The cold winds of political repression have begun to blow a little colder. The widening FBI probe of the anti-war and solidarity movements–launched with coordinated raids in Minneapolis and Chicago in September, 2010–attests to the expanding reach of Washington’s repressive apparatus. The new face of domestic repression is characterized by rapidly developing technical capacity for surveillance and data sharing, the integration of local policing into the national security system and a blurring of boundaries between private and government police functions and goals.
Repression–the use of state power to limit political action and discourse–doesn’t develop in isolation. It compensates for the weakening of other, less intrusive methods for ensuring social stability. Today it corresponds to growing economic inequality driven by the flight of manufacturing, the demolition of public sector services, the decline of union power and the ascension of a ravenous financial sector. These changes severely strain the mechanisms that maintain popular consensus.
Our task in the following pages will be to note current trends in political and social police repression, identify some of the systemic vulnerabilities they betray and to find points of leverage from which to launch a pro-democracy counteroffensive. We are experiencing a system-wide assault on the democratic public space that, besides police activity, encompasses attacks on academic expression, criminalization of whistle-blowing, corporatization of elections and hobbling the open internet. Piecemeal, defensive strategies will not be adequate. We will need to mount a challenge to the repressive enterprise as a whole. In particular I would assert that our strategy should promote solidarity and cooperation among the sectors that bear the brunt of repression but have historically remained separate in their responses.
Within days of the September raids, several hundred people turned out at a south side community church in Minneapolis to begin organizing a defense campaign. Several days later, a similar-sized crowd gathered on the city’s north side to support the family of Fong Lee, a Hmong teenager killed by police in 2006, at that time appealing his case to the US Supreme Court. Between them, these cases embody the two levels of a police-repressive system that has operated in the United States since its earliest days.
The September raids marked a shift in the “anti-terror” narrative. Until then the domestic front of the “war on terror” had targeted dark people with foreign names and accents. Almost all of the thousand or so terrorism cases pursued since 9/11 have been instances of entrapment, involving financially desperate, mentally unstable or otherwise vulnerable men in Muslim communities. These hapless individuals have been cajoled, threatened and even bribed into conspiratorial activities conceived, financed and equipped by the FBI. These prosecutions have not foiled real threats to public safety but they do “send a message” that the nation is under attack from Islam at home and abroad and must “circle the wagons” in defense.
This time the targets are US citizens, predominantly of European descent and with respectable, mostly white collar jobs; well-known in their communities for public protest and educational activities. Repression usually targets those who can easily be isolated and moves up the social ladder as it builds the case that enemies are all around us. This is the principle famously summed up by Pastor Martin Neumoller in his 1946 statement, “First they came for the Communists…” The September raids represent a rather abrupt leap up that ladder, risking an outpouring of support for their targets that has, indeed, materialized.
It has been widely noted that the raids came on the heels of a Justice Department report critical of the FBI for spying on peaceful activism. Their timing suggests a defensive move on the part of the Bureau, saying, in effect, “See, peace activists really are in league with terror!”
The report was released by the DoJ’s Inspector General under pressure from Senators, following a Pittsburgh newspaper expose. A revealing incident in its pages involves an agent sent to observe a protest organized by the pacifist Thomas Merton Center. When pressed by investigators to justify the spying, Bureau officials quickly created a false back story (complete with paper trail) to pretend that their intent was to keep tabs on Farooq Houssaini, the director of the local Islamic Center. The problem is that they had no legitimate reason to spy on Houssaini either! The officials seemed to assume that by linking the protest to a prominent member of an Ethnically Targeted Community (an ETC), they would escape criticism. A similar ploy may be discerned in the September raids; the inclusion of a single Palestinian, Hatem Abudayeh (the respected director of Chicago’s Arab American Action Network), to provide the necessary intimation of guilt (more Palestinians were targeted in a subsequent round of subpoenas).
While the DoJ report may explain the timing of the raids, their pretext flags them as a test of new police powers stemming from the Supreme Court ruling in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law. This ruling criminalizes interaction with groups deemed “terrorist” by the feds, even for the purpose of conflict resolution, investigation or humanitarian aid. This new instrument is, logically, being tested on leftist activists rather than mainstream institutions like the Carter Center which has expressed alarm over its draconian reach.
Today’s police system has its roots in the colonial past. Control over Ethnically Targeted Communities was the operative principle of the early slave patrols and, later, of the urban militias who monitored a growing number of free black workers and Native people (whose movements were subject to a pass book system). As these organizations morphed into police departments, their mandate would evolve to include maintaining order among immigrant factory workers, keeping wages down by suppressing union agitation and, eventually, becoming the enforcement arm for corrupt political machines.
In a racially stratified country, compliance with the social order is based on a two-tiered modality: collective management of ETCs and other low social strata, but individual treatment for offenders from the privileged classes. Charges might be pursued against a white person who disturbed the public order whereas an entire Black community would be punished if one of their own stepped out of line.
This pattern is familiar to US communities of color. It plays out in the indiscriminate rage directed at local communities when a member of the force has been shot by an unknown assailant; in post-Katrina New Orleans where the police acted as enforcers to assist white communities and suppress dark ones; in the contrasting responses to the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing and the 9/11 attacks. The first, perpetrated by white Christian racists was treated as individual criminal pathology whereas the latter unleashed a full-bodied assault on Muslim and immigrant communities which has yet to end.
A shift in police philosophy, beginning in the 1970s, places domestic policing into a frame of counterinsurgency. Rather than seeking out the perpetrators when crimes have been committed, counterinsurgency emphasizes widespread surveillance and infiltration to identify and neutralize threats before they materialize. Based as it is on a war paradigm, counterinsurgency (“COIN,” in the professional jargon) justifies police action on the basis of intent, suspicion and association rather than the higher standards of evidence associated with a crime-fighting model. Within the logic of COIN, civil society is a breeding ground for subversion, crime and terror and must be closely monitored to guard against outbreaks. There is a presumed natural progression from truancy, petty theft and political discontent to protest, organized crime and terrorism. The more effectively you disrupt these threats to stability when they are seeds, the more you will succeed in preventing their becoming thistles. Spying on and disrupting pacifist groups, mine protestors, death penalty opponents and civil libertarians, therefore, are not instances of careless overreach or poor supervision but, rather, are the purest application of counterinsurgency logic. In communities of color– where preventive disruption has long been the norm–the introduction of COIN has, through “community policing,” increased police reliance on informants to trigger reckless paramilitary home raids.
These developments fit within a broader cultural offensive aimed at dividing and disrupting civil society. Thus we see the imposition of racist immigration laws in Arizona (to keep down labor costs and redirect white economic fears) linked to the banning of Ethnic Studies instruction (to undermine the seeds of cultural resistance).
The racialized dual structure of US policing finds expression in the deepest racial/cultural divide in our society: the chasm that cuts across public perceptions of the police. The admiration and trust for police with which white, middle class children are inculcated stands in irreconcilable contrast to the hatred and fear with which they are viewed by the young of the ETCs. These sets of perceptions are rooted in real disparities in treatment experienced in these communities. The fact that cases like Fong Lee’s (or the better-known Oscar Grant) are commonplace is not known to white USAmerica, where conflict with the police is seen as evidence of criminality. Poet Bao Phi distills it clearly:
Put a blindfold on me
Tell me who you fear
And I will tell you
When Fong Lee and his friends were confronted by the police, it’s not surprising that his impulse would be to get away. Officer Jason Anderson, an officer with a brutal history, chased Lee around a school building, shooting him eight times. A handgun which materialized later turned out to have come from storage in a Police Department evidence room. As a young member of an ETC, it would be assumed by the white public that he must have done something pretty bad to attract police bullets. The attorneys for the city exploited this bias by repeating the word “gang” as many times as possible in connection with Fong’s name while excluding evidence of the officer’s anti-Asian racism and penchant for brutality.
An Expanding Web
Racial and political repression is systematized through vast databases that have morphed into virtual maps of their respective social sectors. State-level gang databases are, like lobster traps, easy to get into but difficult to leave. In some states saggy pants and hip-hop sensibilities are enough to flag you as gang-connected and that, in turn, implicates your friends. For young people in trouble with the legal system, a gang “association” can bring enhanced penalties. Anti-dissident databases are equally sweeping in scope. Data collected from direct surveillance and infiltration, commercial sources, phone, car rental and travel records, public sources (such as Facebook) and past investigations are amalgamated through over seventy regional, state and city “fusion centers.” These are staffed by police and agents from multiple agencies alongside private security contractors (who are conveniently exempt from oversight laws). The resulting map of personal connections and associations identifies key hubs of activism for closer inspection.
Revelations involving fusion centers in Missouri, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Los Angeles and Texas, among others, expose a systematic pattern of spying on legal activity. In some cases the data is collected with the assistance of corporations who are the targets of protests and who, in turn, receive intelligence reports about their critics. An inadvertently posted memo from the director of Homeland Security in Pennsylvania highlights this cozy relationship: “We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies.”
Driving the expansion of police powers is a decline in the global position of the US, shifts in its racial makeup and growing inequality globally and locally. The accelerated integration of private and public police functions reflects a parallel integration of corporations and government at all levels, from the federal cabinet (composed increasingly of executives from the most powerful corporate sectors); to legislatures selected with unlimited private contributions; to the leadership and staff of regulatory agencies. This merger has given rise to a brazen kleptocracy in which corporate criminality carries little risk of punishment while those who expose or protest it are treated as insurgents.
Growing inequality and impoverishment produce three predictable responses from the base of the social pyramid: protest, crime and psychological/emotional breakdown. These expressions of social distress–not the systemic exploitation which engenders them–are the problems which an expanded police universe is assigned to contain. All of these challenges will increase as a returning stream of psychologically and physically wounded war veterans collides with a drastically downsized social safety net.
Into this volatile mix corporations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor a resurgence of right wing political action. The agenda of the new rightist groups is to support corporate-friendly measures (dressed up as defenses of personal liberty) and to pin the blame for societal collapse on vulnerable populations. Counterinsurgency policing exactly complements this conservative agenda by disrupting the opponents of corporate power and suppressing the responses (organized or random) of the hardest hit communities. There is a high degree of overlap between the targets of hate radio and its vigilante followers and those of Homeland Security and the repression-technology complex.
Stripped of its ideological baggage, the grievances of the Tea Party rank and file can be summarized as: “things are getting worse and I’m being treated unfairly.” The right wing sound machine directs these sentiments into resentment toward “elites” who conspire with brown people, foreigners, queers and the parasitic poor to deprive white citizens of all they have worked so hard for. The same frustrations (albeit w