The Neoliberal Jackboot State: Bill Clinton, Janet Reno and the Miracle of Elian Gonzalez

Janet Reno died yesterday. As the nation’s first female Attorney General, Reno gave the order to incinerate the women and children at the Waco compound, a massacre which energized the militia movement in the United State. (See Michael Leon’s excellent piece, Clinton, Reno and Waco: the Real Story.) But Waco was merely a grim symptom of the erosion of constitutional liberties during the Clinton era, from the drug war to the militarization of the border, from the suppression to public protests to mass surveillance. This essay originally appeared in the May 2000 edition of the print edition of CounterPunch.

Maybe Elian Gonzalez will have achieved a miracle after all, alerting mainstream America to the fact that the Bill of Rights has disappeared, restrictions on the role of the military in domestic affairs have been thrown overboard, and all the appurtenances of a fully-fledged police state in place. Twenty-five years after the war ended in Vietnam we see what happened when that war came home. We lost abroad. And at home we’ve lost too.

For blacks and Hispanics the reactions to that famous photograph of the Elian snatch by the INS team have been comic in a macabre sort of way. After all, they’ve been putting up with these no-knock forcible entries by heavily armed cops or INS agents for decades. As Illinois rep Jesse Jackson Jr put it, “I see them [i.e., law enforcement] knocking down doors every day. I’ve never seen African-American people more excited about a raid.”

On the religious Right, fears about the onrush of tyranny hardened into certainty back at the time of Waco, in the dawn of the Clinton era. The intervening years have done nothing to lessen such fears and in a way the Elian raid has come a kind of welcome reminder of the evil of Clinton and Reno. Listen to Steve Myers, who publishes the right-wing DC e-mail/fax journal Exegesis.

“History will record that, on April 22, 2000, at 2319 NW Second Street in Miami, the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, Bill Clinton had his Krystallnacht [sic]. At 5:15 am, his foul-mouthed storm troopers ensured that fascism was no longer merely knocking on America’s door: it didn’t knock at all. Rather, it burst right through the door during the night, using a battering ram, tear gas, pepper spray and submachine guns, to abduct a child from freedom to slavery, shattering their windows, damaging their home, and smashing a statue of the Blessed Mother as they went.

“In the photograph we shall never forget, notwithstanding the media’s best efforts, you saw the thugs of Fuhrer Clinton’s authoritarian police state, the obscenity-spewing, armed government thugs, servants of the nation, whose salary you pay, in the process of spending three quarters of a million dollars of your money by attacking and invading the private home of honest, law-abiding, unarmed civilians in the middle of the night, without a search warrant, for the sole purpose of destroying Elian Gonzalez’s deceased mother’s cherished dream for her son to grow up in freedom.”

So much for the Right. Until recently the liberal-Left had been relatively complaisant about the modern police state, preferring to watch re-runs of the McCarthy hearings of the l950s, while remaining tranquil about Waco or Ruby Ridge. The rampages of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr did perturb them, but mostly because Starr was chasing a Democratic president. But the week before the Elian raid, the left experienced its own evocation of Kristallnacht, in the week of demonstrations in Washington DC against the World Bank and the WTO, where there were reports that the police had shoot-to-kill orders.

Here’s how Sam Smith, longtime Washington reporter and editor of The Progressive Review evoked the events unfolding in the capital:

“Illegal sweep arrests. Print shops intimidated into closing by police. Universities canceling public forums under pressure from officials. Homes of opposition leaders broken into and ransacked. Headquarters of the opposition raided and closed by police. These were the sort of things by which we defined the evil of the old Soviet Union. These were some of the reasons we said we had to bomb Yugoslavia. And now they have become characteristics of the federal government’s handling of the current protests.”

What happened in Washington was a replay of similar cop mayhem in Seattle last December. It’s now emerged that a big factor in cop violence was the US Army’s Delta Force –whose presence in Seattle during the WTO protests was a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, forbidding the US military any role in domestic law enforcement. This ban is increasingly a dead letter. The Delta Force was at Waco and came to Seattle under the pretext that there might be terrorist bio-chem assaults.

As the Seattle Weekly reported,

“Using high tech equipment, the Force mapped out potential problem areas as well as identified possible violent demonstrators. Some Deltas wore lapel cameras, continuously transmitting pictures of rioters and other demonstrators to a master video unit in the motel command center, which could be used by law enforcement agencies to identify track suspects.” The Weekly’s Rick Anderson quotes a former Special Forces Ranger as saying, “These guys are the army hotshots, the cowboys. They were wigged out about security here. They thought something drastic had to be done. I’d say they got heard.”

In other words, a secret Army unit spied on US citizens on US soil and dictated police tactics to an intimidated local police force which promptly declared the civilian equivalent of martial law in downtown Seattle, suspending civil liberties.

It should be added that both in Seattle and Washington, the treatment of arrested people (some of them delegates swept up in the cop rampage) makes for hair-raising reading, with random beatings, denials of food and water for 24 hours, racial abuse, threats of rape, refusals to allow consultations with attorneys. As in the 1960s white middle class demonstrators (and their parents) are learning what happens to poor people all the time.

There’s no sign that mainstream politicians were a whit perturbed by police conduct in Seattle or Washington DC. The picture of the Elian snatch did elicit some reaction. Illinois
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550-e1477943826411rep and House Speaker Dennis Hastert proclaimed sternly that “Our government has invaded the home of American citizens who deserve the protection of our laws and a certain respect for their rights.” That puissant legislator from Texas, House majority whip Tom DeLay bemoaned the fact that Elian Gonzalez had not been read his Miranda rights. That the hated word “Miranda” passed the lips of DeLay shows the transformative powers of which Janet Reno is capable. “You bet there’ll be congressional hearings,” DeLay fumed on the House floor. “I think both branches, the legislative branch and the judiciary branch, should look into this in depth, because this is a frightening event, that American citizens can expect that the executive branch on their own can decide to raid a home.”

Will Congress take a serious look at the rise and rise of our jackboot state? On the evidence of the last thirty years, No. Both parties have eagerly conjoined in militarizing the police, extending police powers and carving away basic rights. Very often the Democrats have been worse. It was Republican Rep Henry Hyde of Illinois who led the recent and partially successful charge against asset seizure. It was Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York who was the errand boy of the US Justice Department in trying to head off Hyde and his coalition.

After the Elian raid, Hardball’s Chris Matthews bleated in his syndicated column, apropos the Elian photo, “That’s not a good picture. It says that the way to measure and display legitimate authority is by having the biggest gun capable of shooting the most bullets the fastest.” Back in the mid-1980s Matthews was a top aide to then House speaker Tip O’Neill as the Massachusetts Democrat orchestrated the most repressive drug laws passed by Congress since the days of Harry Anslinger, prompting many raids of the sort Matthews now laments.

The insane drug war has been a bipartisan affair. Its consequences are etched into the fabric of our lives. Just think of drug testing, now a virtually mandatory condition of employment, even though it’s an outrageous violation of personal sovereignty, as well as being thoroughly unreliable. Last year about 700,000 were arrested for marijuana offenses, about 87 per cent for possession. This is more than double the equivalent number in the early 1990s. Of the federal prison population of 150,000, about 60 per cent are in for drug law violations, the largest proportion for marijuana.

Drug offenders comprise about a quarter of the 1.2 million in state prisons and of the 500,000 in local jails. In the state pens most of these are in for heroin or cocaine-related offenses. In the era when America has been led by two self-confessed pot smokers– Clinton and Gore– the number of people held for drug crimes in federal prisons has increased by 64 per cent.

Gone is “probable cause”. The snitch– prime bacterium of the police state–is paramount. Here are some cases described by James Bovard, author of the excellent Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty.

“On August 25, 1992, officials from the U.S. Customs Service and the DEA, along with local police, raided the San Diego home of businessman Donald Carlson, setting off a bomb in his backyard (to disorient Carlson), smashing through his front door and shooting him three times after he tried to defend himself with a gun. Police even shot Carlson in the back after he had given up his gun and was lying wounded on his bedroom floor. Amazingly, Carlson survived the raid. The Customs Service mistakenly believed that there were four machine guns and a cache of narcotics in Carlson’s home.

“Carlson related in congressional testimony in 1993 that even after agents failed to find any drugs, ‘No one offered me medical assistance while I lay on the floor of my bedroom. Eventually, paramedics arrived and took me to the hospital. I was shackled and kept in custody under armed guard for several days at the hospital. During that time, I was aware of the hospital personnel referring to me as a criminal and of police officers and agents coming into my room.’

“The raid was based on a tip from a paid informant named Ron, who later told the Los Angeles Times, that he had never formally identified a specific house to be searched. Customs officials had Carlson’s house under surveillance for many hours before they launched the raid. The agents could easily have arrested Carlson when he arrived home at ten P.M. but instead watched and waited to attack until after midnight, when Carlson was asleep, in order to maximize the surprise. Although they had a search warrant based on the house being a drug storehouse, agents carried out the raid even after it became obvious that Carlson was living a normal life there.

“The government finally admitted limited liability for Carlson’s medical costs in March 1994, but the chief federal prosecutor, Alan Bersin, simultaneously hailed the ‘courageous law enforcement efforts in the area of drug interdiction’ involved in the case. ‘The tragedy for everyone involved is that no one acted other than in good faith,’ Bersin asserted. ‘We were deceived by our informant and must accept responsibility for that.’ Bersin’s statement implies that when federal agents launch a raid on someone’s home based solely on an allegation by a government informant, a ‘tragedy’ occurs only when the informant deceives the agents. The Justice Department indicated that no federal agents will be prosecuted for their actions before, during or after the raid.”

Bovard notes that unfortunately no-knock raids are becoming more common as federal, state and local politicians and law enforcement agencies decide that the war on drugs justified nullifying the Fourth Amendment.

“As Charles Patrick Garcia noted in a 1993 Columbia Law Review article, ‘Seven states, favoring strong law enforcement, have chosen a `blanket approach’, which holds that once police have established probably cause to search a home for drugs, they are not required to follow the constitutional knock-and-announce requirement.’

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in February that police could forcibly enter a home without knocking in any case in which there was ‘evidence of drug dealing.’ Unfortunately, ‘evidence of drug dealing’ can be the uncorroborated assertion of a single anonymous paid government informant. The Wisconsin court said that the ‘possiblity for violence’ can be minimized by allowing police to rely on ‘unannounced, dynamic entry’ — though it’s a good bet that the judges don’t expect police to carry out such raids in the judges’ neighborhoods.”

Even in states where search warrants require a knock on the door before entry, police routinely disregard that formality. In a 1991 corruption trial, a former Los Angeles policeman testified that the accused officers falsely reported that they had complied with the knock-and-announce rule. In reality they violated the rule in 97 per cent of the search warrants they executed. No knock raids in response to alleged narcotics violations presume that the government should have practically unlimited power to endanger some people’s lives in order to control what others ingest. “The right to batter down a door apparently includes the right to kill any citizen who tries to stop the police from forcibly entering his or her home.”

As a result of both federal and local actions, America is moving towards the normalization of paramilitary forces in law enforcement. There’s a useful summary by David Kopel and Paul Blackman in the Akron Law Review for 1997. For example, the police in Fresno, California, have taken the next step towards militarization of local law enforcement. The Fresno SWAT team, in full battle gear, now deploys a full-time patrol unit in the city. Deeming the SWAT patrol an “unqualified success,” the Fresno police department “is encouraging other police agencies to follow suit.”

About twenty percent of police departments in cities over 50,000 have already put their own paramilitary units into street police work. In many cases, funding for street deployment of paramilitary units is funded by “community policing” grants from the federal government. The majority of police departments use their paramilitary units to serve “dynamic entry” search warrants. SWAT teams also get deployed in missions very foreign to ordinary police work. The SWAT Team in Chapel Hill, NC conducted a large-scale crack raid of an entire block in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The raid, termed “Operation Redi-Rock,” resulted in the detention and search of up to 100 people, all of whom were African-Americans. (Whites were allowed to leave the area.) No one was ever prosecuted for a crime.

The major cause of the militarization of American law enforcement has been the “drug war.” In 1981 and 1988, Congress created huge exceptions to the Posse Comitatus Act, to allow use of the armed services, including the National Guard, in drug law enforcement. Because of drug war exceptions created in the Posse Comitatus Act, every region of the United States now has a Joint Task Force staff in charge of coordinating military involvement in domestic law enforcement.

In Region Six, the JTF’s Operational Support Planning Guide, in the edition current in 1993, enthused, accurately, that “Innovative approaches to providing new and more effective support to law enforcement agencies are constantly sought, and legal and policy barriers to the application of military capabilities are gradually being eliminated.” Consistent with the trend noted by the JTF, the 1995 session of Congress saw a proposal to create a 2,500 member federal Rapid Deployment Force for the Attorney General to deploy at her discretion to assist local law enforcement.

There are signs of popular unrest and mutiny. Bovard reports that “The ACLU and the National Rifle Association have jointly called for President Clinton to appoint a commission to investigate ‘Lawlessness in law enforcement.’ Congress should establish explicit rules to limit the arbitrary and violent behavior of federal agents carrying out searches and raids, and state legislatures should repeal their laws granting unlimited no-knock-search powers to police in their jurisdictions.”

States with democratic processes such as ballot initiatives have seen brave efforts to curb the war on drugs. California has a medical marijuana law and Hawai’i’s legislature just passed one. Oregon and Arizona have also moved to decriminalize personal use. The feds’ reaction has been to attack these states by threatening to withhold highway funds, the usual mode of persuasion.

Let’s see what those legislators indignant about the subversion of liberty do next. Right now the swelling police state is an expression of the War on Drugs. No politician that does not call for a cease fire and a rollback in that cruel, futile war–our domestic Vietnam–has any standing to bewail the loss of our freedoms.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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