First, I’m not talking about your grandfather’s police state—not Nazi Germany or the KGB. We’re growing our own version right here at home. Our government is made of many competing interest groups, and the police are one part. At any given time we have, for example, a representative democratic state, a surveillance state, a civil rights state, a military-industrial state and yes, a police state. The balance is always shifting among the centers of power, and some communities are more impacted by one power center than are others.
For those communities most governed by the police state there has been one continuous crisis of abuse and repression since modern policing began. Now we’ve reached another crisis-point in U.S. policing for the population as a whole, where the factors leading to authoritarianism are outpacing the push-back for civil liberties. The forces that counterbalance the powers of the state are not sufficiently organized, while our formerly isolated local police departments are increasingly nationalized, militarized, and networked into a larger surveillance apparatus.
That’s the reason for “The Police State Project.” Too many of us have lived in a police state for too long. The rest of us are not living in that police state yet, but we are fast moving toward it.
First, the police are nationalizing. When they were each concerned primarily with local affairs their power in each community was intense, but at least we knew at whom to focus our attempts to counteract that power. Starting with the drug war, however, we began to get federal coordination of efforts, joint task forces and the like. All that only intensified under the wars on terror and the era of mass deportations, with the creation of more task forces, 283(g) agreements for local officials to enforce national laws, Secure Communities agreements to further share information, and fusion centers to digest the information and share it up and down the communication chain.
Second, the police are militarizing. Radley Balko has documented it thoroughly in The Rise of the Warrior Cop: destruction of the Fourth Amendment and our rights to be “secure in our persons, houses, papers and effects.” The funneling of equipment and tactics from the military to the local police has continued to grow through various programs under Clinton and subsequent administrations. So now we have armored vehicles, sophisticated crowd control weapons and techniques, increased fire-power, out-of-control SWAT teams etc, with drones about to add another whole dimension to the arsenal. We can follow the consequences on the myriad sites tracking the abuses daily.
Finally, the local police are hooking up with the national surveillance state that Edward Snowden has revealed to us. What the NSA has done to capture our online communications, the local police are doing to capture the details of our physical lives. Cities are being flooded with a network of surveillance cameras, with the capability or near-capability to follow individuals 24/7 as they go to the doctor, attend their place of worship, or organize politically. Soon drones will replace the street cameras as a cheaper and more efficient vehicle for total surveillance. And local police are doing their fair share of online work too—checking out the “radicalizers” on Facebook to stay one step ahead of their plans.
This surveillance work is not happening without its ideological underpinning. “Intelligence-led policing” is no longer “the next big thing”—it’s in full force at the police station near you. Police departments are creating and expanding their intelligence units. Gathering information is becoming one of policing’s biggest goals, with an eye toward using it to support the other “big idea” in current police work—“pre-emptive policing.” That’s stopping crimes before they happen. Like in “Minority Report,” which is turning out to be very prescient. Of course, preventing crime can be quite a good thing, if it is done through improving the conditions out of which crime grows. But we’ve seen throughout our history, from the aftermath of Haymarket Square to the Palmer raids to Cointelpro, that prevention of crime often means repression of political outsiders. And we saw with NYPD’s expanded Intelligence Unit what can happen when officers decide that whole communities need profiling and infiltrating in order to prevent suspected terrorists.
It’s time (past time) that we put on the brakes.
But in the face of all this, what is the “rights community” doing? Not enough. We’re too fragmented, with many groups doing the best they can to fight back against abuses in their local departments but no one communicating to create a national strategy to build real power. We need to strengthen our own networks. It’s just beginning to happen as social networks share the details of individual abuses and we can now see the national scale of the problem. Copwatch chapters are sprouting, and Peaceful Streets is now holding annual conferences, so we’re getting there. The October 22 Coalition has been around for quite some time, but its impact is episodic. We are not yet pooling resources and ideas to build solutions. The anti-surveillance community seems the most coordinated in their efforts, with lawsuits underway and legislation being proposed. But this community is too grasstops, cut off from those most affected on the streets.
Let’s not forget who is now and has been historically affected. People of color. Long before us white folks were having our emails read, people of color had no Fourth Amendment rights. Their pockets were searched by cops on the streets, while others were breaking down their doors. Long before Occupiers were getting their heads beaten, young black men were being shot and killed. We don’t need a white persons’ movement developing now; we need to take our leadership from communities of color who have been coping with these same issues for generations.
Finally, where do we need to get to? What is our shared vision of “serve and protect”? How do we develop a national project when our goals are different and our strategies at odds? Some of us are doing reform—civilian review boards, taser restrictions, legislative controls on drones. Others want to Fuck the Police and build a world where we “serve and protect each other.”
One thing is clear to me: we took many generations to devolve into the current situation, and we’re going to need to evolve our way out. That’s why I’ll be advancing on this site the idea of “Organic Policing.” What does that mean? For one thing, it means getting rid of the toxic abuses that are poisoning our communities. It also means devising ways for a system of mutual protection to grow organically from each community. Some folks might like a something not altogether different from what we have. Others might throw in some “community oriented policing” to build greater cooperation. Others might want to find ways for civilians to take on some of the mediating and peace-keeping functions that police have come to fulfill. Others may find a way to create the systems which do away with the necessity of formal police departments. Organic Policing allows for the various alternatives. It starts with the principle of “community organized policing” and I hope it charts a way for communities to cooperate in growing their systems and growing their rights step by step, finding out for themselves where on the spectrum of solutions they are most at home.
But those are just my thoughts. We need to coordinate all our ideas and projects into a national push-back against police abuse. That’s the purpose of this site. I hope it will be an umbrella where groups come together, unafraid to disagree constructively but willing to find common ways to work together. The site will be open to all respectful points of view, and will strive to be a platform for unity in the struggle.