The latest news on the burgeoning police state in the US — a page-one investigative report in the New York Times disclosing that at least 40 agencies of the US government from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Supreme Court (!) are using undercover agents to spy on and even to entrap law-abiding American citizens — suggests that we have passed the tipping point.
One can no longer speak in terms of the US as a country that is moving towards becoming a police state. We are living in a police state.
The Times reports that IRS personnel have been going undercover posing as accountants and even as physicians to root out tax fraud, that the Supreme Court has been dispatching some of its guards (all of whom have been trained in undercover work) “dressed down” in civilian clothes to mingle with protesters (notably abortion-rights activists) to spy on people simply exercising their First Amendment rights outside the court building, that the USDA sends out agents posing as Food Stamp recipients to try and entrap shop-owners to commit Food Stamp fraud, and that even NASA and the Smithsonian Institution have undercover operatives. Undercover cops and agents are assuming the identities of teachers, doctors, journalists and even priests.
This information has to be put together with the rampant militarization of local police forces, who have become an occupying army, and with the proliferation of spying activities by state and local police agencies, encouraged by the establishment by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security of myriad “Joint Anti-Terrorism Strike Forces, and of 76 so-called Fusion Centers. These latter are totally unregulated operations that meld the spying activities of state and local cops and the myriad three-lettered intelligence units of the federal government, as well as private corporate security units, with no specific agency assuming oversight responsibility.
I used to scoff at the wild-eyed claims made by people on the right and left who said that we were living in a police state. Having lived for a year and a half in China, where a police state has been operating now for 65 years, and having visited police states in Eastern Europe during the days of the Soviet Union, I have seen and experienced what life is like when the police, secret and overt, run rampant, and I knew the US was not like those places.
I’ve changed my mind, though. The only difference I see now, knowing what we know about the breadth and depth of police activity in the US, between what’s happening here and what happens in places where police states have long existed, is that in long-standing police states, everyone knows they are being watched and are subject to arbitrary arrest. while here in the US, many Americans remain blissfully ignorant of what has happened to their vaunted freedoms.
You don’t know you are in a newly established police state until you deliberately or inadvertently cross a line. That’s why we still have people in this country thanking people in uniform for “defending our freedom,” when we’ve actually already lost them (in no small part thanks to the state of perpetual war our politicians have been orchestrating).
Even in China, I didn’t realize the extent of the police state there until I once made a trip to the countryside to visit a peasant village at the invitation of a Chinese friend who was a lawyer and vice director of a local radio station. The day I arrived at his city on a flight from Hong Kong, while having dinner at my friend’s house, a police officer came to his apartment door. This cop, a former law student of my friend’s, said he had come to warn his old teacher that as a foreigner I could not stay the night at his house, and that I’d have to go instead to a designated hotel. He also said I would need to go to a meeting at the Public Security Bureau the next morning. He urged my friend to “be careful.”
I left after dinner, checked into the specified hotel, and sure enough, the next morning, a uniformed officer from China’s ministry of state security came to my room and politely escorted me to headquarters. As I walked into the building, I saw, to my surprise and dismay, my friend seated in another room, across a table from another officer. I was brought into the main office, a well-appointed room with comfortable lounge chairs and a glass-topped tea table. A ranking officer came in and politely offered me tea and cigarettes. Then he began asking me why I was in town.
I explained that I had met my friend in the US when he was a visiting legal scholar, and had shown him and his family around the region, and that he was now returning the favor to me, showing me around his home town. He said, “But you are planning to go out and visit a village in the countryside, aren’t you?”
I replied that I was, and said that I did not believe that this was a restricted area.
He said, “But you are a journalist.”
I agreed, but noted that I had just recently spent a year as a teacher at Shanghai’s Fudan University at the invitation of the Chinese central government’s Ministry of Education, and that during that whole year I was in the country as a “friend of China” on a regular visa. I added that I was currently in China not to write an article as a journalist, but as a tourist visiting a Chinese friend. I added for good measure that I was surprised that there was any concern about a foreigner seeing what great strides were being made in reforming agriculture and increasing peasant incomes.
He was not satisfied. He said if I was a journalist, then I must have a journalist’s visa in China. (This was not correct. Both before and after this incident, I have traveled to China on a tourist visa with no difficulty.)
At any rate, after a long back and forth on this, he announced that we were friends and that we’d be going to lunch at a restaurant owned by his bureau. We walked out to a waiting limo, and there I met my friend and his wife, who had also been brought in. We got in the car and my friend leaned over and told me that everything was fine — we were to be allowed to go to the village, but just could not spend the night there as I had once hoped to do.
At the extravagant lunch, it was all pats on the back and rounds of rice wine with the police in attendance, and talk of “our good American friend.” Then we parted, with the police taking the check and waving us on the way in their limo.
Afterwards, I told my friend I did not want to make the trip to the countryside. I said going would be putting him and his family at risk, as the police were clearly uptight about it, and I didn’t want to be responsible for any trouble for him. He insisted he knew what he was doing and that everything was fine. He did note that they’d taken his passport, but assured me that it would be returned to him when we came back as promised from our run-out to the village the next day.
He finally convinced me and we went, and spent a very enlightening and enjoyable day with a family he had lived with for a year during the Cultural Revolution, when his cadre parents had been attacked by Red Guards as “rightists.”
The following day, after our trip, I left for Nanjing and then went on by train to Shanghai, where I visited with friends. When I returned to my home in Hong Kong, a week later, I called this friend to see how he was. I got his wife on the phone, who told me he was in the hospital, recovering from serious injuries caused by a police beating. It seems as soon as I had left, he was arrested, beaten by several thug cops who broke his cheekbones and caused massive bruising around his groin from kicking him repeatedly. He was also fired from his post at the radio station.
Eventually, he left China, earned a US law degree, and then later returned, after using his Chinese law school connections to have his case “rectified”. But he told me while he was meeting with a high-ranking security official in Beijing who had been a law-school classmate, he was shown my file, which included, apparently, virtually every article I had written about China over perhaps five years’ time.
He also learned that I had been surreptitiously tailed after my visit to him, all through Nanjing and Shanghai, so that every person I met, including former students I had taught in Shanghai, was identified.
It was a truly daunting realization that if I visited China, whether as a tourist or as a journalist, even without an official “handler,” I would be potentially putting everyone I spoke with or met with at risk, or at least in the cross-hairs of the police state.
It never occurred to me back then in the 1990s that such a state of affairs could exist in my own country, and yet it appears, on the basis of the latest Times report, put together with what we know now about the extent of NSA monitoring of all our communications, that it does exist. There is every reason to believe that the US Post Office is monitoring our mail, that the NSA is monitoring our phone calls and our internet usage, and even that local police are keeping tabs on our comings and goings. And even if they are not, we have to operate as if they were, because they can and could be.
This is what makes a police state so insidious. Once you know that it exists, and that it is monitoring people, one would be crazy not to assume that the possibility is that each of us could be one of those who are targeted for such attention.
As a journalist, this is terribly threatening, not so much for myself, but for those I might want to interview as sources. Just as my eye-opening trip to China showed me that while I might be protected from harassment or physical as a US citizen, those Chinese people I talked to or befriended are not, I have to assume that unless I take extreme caution in how I meet people or communicate with people when working on a sensitive story involving someone who is a whistleblower, I am likely to be putting such contacts in jeopardy in today’s America.
Two personal examples of how deeply embedded the police state has become here:
A year ago, I was driving into New York City, late to an event. I came through the Holland Tunnel into lower Manhattan, part of what was a crush of traffic. Finding myself in the wrong lane for making a right turn onto Canal Street, I signaled to a cop in front of my car who was directing traffic, asking if he could help me cross over one lane and make my turn. He looked at me, nodded, and then said, casually, “How’s the traffic down in Philly?” I made my turn, and then suddenly asked my wife, “How in hell did he know we were from Philly? Our car only has a license plate on the back!” (I don’t know the answer, but New York City has more security cams than any other place in America, particularly in lower Manhattan.) Also, I heard from a friend whose husband has advanced dementia, that she had taken him to a crowded market on Manhattan’s lower West Side. Attempting to buy something, she turned away from him for a moment and then found him missing. In a panic, she approached a police officer, who asked her if she had a photo of him. She did, on her cell phone. He texted that photo to a command center and minutes later got word that her husband had been spotted at an intersection nearby. This happened in minutes! I had read that at the urging of nervous bankers during the Occupy Movement, Mayor Bloomberg and the banks had installed a high-tech monitoring system throughout lower Manhattan, that was including face-recognition technology. Here its power was being demonstrated!
Clearly we are being watched, at least in some locales.
The latest Times article also shows that every American is now at risk too, not just journalists and protesters. If the government feels free, or even becomes enthusiastic about using undercover officers in every agency to engage in entrapment, people will have to worry about what they say to anyone. Routine behavior like watering a lawn at night during a draught alert, doing a home roof repair without a permit, or sharing a friend’s “joint” in a private setting could lead to an arrest — especially if you happen to have enemies in a local community. Routine conversations, particularly about politics, could be viewed as subversive and be passed on to employers.
And that, I’ve learned, is one of the worst things about police states. Sure, it’s terrible that the full power of the state can be brought to bear to crush heretics, rebels and outsiders. But in a police state, those in authority at any level — in schools, police departments, planning commissions, courts, health departments and other offices — can also make use of the apparatus of the police state for more petty and vindictive purposes, to harass and humiliate and punish those against whom they have personal grudges. In a state like China, or the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), we know such abuses are or were commonplace. They will become so here too in the new Police State of America.
That I can predict with absolute confidence.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” On that basis, the US has in recent decades fallen very far from any greatness it may have once had. But it can also be said that a nation’s freedom can be measured by how free its people are and feel to be to criticize, protest and organize against its ruling elites. Most of us, including those of us who are critics of the Establishment, may still feel that we are free to act, but we must note the terrible lengths to which this government is going to repress political activists like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Edward Snowden, and others, journalists like James Risen, Glenn Greenwald and Barrett Brown, or Internet activists like the late Aaron Swarz. The list of people being hounded and persecuted by the US police state is far too long to publish.
Suffice to say if police repression can happen to the people on that list, it can happen to all of us.
The only way to end a police state is to call it out and to stand against it.