with the military, the DHS has interests in keeping weapons costs down and prisons populated.
The Department of Homeland Security is now able use its powers to stomp all over our civil rights in undisclosed ways. The legal framework is in place for you to just disappear from the streets quietly – with no explanation, no trial – no noise. The prison resources have been built to hold a large portion of the US population and the military and the Department of Homeland Security have become dependent on the labor the prison system provides. These are a full circle of institutions, both legal and physical in nature, that make a police state possible.
Do we still have the institutions in place that protect us against a police state? I say the boot is on.