In order to understand the roots of contemporary police repression in the United States, readers need to return to the Vietnam War era and the attempt of the government to squelch political activism through the use of a centralized system of monitoring and responding to domestic social action and peace movements.
The protest movement of the Vietnam era scared the hell out of the government. The decision of Lyndon Johnson not to seek a second term and the resignation of Richard Nixon (in addition to the specter of Watergate) were reactions to the peace movement and reflections of that fear. Images of Nixon holed up in the White House portraying himself disinterested in the protest movement are at odds with the paranoia that produced Watergate.
Nixon responded to the demonstrations on the streets of the US by putting into motion the apparatus to monitor peace activists around the nation. By the time Jimmy Carter took office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (now under the Department of Homeland Security), originally given the responsibility to respond to disasters, expanded into the area of civil affairs. It was no accident that FEMA set up shop in places like National Guard armories around the nation and in other locations. The agency was given enormously expanded powers under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, allowing it to coordinate state defense forces (Martin, Harry, V. “FEMA-The Secret Government,” Free America, 1995). Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the enormous powers that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have added to an imperial presidency! Barack Obama has also given himself the power that allows for the assassination of US citizens deemed a threat to the country. A parallel development in policing that took off as FEMA enlarged its powers was the development of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams that resembled storm troopers, or alternately, the forces of darkness portrayed in movies like Star Wars. So, now there existed a centralized apparatus to respond to and track protest movements, and also to respond to them in a way that elicited terror for those who took to the streets in opposition to government policies and actions. It became routine to view nightly news broadcasts showing masses of police storming an area where a suspected criminal was located. Soon, these same shock troops showed up with regularity at protests in increasingly intimidating gear and in larger and larger numbers. Fast-forward over three decades later and it became expected that peaceful Occupy movements across the nation would be subjected to repression by SWAT teams and assaulted. Indeed, The Department of Homeland Security and Patriot Act gave added life to these shows of brute force in the face of peaceful demonstrations.
Now the police role of local, state, and national governments will be heightened by the 2013 completion of the National Security Data Center in Utah, run by the National Security Agency. Every communication, every traceable word, every electronic connection will be monitored by this spy agency. The data center is an Orwellian scenario in its intent and scope.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 gave added sustenance to the security state mindset that is now routinely practiced on the streets of this nation. Occasionally, the security state spills over into what is routine policing. Incidents of police violence are now part of evening news telecasts. Such was the case in the police response to a mistaken call for help placed to a medical alert company in November 2011 in White Plains, New York.
Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. accidentally activated the button on his medical alert device in the early hours of a November morning. When he cancelled the false alert, the police showed up at his apartment in force along with an officer dressed in SWAT riot gear. Police demanded entry into Chamberlain’s apartment. He opened his apartment door a crack and told the police to leave. They insisted on entering and removed the door by its hinges and shot the unarmed former Marine Corps veteran dead within minutes of their incursion into his home, but not before taunting him for responding with “Semper fi” in answer to police taunts (“Officers, Why Do You Have Your Guns Out?” The New York Times, March 5, 2012). Ironically, Kenneth Chamberlain had spent twenty years as a corrections’ officer. He suffered from a serious heart ailment. For Kenneth Chamberlain’s innocuous mistake of activating his medical alert device, he paid with his life. At least one officer from White Plains was also heard shouting racial epithets prior to the shooting.
So, whether protesting on the streets of the US or accidentally activating a medical alert device, we are no longer safe and secure within the US security state!
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.