"I was astonished, bewildered. This was America, a country where, whatever its faults, people could speak, write, assemble, demonstrate without fear. It was in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. We were a democracy... But I knew it wasn't a dream; there was a painful lump on the side of my head... The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rich and powerful. Free speech? Try it and the police will be there with their horses, their clubs, their guns, to stop you. From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country -- not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society -- cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian." -- Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times
We're entering the final phase of America's transition to authoritarianism, a phase notable for its co-opting of civilian police as military forces. Not only do the police now look like the military -- with their foreboding uniforms and phalanx of lethal weapons -- but they function like them, as well. No longer do they act as peace officers guarding against violent criminals. And no more do we have a civilian police force entrusted with serving and protecting the American people. Instead, today's militarized law enforcement officials, having shifted their allegiance from the citizenry to the state, act preemptively to ward off any possible challenges to the government's power.
In such an environment, free speech is little more than a nuisance to be stamped out. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way police deal with those who dare to exercise their First Amendment right to "peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." For example, most recently, Chicago police in riot gear and gas masks, as well as SWAT teams, clashed with thousands of anti-war protesters who gathered to air their discontent during the NATO summit that took place on May 20-21, 2012.
Anticipating a fracas, police had, in the weeks leading up to the NATO summit, equipped themselves with $1 million worth of militarized riot gear. Then, a few days before the summit commenced, fighter jets -- including Air Force KC-135 tankers, Air Force F-16s, and Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopters -- took to the skies over Chicago, as part of a "security" drill. Surveillance drones were also sighted. Police also arrested six activists and held them in solitary confinement for 18 hours, then released them without charge. News reports have indicated that some of those "arrested" may have been undercover officers.
All of these tactics of intimidation -- the show of force by heavily armed police, the security drills by fighter planes and surveillance drones, even the arrests of protesters -- were done with one goal in mind: to deter and subdue any would-be protesters. Yet what many Americans fail to realize, caught up as they are in the partisan-charged rhetoric being pumped out by politicians and the media, is that the government does not discriminate when it comes to clamping down on dissent. We are all the enemy. Thus, it doesn't matter what the content of the speech might be, whether it's coming from protesters speaking out against corrupt government practices or peace activists attempting to advance an anti-war message. In the face of the government's growing power, we are all lumped into the same category: potential nuisances and rabble rousers who must be surveilled, silenced and, if necessary, shut down.
Case in point: In anticipation of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions taking place in Charlotte and Tampa later this year, government agencies in conjunction with the militarized police are already preparing to head off any protests, refusing to issue permits, cordoning off city blocks, creating "free speech" zones and passing a litany of laws banning everything from protesters wearing masks to carrying string. And the few protesters who manage to take to the streets will be faced with an array of non-lethal weapons meant to incapacitate them.
Originally designed to help restrain violent individuals, so-called "non-lethal" weapons such as tasers, sound cannons, and tear gas were first introduced with a government guarantee of safety for the citizens. However, the "non-lethal" label seems to have caused police to feel justified in using these dangerous weapons much more often and with less restraint -- with some even causing death. For instance, a 9-year-old Arizona runaway was tasered as she sat in the back seat of a police car with her hands cuffed behind her back. In Texas, a 72-year-old great-grandmother was tasered after refusing to sign a speeding ticket. Equally troubling is law enforcement's use of these weapons to intimidate and silence protesters.
Unfortunately, advances in crowd control technology are providing police with ever-greater weapons of compliance. For example, Intelligent Optics Systems, Inc. has developed a hand-held, flashlight-like device that uses light emitting diodes "to emit super-bright pulses of light at rapidly changing wavelengths, causing disorientation, nausea and even vomiting in whomever it's pointed at." Raytheon has developed a "pain ray" which shoots an electromagnetic beam composed of high frequency radio waves, causing a burning sensation on the target's skin. In December 2011, the Telegraph reported that police in the UK were planning on testing a shoulder-mounted laser that can temporarily blind protestors and rioters.
Sound cannons are used by both military and police to emit high-pitched tones of 153 decibels, well beyond the threshold for causing hearing damage and auditory pain, with the potential to damage eardrums and cause fatal aneurysms. In 2009, the Pittsburgh police used an LRAD to subdue protesters during the G20 Summit, their first use on American citizens.
Drones, outfitted with the latest in high-definition cameras and crowd control technology such as impact rounds, chemical munitions rounds and tasers, will eventually be star players in the government's efforts to clamp down on protest activities and keep track of protesters. The Shadowhawk drone, which is already being sold to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, is outfitted with lethal weapons, including a grenade launcher or a shotgun, and weapons of compliance, such as tear gas and rubber buckshot.
So where does this leave us? Does the way protesters are treated in Chicago, Charlotte or Tampa really have any bearing on how law-abiding citizens are treated in small-town America? Of course it does. The militarization of the police, the use of sophisticated weaponry against Americans and the government's increasing tendency to clamp down on dissent have colored our very understanding of freedom, justice and democracy. The end result is a people cowed into submission by an atmosphere of intimidation. Just the whispered threat of police action can be a powerfully intimidating force.
This may explain why some people who are tyrannized by violent regimes languish under oppression with little resistance. As early as 1776, Thomas Jefferson noted in the Declaration of Independence that "all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Proving Jefferson's point, the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted how the Russian people would kneel inside the door of their apartments, pressing their ears to listen when the KGB (the secret police) came at midnight to arrest a neighbor. He commented that if all the people had come out and driven off the officers, sheer public opinion would have demoralized the effort to subdue what should have been a free people. But the people hid and trembled.
What we are dealing with in America today is a cowering populace, far greater in number than those who rule us, who nonetheless have allowed the government's manufactured fear-mongering and propaganda to override their common sense and usurped their freedoms. In this way, with the American people now seen as the greatest domestic threat to the nation's security, is it any wonder that we are being subjected to all manner of surveillance by the government, with our phone calls listened to, our emails and letters read, our web browsing tracked, and our spending monitored?
Is there any hope at all of turning back the authoritarian tide? Yes, but it will take courage, the willingness to think for ourselves, the fortitude to challenge the status quo, a true commitment to freedom, and a rejection of the partisan politics that keeps us divided. Only by uprooting "the old order," as Howard Zinn advises, which applies not only to entrenched, corrupt government bureaucrats but also the mindset that sees government as the cure for whatever ails us, can we hope to make any headway as far as resuscitating our republic and restoring our freedoms.