Activism

Big Brother and the Cop on the Block

Twenty-two year old Terrance Franklin, alone and unarmed, is chased by Minneapolis’ elite SWAT police into a basement where he is killed. While being mauled by a police attack dog he is alleged to have seized a machine pistol from one of his pursuers. They killed him, they say, in self defense.

An intelligence analyst leaks documents that expose a vast data mining operation encompassing all global communications. The mountaintop removal of data mining. The Internet companies deny evidence of their complicity. The President assures us that “nobody is listening to your phone calls.” He always knows just what to say. The secret authorizations made by secret courts approving the secret practice must remain secret… someone says. We’re not allowed to know who.

Political refugee Assata Shakur is added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. Her conviction four decades ago, based on contradictory police testimony was not for terrorism. She had been thrown onto court multiple times for her activism before then but kept getting acquitted. Today her weapon is the word. Now they ‘ve stretched the definition of terrorism well past the breaking point to make it fit. Everyone knows terrorists are bad – so now she’s a terrorist.

It is revealed that Monsanto, a ruthless company intent on controlling the global food supply, hired Total Intelligence Solutions (the latest name for Blackwater), a firm that made ruthlessness its brand. Their goal was to protect Monsanto’s own brand from the threat of criticism. Infiltrating protest groups was put in the plan.

The Supreme Court determines that the constitutional allows police to collect DNA from arrestees for data-banking. Politicians explain that this will only happen to people who have been arrested – not good people like you and me. In the real world cops practice catch-and-release harassment. Arrest, swab, drop charges: data goldmine!

The President can order the death of anyone, anywhere, anytime. We know because he says so. This will only be used against Bad Guys, though; or people who act like someone who might become Bad; or their sixteen-year-old sons.

These poisonous plants are all rooted in the same soil. Their backdrop is a widening income and wealth chasm, growing corporate power, mass incarceration and eroding economic foundations. These have given rise to a private prison industry intent on criminalizing more behaviors and, in general, blurring of the boundary between government and corporations. The NSA data sweeps are largely managed by private contractors with a vested interest in expanding the surveillance state. Connecting all the dots are two interrelated processes: the integration of public and corporate police and intelligence at all levels, and a unifying narrative.

Regional “Fusion Centers” integrate and coordinate data sharing among federal, state and local agencies and private security firms (that are exempt from disclosure laws). Major political events (such as the Republican National Convention held in St. Paul) become opportunities to absorb local police departments into the Homeland Security machinery. Federal funding for new weaponry, dramatic security briefings and training in preemptive enforcement bring local departments increasingly under the wing of Homeland Security. The thrill of being warriors in a global conflict is irresistible to local police departments.

The 1960s saw the virtual disappearance of the corrupt political machines that had dominated urban politics since the previous century. Police departments – once the enforcers for powerful political bosses – emerged as the dominant power centers in municipal government. City leaders could appoint the chiefs and tinker around the edges of police policy but the departments instituted their own practices and their own culture. Mayors, city councils and police chiefs collude in maintaining the fiction that police departments answer to elected city officials. In reality they are little more than a police brutality insurance service. A city can mount a “robust defense” against citizen lawsuits and pay if it loses but has no real leverage in the department. Between 2006 and 2012 Minneapolis paid out a hefty $14 million in police misconduct cases while the officers involved faced negligible consequences. Even the pitiful Citizen Review Board was seen as too much meddling in police matters and was eliminated last year.

The second influence connecting the various levels of social control is the unifying narrative. It posits that conflict, danger and instability in the world are caused by Bad Guys. The thing about Bad Guys is that they’re just plain Bad. That means we can lock them away (by the millions) and severely cut services to them because badness doesn’t wash off.  The case of Fong Lee, the Minneapolis teen shot eight times by officer Jason Anderson: the case of Treyvon Martin, killed by a vigilante in Florida; and the unfolding case of Terrance Franklin – the past, present and future of unarmed youthicide – all revolve not around the facts of the case but on the ability of the aggressors to paint the victims as Bad Guys. Once the narrative has been implanted in the public imagination, it is merely a matter of bringing it into the courtroom.

When I was young the phrase was rarely heard outside of cowboy westerns but now it drops from the lips of generals, pundits and Presidents alike. When the Bad Guys are invoked, meaningful conversation stops. Sen. Feinstein insists that NSA data vacuuming foiled a terror attack. End of discussion. She apparently doesn’t know that legal rights are there to protect us precisely from abuses that the government finds to be effective. That rationale has already led to acceptance of torture, endless detention without charge and presidential contract killing. Are we safe yet?

Badguyism is also great for funding. During the cold war, dictators had only to claim that their domestic opponents were Communist and US dollars, weapons and training would flood in. “Terror” is today’s funding keyword. Gang conflict, political protest, organized crime, union organizing and random street violence are all getting framed as terroristic threats. When the clownish Bob Fletcher was Sheriff of Ramsey County, he claimed to have blocked threats from 22 domestic and 11 international terrorist groups – all of which he had invented!

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Bad Guy narrative is its power to divide. The Patriot Act didn’t seem to overly alarm the public or media as long as it was seen as affecting brown Muslim men. What’s the problem with police violating the rights of young, dark people in New York if it stops one Bad Guy from mugging a white suburbanite? Why not allow indefinite detention without charge for Bad Guys? They’re the “worst of the worst,” aren’t they? The “threat” posed by Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations is that now everyone gets to realize all at once that we are being ensnared in a web of sinister power – rather than each sector realizing it as we are picked off one at a time.

That gives me an idea. Since “we the people” are all being snooped on, why don’t we issue some rulings of our own? “We hereby declare that massive secret surveillance, endless detention and torture and extra-judicial executions are illegal and invalid.” There! There’s nothing in the constitution or laws that says we can just do that, of course. At least that puts us on an equal footing with the President.

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