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John W. Whitehead

Are ‘We the People’ Useful Idiots in the Digital Age?

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“Who needs direct repression,” asked philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “when one can convince the chicken to walk freely into the slaughterhouse?”

In an Orwellian age where war equals peace, surveillance equals safety, and tolerance equals intolerance of uncomfortable truths and politically incorrect ideas, “we the people” have gotten very good at walking freely into the slaughterhouse, all the while convincing ourselves that the prison walls enclosing us within the American police state are there for our protection.

Call it doublespeak, call it hypocrisy, call it delusion, call it whatever you like, but the fact remains that while we claim to value freedom, privacy, individuality, equality, diversity, accountability, and government transparency, our actions and those of our government overseers contradict these much-vaunted principles at every turn.

For instance, we disdain the jaded mindset of the Washington elite, and yet we continue to re-elect politicians who lie, cheat and steal. We disapprove of the endless wars that drain our resources and spread thin our military, and yet we repeatedly buy into the idea that patriotism equals supporting the military. We chafe at taxpayer-funded pork barrel legislation for roads to nowhere, documentaries on food fights, and studies of mountain lions running on treadmills, and yet we pay our taxes meekly and without raising a fuss of any kind. We object to the militarization of our local police forces and their increasingly battlefield mindset, and yet we do little more than shrug our shoulders over SWAT team raids and police shootings of unarmed citizens.

And then there’s our love-hate affair with technology, which sees us bristling at the government’s efforts to monitor our internet activities, listen in on our phone calls, read our emails, track our every movement, and punish us for what we say on social media, and yet we keep using these very same technologies all the while doing nothing about the government’s encroachments on our rights. This contradiction is backed up by a recent Pew Research Center study, which finds that “Americans say they are deeply concerned about privacy on the web and their cellphones. They say they do not trust Internet companies or the government to protect it. Yet they keep using the services and handing over their personal information.”
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The Devil’s Bargain: The Illusion of a Trouble-Free Existence in the American Police State

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Arnold Abbott, 90, arrested for feeding the homeless

It’s no coincidence that during the same week in which the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Yates v. United States, a case in which a Florida fisherman is being threatened with 20 years’ jail time for throwing fish that were too small back into the water, Florida police arrested a 90-year-old man twice for violating an ordinance that prohibits feeding the homeless in public.

Both cases fall under the umbrella of overcriminalization, that phenomenon in which everything is rendered illegal and everyone becomes a lawbreaker. As I make clear in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this is what happens when bureaucrats run the show, and the rule of law becomes little more than a cattle prod for forcing the citizenry to march in lockstep with the government.

John Yates, a commercial fisherman, was written up in 2007 by a state fish and wildlife officer who noticed that among Yates’ haul of red grouper, 72 were apparently under the 20-inch minimum legal minimum. Yates, ordered to bring the fish to shore as evidence of his violation of the federal statute on undersized catches, returned to shore with only 69 grouper in the crate designated for evidence. A crew member later confessed that, on orders from Yates, the crew had thrown the undersized grouper overboard and replaced them with larger fish. Unfortunately, they were three fish short. Sensing a bait-and-switch, prosecutors refused to let Yates off the hook quite so easily. Unfortunately, in prosecuting him for the undersized fish under a law aimed at financial crimes, government officials opened up a can of worms.
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The FBI: America’s Secret Police

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Secret police. Secret courts. Secret government agencies. Surveillance. Intimidation tactics. Harassment. Torture. Brutality. Widespread corruption. Entrapment schemes.

These are the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime from the Roman Empire to modern-day America, yet it’s the secret police—tasked with silencing dissidents, ensuring compliance, and maintaining a climate of fear—who sound the death knell for freedom in every age.

Every regime has its own name for its secret police: Mussolini’s OVRA carried out phone surveillance on government officials. Stalin’s NKVD carried out large-scale purges, terror and depopulation. Hitler’s Gestapo went door to door ferreting out dissidents and other political “enemies” of the state. And in the U.S., it’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation that does the dirty work of ensuring compliance, keeping tabs on potential dissidents, and punishing those who dare to challenge the status quo.

Whether the FBI is planting undercover agents in churches, synagogues and mosques; issuing fake emergency letters to gain access to Americans’ phone records; using intimidation tactics to silence Americans who are critical of the government, or persuading impressionable individuals to plot acts of terror and then entrapping them, the overall impression of the nation’s secret police force is that of a well-dressed thug, flexing its muscles and doing the boss’ dirty work.
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Hollow Justice and Courts of Order in an Age of Government-Sanctioned Tyranny

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“The Constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of the people.”—Justice William O. Douglas

Justice in America makes less sense with each passing day.

A Michigan couple that has been raising chickens in their backyard as a source of healthy food for their family could get up to 90 days in jail for violating a local ban on backyard hens. A Kentucky prison guard who was charged with 25 counts of sexual abuse against female inmates, trafficking controlled substances, and 50 counts of official misconduct walks away with no jail time and seven years’ probation. A 53-year-old Virginia man is facing 20 years in jail for kidnapping, despite the fact that key evidence shows him to be innocent and his accuser a liar, yet the courts claim they’re unable to do anything about it. Meanwhile, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent refusal to hear the case of Jones v. U.S.,judges can now punish individuals for crimes of which they may never have been convicted or even charged.

With every ruling handed down, it becomes more apparent that we live in an age of hollow justice, with government courts, largely lacking in vision and scope, rendering narrow rulings focused on the letter of the law. This is true at all levels of the judiciary, but especially so in the highest court of the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, which is seemingly more concerned with establishing order and protecting government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution.


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Shielded from Justice: The High Cost of Living in a Police State

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Who pays the price for the police shootings that leave unarmed citizens dead or injured, for the SWAT team raids that leave doors splintered, homes trashed, pets murdered, and family members traumatized and injured, if not dead?

I’m not just talking about the price that must be paid in hard-earned dollars, whether by taxpayers or the victims, in attempting to restore what was vandalized and broken by police. It’s also the things that can’t be so easily calculated to a decimal point: the broken bones that will never quite heal right, the children’s nightmares at night, the uneasy sleep, the broken family heirlooms, the loss of faith in a system that was supposed to serve and protect you, the grief for loved ones whose lives were cut short.

Baby Bou Bou may have survived the misdirected SWAT team raid that left him with a hole in his face and extensive scars on his body, but he will be the one to pay the price for the rest of his life for the SWAT team’s blunder in launching a flashbang grenade into his crib. And even though the SWAT team was wrong about the person they were after, even though they failed to find any drugs in the home they’d raided, and even though they may have regretted the fact that Baby Bou Bou got hurt, it will still be the Phonesavanh family who will pay and pay and pay for the endless surgeries every year to reconstruct their son’s face as he grows from toddler to boy to teenager to man. Already, they have racked up more than $900,000 in medical bills. Incredibly, government officials refused to cover the family’s medical expenses.
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Turning Americans into Snitches for the Police State: ‘See Something, Say Something’ and Community Policing

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If you see something suspicious, says the Department of Homeland Security, say something about it to the police, call it in to a government hotline, or report it using a convenient app on your smart phone.

(If you’re a whistleblower wanting to snitch on government wrongdoing, however, forget about it—the government doesn’t take kindly to having its dirty deeds publicized and, God forbid, being made to account for them.)

For more than a decade now, the DHS has plastered its “See Something, Say Something” campaign on the walls of metro stations, on billboards, on coffee cup sleeves, at the Super Bowl, even on television monitors in the Statue of Liberty. Now colleges, universities and even football teams and sporting arenas are lining up for grants to participate in the program.
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An Unbearable and Choking Hell: The Loss of Our Freedoms in the Wake of 9/11

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What a strange and harrowing road we’ve walked since September 11, 2001, littered with the debris of our once-vaunted liberties. We have gone from a nation that took great pride in being a model of a representative democracy to being a model of how to persuade a freedom-loving people to march in lockstep with a police state.

What began with the passage of the USA Patriot Act in October 2001 has snowballed into the eradication of every vital safeguard against government overreach, corruption and abuse. Since then, we have been terrorized, traumatized, and tricked into a semi-permanent state of compliance. The bogeyman’s names and faces change over time—Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and now ISIS—but the end result remains the same: our unquestioning acquiescence to anything the government wants to do in exchange for the phantom promise of safety and security.

Ironically, just a short week after the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we find ourselves commemorating the 227th anniversary of the ratification of our Constitution. Yet while there is much to mourn about the loss of our freedoms in the years since 9/11, there has been little to celebrate.
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Resistance is Futile: The Violent Cost of Challenging the American Police State

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If you don’t want to get probed, poked, pinched, tasered, tackled, searched, seized, stripped, manhandled, arrested, shot, or killed, don’t say, do or even suggest anything that even hints of noncompliance. This is the new “thin blue line” over which you must not cross in interactions with police if you want to walk away with your life and freedoms intact.

The following incidents and many more like them serve as chilling reminders that in the American police state, “we the people” are at the mercy of law enforcement officers who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with the citizens they were appointed to “serve and protect.”

For example, police arrested Chaumtoli Huq because she failed to promptly comply when ordered to “move along” while waiting outside a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant for her children, who were inside with their father, using the bathroom. NYPD officers grabbed Huq, a lawyer with the New York City Public Advocate’s office, flipped her around, pressed her against a wall, handcuffed her, searched her purse, arrested her, and told her to “shut up” when she cried out for help, before detaining her for nine hours. Huq was charged with obstructing governmental administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
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From Boston to Ferguson: Have We Reached a Tipping Point in the Police State?

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The difference between what happened in Boston in the wake of the Boston Marathon explosion and what is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri, is not in the government’s response but in the community’s response.

This is what happens when you ignore the warning signs.

This is what happens when you fail to take alarm at the first experiment on your liberties.

This is what happens when you fail to challenge injustice and government overreach until the prison doors clang shut behind you.

Consider that it was just a little over a year ago that the city of Boston was locked down while police carried out a military-style manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon explosion. At the time, Americans welcomed the city-wide lockdown, the routine invasion of their privacy, and the dismantling of every constitutional right intended to serve as a bulwark against government abuses.

Fast forward 14 months, and Americans are shocked at the tactics being employed to quell citizen unrest in Ferguson, Missouri—a massive SWAT team, an armored personnel carrier, men in camouflage pointing heavy artillery at the crowd, smoke bombs and tear gas—where residents are outraged and in the streets in response to a recent police shooting of one of their own: a young, unarmed college-bound black teenager who had the misfortune of being in the wrong time at the wrong place.
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We’re All Criminals and Outlaws in the Eyes of the American Police State

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Why are we seeing such an uptick in Americans being arrested for such absurd “violations” as letting their kids play at a park unsupervised, collecting rainwater and snow runoff on their own property, growing vegetables in their yard, and holding Bible studies in their living room?

Mind you, we’re not talking tickets or fines or even warnings being issued to these so-called “lawbreakers.” We’re talking felony charges, handcuffs, police cars, mug shots, pat downs, jail cells and criminal records.

Consider what happened to Nicole Gainey, the Florida mom who was arrested and charged with child neglect for allowing her 7-year-old son to visit a neighborhood playground located a half mile from their house.

For the so-called “crime” of allowing her son to play at the park unsupervised, Gainey was interrogated, arrested and handcuffed in front of her son, and transported to the local jail where she was physically searched, fingerprinted, photographed and held for seven hours and then forced to pay almost $4000 in bond in order to return to her family. Gainey’s family and friends were subsequently questioned by the Dept. of Child Services. Gainey now faces a third-degree criminal felony charge that carries with it a fine of up to $5,000 and 5 years in jail.
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