Kurt Vonnegut and the American Police State
Back in the early 1980s, I had the extraordinary good fortune to get to meet one of my literary heroes, Kurt Vonnegut, up close and personal. We shared a police wagon, sitting next to each other for a ride to the station to be booked for blocking the door to the South African consulate in a demonstration against that country’s then policy of white rule and apartheid.
I can’t say I got to know the author very well, but he was quite friendly and interesting to talk to, and after our arrest and booking was over, and we were released, I shared a cab as far as his house.
I got to thinking that thanks to the latest outrageous 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court (supported fully<> by our Constitutional law-teacher President Barack Obama and his Solicitor General), which says it is now perfectly okay for police to strip-search innocent people picked up on any charge — even a traffic offense or a leash-law violation, or alleged failure to clear a warrant for a bald tire — had Kurt and I been busted for the same kind of protest today, we’d “know” each other much more intimately. For example I’d probably know if Vonnegut had hemorrhoids, and he’d know about a patch of skin discoloration on my balls.
Is this a great country or what?
But seriously, we have really reached a pretty grim point when the court that is supposed to be protecting our rights under the Constitution, and the president, who is supposed to uphold and defend that document, collude in saying that once a person has been taken into custody by police, she or he really has no rights. The 4th Amendment about being “secure in your person”? Forget it. The cops can now
strip you, grope you, check your butthole and humiliate you all they want, even if you are innocent of any charge. And by the way, they can lock you up with hardened convicts and hold you after they do that, until you get a lawyer or post bail. No “cruel and unusual punishment”? Well, I think most people would agree that getting stripped and intimately searched by some leering cop when you hadn’t done anything would qualify as punishment, and it certainly is cruel, so the Eighth Amendment is in the toilet too. (We already knew the First Amendment — the one about freedom of speech and assembly and the right to petition over grievances — was toast. Just ask Mayor Mike Bloomberg or any of the other mayors who ordered the brutal crushing of dozens of Occupation encampments over the past half year.)
As for that old relic of British Common Law, “innocent until proven guilty,” which supposedly is imbedded in our legal system, forget it, too. Justice (sic) Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the court’s majority opinion, drove a stake through that foundation principle of jurisprudence when he wrote that “The search procedures [at issue in the trial] struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions.” Kennedy’s opinion, which must have jurists like Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall and William O. Douglas puking in their graves, leaves me wondering what horrible alternative this legal midget thought was being balanced against the alternative of not strip searching the appellant, Albert Florence. A black New Jersey resident who was stopped for no reason by while driving with his wife and two small kids, was arrested by a New Jersey traffic cop who ran a “make” and found a court contempt warrant for an allegedly unpaid fine. Though the fine had actually been paid two years earlier, Florence was strip-searched by prison guards before being locked up in a cell together with convicted criminals.
I guess the other side of Kennedy’s legal teeter-totter must have been having Florence get raped by a broom handle, as some sick New York City cops did to Haitian immigrant Abner Loima after arresting him outside a Brooklyn bar where he had tried to intercede to break up a sidewalk fight.
We are reaching the point where I suspect Occupy movement and anti-war activists who protest against Wall Street crimes and planned war crimes by the the US government against Iran should be prepared to be strip-searched if they get hauled off to jail.
That would have sure changed my first experience of being arrested, back during the 1967 Mobilization against the War march on the Pentagon. Along with several hundred other protesters who occupied the Mall of the Pentagon overnight back in October of that year, I was clubbed by US Marshals and then hauled off to Occoquan Federal Prison in Virginia, where I spent three days in a dormitory cell with about 100 other guys. It was a radicalizing experience for me to be locked up as an 18-year-old kid with people were veterans of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi and other early civil rights struggles. Today, we’d probably all have been strip-searched, which would have made the whole experience a lot more negative. It probably would have radicalized me even more, but I surely wouldn’t have quite the same fond memories of my incarceration.
Other arrests would have been less fondly remembered too, if Kennedy’s strip-searching were the rule, including my night in a Concord jail on a charge of “trespassing” at night (actually trying to camp out) at the park at Walden Pond, my bust for panhandling (actually playing guitar for tips tossed in my case) in the Yosemite Park main parking lot), and of course, my anti-apartheid arrest with Vonnegut.
The country seems to have crossed over a dark threshold. We are now a police state in all but name. Cops and wannabe cops are shooting innocent people and nothing gets done — the latest being the tragic slaying, by a shot to the head, of Rekia Boyd, a young black woman in Chicago. In this case, we had a drive-by shooting of a completely innocent person, not by a gang member but by an off-duty cop, who claims he was “threatened” by a man in a group of people who had a cell-phone to his ear. The likelihood of this out-of-uniform killer’s being charged with anything is small, and of his being convicted of anything for this outrage, virtually zero.
Many white people may think that they don’t have to worry, because it’s mostly blacks and Latinos and other minorities who suffer this kind of treatment and abuse, but they are deceiving themselves. As a white guy who got plenty of cop abuse back in the ‘60s and ‘70s just for having a beard and long hair, I can assure you that when police are given a free rein, they use it against everybody except the rich white guy in a fancy suit and an expensive car, and even then, he’d better not mouth off.
There is a dangerous change in the wind, and it’s not just strip searches and random shootings of innocents by rogue cops. Police across the country, since 9-11, have morphed from public safety workers to paramilitary occupiers, and from law enforcement officers to The Law.
Consider that we have word that the Department of Homeland Security, a mega umbrella agency created in the wake of the 9-11 attacks which oversees most of the federal security apparatus, and which supplies state and local police through federal grants, along with the FBI, have purchased an astonishing 750 million rounds of ultra-deadly hollow-point bullets and 40 caliber ammo. As well, Homeland Security has reportedly purchased a large number of semi-portable steel checkpoint guardhouses, complete with high-impact bulletproof glass windows and doors.
What is an agency that is responsible not for war but for domestic security doing buying such lethal gear and structures that would clearly be used for controlling free transit?
One can only wonder. I spoke with a government flak at Homeland Security, and was told he couldn’t have an answer for me until Monday regarding those contracts.
And of course, there is also the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, signed by President Obama when nobody was looking, or even sober, on Dec. 31. That act, among other things, says that for the first time, the military can arrest people within the borders of the US, including US citizens, and allows them to be held indefinitely without trial, which is about as far from any Constitutional government and Bill of Rights as you can get.
Meanwhile, as my friend and co-author of The Case for Impeachment, Barbara Olshansky, once said, after being strip-searched repeatedly by Transportation Security Administration goons during her travels by air on business for the Center for Constitutional Rights where she was an assistant director, it might be a good idea to buy some new clean underwear, “just to make sure you look good for your next arrest.”
If he were still around to see this day, my old paddy wagon colleague Kurt Vonnegut would probably just smile wryly and say, “Hi-ho!”
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He lives in Philadelphia.