Toward an Improved Police State

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By John Pennington of Class War in America.

SWATPendletonOregon[SWAT team in Pendleton,Oregon (population 16,838 in 2012). Photo by EJ Harris.]

The coronation of our official Ruling Class establishes only half of the New Economic Order. The other half is the very successful effort to extract as much wealth as possible from those who have the least of it, and to turn their every move into a potential criminal offense, punishable by violent arrest, fines, seizure of property, or imprisonment.

Matt Taibbi does a great job of telling us about all this in his new book The Divide. He tells us in infuriating detail about the blatant criminal behavior of bankers everywhere, from local branches to Wall Street, and he also tells us about the poor who are slated to become permanent victims in this new world.

No better example could be found than a young man he profiles in the book, a white musician named Patrick Jewell. For black city-dwelling men, Jewell’s story is all too familiar, because a large percentage of them go through the same thing, often repeatedly, and it doesn’t matter a jot whether they are actually guilty of anything. What matters most is where you live.

The poor are slated to become
permanent victims in our new world.

Jewell was smoking a rolled cigarette (not a joint, an actual cigarette) on a Brooklyn street one morning in 2011 when a burly guy grabbed him, pushed him against a wall, and demanded in colorful language to know what he was doing there. (Mind you, this is where he lived.) Soon two others joined him. Patrick thought he was being robbed, and offered them everything he had, which was about ten bucks. They picked up the cigarette he’d dropped, opened it, and found only tobacco. One of them then made a show of recovering a joint, which was actually in his own pocket. They forced Patrick onto the ground, pushed his face into the pavement, and handcuffed him while kneeling on his back. Then a police car rolled up, and Patrick thought he was saved—until they threw him into the back seat.

So he went through three days of the mill, the same one that hundreds of African-American men go through every day, and he was so traumatized by the experience he was later diagnosed with PTSD. Who wouldn’t be? But if you live in the wrong neighborhood, you can expect this kind of police brutality and blatant miscarriage of justice repeatedly. It makes no difference what kind of person you are, if you just arrived home from your job at midnight, you can be arrested for obstructing the empty sidewalk in front of your own house. These kinds of arrests, even when they are thrown out, can lead to loss of your job and all the ensuing difficulties.

If you just arrived home from your job at midnight,
you can be arrested for obstructing the sidewalk
in front of your own house.

Nor is this kind of police activity limited to big city African-American neighborhoods. Small-town cops in rural townships are famous for speed traps, in which they routinely pull over poor people, especially Hispanics, who are driving old cars within the speed limit. Then they find something, anything—the burnt-out license plate light is a favorite—and arrest everyone in the car. Then the car is impounded and there is a “special” ticket, which usually costs more than the car is worth. If anyone objects, there are additional charges such as “resisting arrest”, and more punishments, after which the person(s) may lose his job, or at any rate now has no way to get to work.

In a few places where the police were well known for violence, they were given video cameras to wear. That caused an 85% decline in police violence, so of course the police turned the cameras off.

Women are not immune from police abuse. Especially single women with children, who have been forced by circumstance to seek public assistance after losing a job or suffering some other difficulty.

The assumption is always that such women are whores trying to scam the government, in spite of the fact that they and most others are welfare recipients for only a limited period and are not known to the police. States, especially Republican states, establish long series of odious and humiliating requirements before a woman can get some money to keep a roof over her head. These often include repeated urine tests, complete with the usual problems of false positives and falsified results. Finally, she might be awarded some money, which year after year has additional requirements for ever smaller amounts and may be rescinded at any time. Or she may be dunned to return “excess” money she never received. She may be required to repeatedly appear and sit with her children through more days of delay and humiliation. But at least that’s over, isn’t it? Well, no.

Many women receiving assistance
are awoken by loud pounding on their door
in the middle of the night.

Many such women are awoken by loud pounding on their door in the middle of the night. When she answers, the cops barge in without asking and rifle through all her private property. They are looking for evidence that she might have a boyfriend, especially one who might actually be staying there. They apparently don’t believe any such woman should be allowed to have sex, live-in boyfriend or not. They look for such evidence as toothbrushes or shaving cream. They fish through her dresser drawers, and pull out her undies, held up scornfully on the eraser end of a pencil, and demand to know why she has such sexy skivvies. They are often rude and disrespectful.

Any poor person, man or woman, can have life ruined by bureaucratic nightmare. It can be anything: a subpoena not answered because it wasn’t served, papers lost by the bureaucracy, not being home when an inspector calls, misplaced application, minor errors on some paper… The slightest glitch can create enormous difficulties, which metastasize and contradict each other, and which the person on the receiving end is forced to try to correct, a process that usually takes days, weeks. While this is going on, the person’s job may go away, thus creating still another long and involved process, which can end in the trauma of children taken away, homelessness, and the increasing unlikeliness of ever finding another job.

We now have more people in prison
than any political entity in history.

Hispanics have been at the receiving end of these atrocities for centuries, since the land they had worked for over a century was stolen from them by flimflam artists when statehood came, with the active collusion of the government. Nor has that changed today. People are punished and cheated in dozens of ways today for no other reason than they are Hispanic. Needless to say, this maltreatment is rampant in Republican states.

The past few decades have been boom times for politicians who want to appear tough on crime, for cops, and private prison owners. The number of people in US prisons has increased to four times what it was thirty years ago. We now have more people in prison than any political entity in history, including the Soviet Union under Stalin and apartheid South Africa. It’s big business, generating hundred of millions of dollars. Blacks in particular have experienced high rates of incarceration, which is a problem born of historic injustice, community underfunding, lack of employment opportunity, low wages, and other factors. What it is not is a decline of moral behavior. If it were, it would not be happening  in an era when crime has steadily declined, and the increase in imprisonment would not be fourfold.

The cruelties I have mentioned only begin to describe what poor people have to deal with. This is not to say that lawbreakers should not be firmly dealt with, but that’s not what is happening.

Something is dreadfully wrong, and it’s not in the realm of the poor.

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