Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Have the Police Become a Law Unto Themselves?
By John W. Whitehead
"Police are specialists in violence. They are armed, trained, and authorized to use force. With varying degrees of subtlety, this colors their every action. Like the possibility of arrest, the threat of violence is implicit in every police encounter. Violence, as well as the law, is what they represent."--Kristian Williams, activist and author Living in a free society means not having to look over your shoulder to see whether the government is watching or fearing that a government agent might perpetuate violence upon you.
Unfortunately, as I detail in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, subjected as we are to government surveillance, body scanners, militarized police, roadside strip searches, SWAT team raids, drones, and other trappings of a police state, "we the people" do not live in a free society any longer.
Not only are we no longer a free people but we have become a fearful people, as well, helped along in large part by politicians eager to capitalize on our fears. As Julie Hanus writes for Utne: "Since the 1980s, society at large has bolted frantically from one panic to the next. Fear of crime reduced us to wrecks, but before long we were also howling about deadly diseases, drug abusers, online pedophiles, avian flu, teens gone wild, mad cows, anthrax, immigrants, environmental collapse, and--let us not forget--terrorists."
Now thanks to an increasingly militarized police force and police officers who shoot first and ask questions later, we've got one more fear to add to that growing list, and with good reason: fear of the police--local, state and federal agents.
Who wouldn't be afraid of police officers who go around shooting unarmed citizens, tasering women--young and old alike, and forcing law-abiding Americans to the ground at gunpoint?
Such was the case when a Missouri police officer shot and wounded an unarmed panhandler. Texas police, during a raid on a home where music was reportedly being played too loudly, repeatedly tasered a 54-year-old grandmother, kicking and punching other members of the household. A 20-year-old Florida woman who was tasered by a police officer while she was handcuffed ended up in a permanent vegetative state and eventually died. And then there was the homeless man who was shot and killed by Albuquerque police for squatting on public land.
If it were just a few "bad" cops terrorizing the citizenry, that would be one thing. But what we're dealing with is a nationwide epidemic of court-sanctioned police violence carried out against individuals posing little or no threat of violence, who are nevertheless subjected to such excessive police force as to end up maimed or killed.
For example, Ron Hillstrom was pacing in the parking lot of his apartment complex asking for help when four officers approached him, unleashed their tasers, and subdued him with electric shocks. When Hillstrom fell to the ground, another officer hit him with a flashlight. Hillstrom died soon thereafter.
The toll such incidents take on adults can be life-altering, but when such police brutality is perpetrated on young people, the end result is nothing less than complete indoctrination into becoming compliant citizens of a totalitarian state. The message is clear and chilling: any deviation from what is "allowed" will be punished severely.
Thus, when a 9-year-old Portland girl got into a fight at a youth club, instead of the incident being resolved by staff members and reported to her family, police showed up at her home, arrested the young girl, took her down to the station, fingerprinted her, and had her mug shot taken.
Similarly, when 13-year-old Kevens Jean Baptiste failed to follow a school bus driver's direction to keep the bus windows closed (Kevens, who suffers from asthma, opened the window after a fellow student sprayed perfume, causing him to cough and wheeze), he was handcuffed by police, removed from the bus, and while still handcuffed, had his legs swept out from under him by an officer, causing him to crash to the ground.
Clearly, the master-servant relationship upon which American government was based has now been reversed. Government agents in general, and the police in particular, now seem to believe they are the masters and we are the servants. It's definitely time to reestablish us, the American citizenry, as the masters of our government--even if it means showing the oppressors that we will no longer wear their chains.
Some Americans have already begun pushing back. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, where police have been involved in 39 shootings since 2010--with the most recent being a police shooting of an unarmed homeless man camped out in a public park--residents have begun engaging in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to disrupt the normal functioning of the city government until the police department is brought under control. Community activists actually went so far as to storm a city council meeting and announce that they would be performing a citizens' arrest of the police chief, charging him with "harboring fugitives from justice at the Albuquerque police department" and "crimes against humanity."
This growing tension, seen in Albuquerque and felt throughout the country, is a tension between those who wield power on behalf of the government and those among the populace who are finally waking up to the mounting injustices that are transforming our country into a police state.
Where we go wrong is in painting our oppressors--whether it be the police, the courts, Congress, or the president--as absolutely evil and ourselves as powerless to resist.
Hannah Arendt, a Holocaust survivor who reported on the war crimes trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, concluded that the banality of evil, the ability to engage in wrongdoing or turn a blind eye to it, without taking any responsibility for your actions or inactions, was the ultimate culprit. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. identified "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice" as the stumbling block for achieving justice.
In other words, there comes a time when law and order are in direct opposition to justice. The only recourse left to us, as both King and Arendt recognize, is mass civil disobedience of the nonviolent sort.
After all, as King declared, "Freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor; it must be demanded."
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He is the author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State and The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
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