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The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters

Photo by Harrie van Veen | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Harrie van Veen | CC BY 2.0


Soft Power, Hard Power

I’ve long been taken aback by the readiness of some leading left intellectuals to downplay the role of state violence in the enforcement of social hierarchy and class rule inside the United States. Perhaps you know the argument: thanks to the relative strength of the free speech tradition, outwardly democratic politics, and the related heroic struggles of activists from the abolitionists of the 19th century through the trade union and Civil Rights militants of the last century, the American power elite relies less on force than on “the manufacture of consent” to keep to the citizenry down.  It’s called “taking the risk out of democracy” through the “soft power” of propaganda, spectacle, messaging, diversion and illusion: thought control. It comes with a great and brilliant irony: free speech, “democracy” – insofar as it can meaningfully exist under capitalism (which is not very far) – and civil liberties are mixed blessings in hierarchical and imperial societies like the United States because they incentivize those who hold wealth and power to invest heavily in the sinister manipulation of popular hearts and minds. And where else have the art and science of mass consent-manufacture been more advanced than in the nation that first and most powerfully developed modern advertising to advance monopoly capitalist mass consumerism – the United States?

I’ve made the argument myself, with the requisite footnotes to Alex Carey and to Noam Chomsky, who has made it a central part of his intellectual legacy.  I’ve tended to advance the Carey-Chomsky thesis with two key qualifications, however.  The first is an insistence that the vast entertainment component of the mass media – almost completely ignored in Chomsky’s voluminous writings and interviews – is every bit as central, if note more pivotal, to the “manufacturing consent” process as the news and public affairs content Chomsky has always emphasized.

The second is the observation that state violence continues to hold a central place in the enforcement of “homeland” inequality and oppression combined with a nagging suspicion that the soft power functions to soften the population up for hard force when push comes to shove.

Destroying Occupy

Take the dismantlement of Occupy Wall Street in the fall and winter of 2011. We know that the multiple metropolitan repressions and evictions of the Occupy movement across the country were coordinated with assistance and advice from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.  In coordinating this suppression, federal agencies including the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service worked with the Federal Reserve and numerous private banks and businesses including the “corporate security business” to function as what the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund called “a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and corporate America.”

“It has become increasingly clear,” the liberal economist Jeffrey Madrick wrote in the spring of 2013, “that Occupy Wall Street…was undone by a concerted government effort to undo it…the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which Occupy might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter.”

The state violence was quite pronounced in some cases. In Oakland, California, a chilling police state attack was described by a downtown security guard who witnessed a massive, Nazi-like police rush on 100 or so hundred peaceful Occupiers on October 25th, 2011:

“It was terrifying to see …. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…there were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents and this was just….they shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp, and at the time…the police…moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation, the way they moved in. It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany where you know you had the Nazis, the SS going in and picking up innocent people. It had that tenor. …the helicopters, and the lights, and the loud speaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside…. They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black…the thing that stays in my mind’s eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper.”

Oakland’s exercise in militarized policing (ordered by a “liberal” Democratic mayor) put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries.

Then came the tear-down of the original Occupy Wall Street camp in lower Manhattan’s Zucotti Park. Under the cover of martial law and a media near-blackout, the glorious camp that had attracted national and global attention (I spent hours taking in its remarkable spirit one early October day) was trashed, storm-trooper style.  Activists were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, baton-whipped, and hauled away.

The repression in New York City continued into the following year, reflecting authorities’ determination that no such populist uprising would raise its head again in the nation’s leading metropolis. The NYPD declared lower Manhattan a “special security zone” to justify driving Occupiers off whenever they tried to establish new protest sites. At one point, then original OWS sparkplug David Graeber and his fellow activists were contained by two large steel cages and watched over by an NYPD SWAT team as they gathered on the marble steps of the Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment guarantee of Free Speech) was signed.

In the fall of 2012, Chris Hedges reported that 25 military veterans were detained at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in New York City.  “We don’t want to arrest you,” police said to the veterans, “but the Occupy movement messed it up for you because we can’t allow another one.”  There was “a decision by the security and surveillance state,” Hedges told the Real News Network, “to essentially seize all public space, to make any kind of protest within public space impossible.”

“Whatever the internal faults of the Occupy movement,” Hedges noted, “the Occupy movement was destroyed. The state was quite rattled by the Occupy movement and is determined not to allow a movement, a mass movement like that to rise up again.”

Not-So Non-Lethal

The nation’s ever more militarized police departments are loaded up with an array of so-called “nonlethal crowd-control technologies” designed to abolish the right of public assembly.  The terrible tools include things like the “Long Range Acoustic Device” (LRAD) – a sonic cannon that can cause total hearing loss for protesters who refuse to disperse at authorities’ command. Drones are now routinely deployed against protestors inside the U.S.  (Along with dozens of other opponents of the eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline [DAPL] in Iowa, I have now been drone-surveilled at close range).

It is true that protestors are not murdered in U.S streets by government gendarmes. At the same time, the proscriptions against sheer mass and bloody repression here have incentivized American authorities to develop more subtle, technically sophisticated forms of state coercion that prevent or discourage citizens from assembling and protesting .The legal and cultural ban on outwardly murderous rule in the nominally free and democratic U.S. has compelled elites and their servants to develop new, less provocative  ways to “incapacitate” angry and active citizens – more quietly sinister methods of repression that are deadly for democracy:  penned-off “free speech zones” and “frozen zones” (where protestors are denied access to those they seek to influence),  “rubber bullets” that hurt and harm but do not generally kill, “concussion grenades” that disorient and confuse without generally shattering skulls,  tear gas and pepper spray that sends protestors running, Tasers that stun but do not generally kill, sonic canons and other acoustic devices that make your eardrums feel like they are splitting, and perhaps – someday soon to be deployed in freedom’s “homeland” – Raytheon’s perfectly named “Silent Guardian,” which noiselessly seems to cook human skin and eyeballs and has the capacity “to inflict limitless, unbearable pain.” It’s all quite lethal – to democracy and free speech.

LRADS were on quiet display – along with much more chilling to behold – during the mass protests staged against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit that occurred in Chicago in the spring of 2012. From Friday May 18th through Monday, May 21st, 2012, the downtown and South Loop of Chicago were placed under proto-totalitarian multi-dimensional para-militarized police-state occupation. Heavily armed, high-tech federal, state, county, city and private security forces from across the nation were omnipresent and ubiquitous in the gleaming center of “global Chicago.” At almost every step in and around the city’s downtown and South Loop, I beheld black-clad, baton-wielding and vest-wearing agents of repression, high-speed police vans and cars speeding around corners and occasionally into crowds – an intimidating, vast “security” presence that seemed more than vaguely dystopian. Except for many thousands of militarized police, the Loop was nearly a ghost town by the Friday preceding the main protests. City, federal, state, and media helicopters hovered above the central business, hotel and restaurant district and swept the lakefront, monitoring real and potential protest. Police cars and vans swept around corners with sirens blaring to descend on real or imagined dissenters. Everywhere you looked, it seemed, men in paramilitary black were getting out of shiny white vans and black SUVs.

From Ferguson to Standing Rock

Flash forward to Ferguson, Missouri just more than two years later, when the police killing of the black teenager Mike Brown sparked mass Black and civil rights protests. In response to legitimate Black anger and protest over yet another fatal shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in the U.S., predominantly white police from Ferguson, other jurisdictions, and (above all) St. Louis County went into paramilitary and anti-insurgent mode – reminding some observers of Israel’s repressive tactics in Gaza and the West Bank. The police donned helmets, shields, flak vests, gas masks, and shields, using armored vehicles as they dispersed crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets, and LRADs. SWAT team members brandished high-powered assault rifles, aiming their deadly military-issue weapons at unarmed fellow civilians. Much the same basic scene – with large-scale deployments of militarized police in response to mass protests following police killings of Black men – has since been re-enacted in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge, and Charlotte.

The current leading hot-spot for militarized police-state repression is southeastern North Dakota, where militarized local, county, and state police and National Guard units have attacked Native American water- and climate-protectors and others resisting the eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline. As Sarah Lazare reported on AlterNet last October, “Military-style checkpoints. Low-flying surveillance planes. Invasive strip searches. These are just some of the repression tactics that have targeted the thousands of Indigenous people and supporters who, heeding the call of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, mobilized to North Dakota to stop the…DAPL.” Advanced military technologies have been on display and deployed throughout the ongoing repression: automatic rifles, MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), Humvees, armored police trucks, tear gas, mace, pepper spray, flash-bang (concussion) grenades, smoke grenades, Tasers, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets, and more. The Native American journalist Brenda Norrell and other writers at Censored News have reported that Morton County (North Dakota) police criminally tortured Native American activists, placing hoods over the heads of arrestees, and forcing at least one young woman to remain naked in jail cell for an entire night.

The National Guard and police from multiple jurisdictions in North Dakota and from other states, including Minnesota, were sent in to assist the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in quelling the protests beginning last August. In September, the North Dakota Governor’s Emergency Commission borrowed $6 million from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to cover the costs of repression, including the compensation of out-of-state gendarmes.

The Standing Rock protests have become something of a regional cop magnet. As David Lindorff recently noted on CounterPunch,  “many of the ‘law enforcement’ thugs attacking the peaceful water protectors are volunteers from neighboring states’ police departments – people anxious for a chance to play ‘cavalry’ in this latest iteration of American’s murderous history of Indian Wars.”

On Wednesday, November 3, 2016, the day the Chicago Cubs finished off the Cleveland Indians – the team with the offensive racist name (on par with “The New Jersey Negroes”) and revolting Red Sambo logo – in the baseball World Series, police dressed like U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan shot, sprayed, and beat real Native Americans fighting to protect safe drinking water, ancestral lands, and livable ecology.  You can see film footage of the assaults here. You behold, in the words of filmmaker Josh Fox, “a line of peaceful water protectors in the water, up to their waists, freezing cold.” Above them stand police in riot gear, equipped with shotguns.  The gendarmes blast the pipeline fighters, journalists, and medics point-blank at close range with streams of mace and pepper spray and rubber bullets. You see a female journalist zapped while she interviews an Indigenous activist. You see a military sniper (certainly with real bullets) perched on a hill above the vicious scene.

The LRAD has been deployed in Standing Rock, compelling savvy water protectors to use military-level earplugs.

The state violence intensified three weeks ago. As Lindorff reported, “National Guard troops and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, bolstered by volunteers from various other police departments conducted an all-night attack using…flash-bang concussion grenades, rubber bullets, mace, teargas and three water cannons — this at a time the temperature on the prairie had fallen to a low of 22 degrees Fahrenheit…The casualties of this one-sided battle against peaceful protesters on a bridge were enormous, with some 300 of the estimated 400 protesting water protectors, both native people and non-native supporters, injured, 26 of them seriously. There was evidence that police were aiming rubber bullets at protesters’ heads and groins to inflict maximum pain and damage, with eight of the injured hospitalized, including a 13-year-old girl shot in the face, whose eye was reportedly damaged.” Sophia Wolansky, a 21-year-old woman from New York City, had to be evacuated to a Chicago hospital after a sheriff’s deputy hit her directly in the arm with a flash-bang grenade, “blowing away the flesh and muscle and reportedly some of the nerves and bone of [her] elbow joint.”

“This,” Wolansky’s father said, was “the wound of someone who’s a warrior, who was sent to fight in a war,” Wayne said. “It’s not supposed to be a war. She’s peacefully trying to get people to not destroy the water supply. And they’re trying to kill her.” Concussion grenades, Lindorff notes, are not supposed to target human beings.

Is this, to use Lindorff’s phrase “Wounded Knee III in the making?” We may know by December 5th. That’s the day that Barack Obama’s Army Corp of Engineers (ACE) has given the Standing Rock pipeline-fighters to leave or face final eviction by police-state force.

Obama has refused to use his power to stop the police-state violence.  He told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell last fall that “We’re going to let [the Standing Rock situation] play out for several more weeks.”

One day before the deadline, thousands of U.S. military veterans are going to Standing Rock to intercede on behalf of the pipeline fighters and their cause of saving livable ecology.  It will be interesting moment – to say the least – in the history of the American military police state.

The Empire Strikes Home

Surprised by all this militarized police-state violence in the “homeland” of your beloved “land of liberty”?  We shouldn’t be.  A report issued by the Army War College in late 2008 informed U.S. authorities that “widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.” The likely sparks for such civil unrest included another major terrorist attack, “unforeseen economic collapse, loss of functioning political and legal order, purposeful domestic resistance or insurgency, pervasive public health emergencies, and catastrophic natural and human disaster” (emphasis added). Later reports by Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security lectured government officials on their duty to identify and monitor military veterans, leftists, right-wingers, sovereign citizens and to classify them all as dangerous “extremists” and “terrorists.” (See John Whitehead’s excellent recent Counterpunch account and sources here).

Clearly some strategic thinkers in the American “security” state are not content to rely only on Chomskyan-Careyan-Walter Lippmanesque consent-manufacture and/or (Antonio) Gramscian ideological and cultural hegemony to maintain proper control over the populace. Brute force – with its properly lethal/non-lethal updates and permutations – remains very much part of the state-capitalist tool box and not just in the imperial hinterland.

By some reports, the quasi-fascist President Elect Donald Trump is considering imperial General David Patraeus – the former head of U.S Central Command, former commander of U.S. and multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and former CIA Director – to head the Department of Homeland Security.  How perfect a statement would that be?  The Empire strikes back on its own domestic populace.


Make no mistake: armed force state repression is alive and well in the United States. The Iron Heel lives, updated and refined for the current age. It did not simply pass into the dustbin of history with the Ludlow Massacre, the Palmer Raids, Kent State, COINTELPRO, the murder of Fred Hampton, or Wounded Knee II. It has hardly been rendered obsolete by the soft power of the mass media and other modes of propaganda and thought and feeling control, including carefully staged quadrennial electoral extravaganzas that tell people that democracy consists of getting to mark a ballot for five minutes or less once every four years and then going home to let rich people run the world (into the ground).  Millions of non-white Americans, it should be noted, confront armed state power not just when and if they protest but on a routine and daily basis in and around the nation’s large number of poor and highly segregated Black and brown ghettoes, barrios, and reservations and in the nation’s vast, globally unmatched number of prisons – very disproportionately inhabited by people of color. It is not uncommon for Black Americans to confront SWAT teams breaking down their doors over relatively minor drug and other crimes. (I expressed shock when a defense attorney recently regaled me with a story about a SWAT raid on a Black woman holding her baby in her arms in her own apartment.  She was wanted for questioning on a traffic offense.  The attorney laughed at my incredulity.  “This is routine now” she said.)

And the repression is richly bipartisan.  It is enforced by government agencies headed by slick, smooth-talking Democrats like Bill Clinton or Barack “Let it Play Out” Obama as well as by gendarmes under the command of more outwardly thuggish Republicans like George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

The Dispensable Silk Glove?

Free speech and the democratic tradition? How powerful are they really in this era of global corporate media, rampant vote fraud, and corporate political duopoly – in an age of transnational hyper-capitalism where the concentration of national and planetary wealth and power dwarf individual and popular voice on a seemingly dystopian scale? What does free speech really mean in an ever-more union-free nation where one places not only one’s job but also one’s health care and often one’s family’s health care at risk by saying anything deemed controversial by one’s employer – and where we are always just one more major terrorist attack away from draconian restrictions on even minor dissent? Where public opinion is largely irrelevant to not-so “public” policy that continues year after year to follow in accord with the interests of a Deep State financial and corporate oligarchy that gets what it wants over and against majority sentiments regardless of which party holds nominal sway in the surface-play marionette theater of electoral and parliamentary politics? Where surveillance is ubiquitous, historical memory is nil, and a President Elect can talk in at least semi-seriousness about taking away the citizenship of someone who burns a U.S. flag?  Where professors and high school teachers are reasonably frightened to tell elementary truths about class, power, race, and empire, among other topics that must be treaded around carefully if one doesn’t want to be reported to right-wing thought-monitors? At a certain point the potency of our vaunted free-speech and democracy traditions can be knocked down so low that the masters feel gloriously free to dispense with them altogether, tilting the balance from hegemony through consent to hegemony though force.  An at once softened-up and beaten-down populace no longer garners the silk glove around the iron fist.

Trump: Clown Cover?

Donald Trump, scheduled for Inauguration in less than two months, embodies the tension between soft and hard power alluded to at the beginning of this essay.  On one hand, he owes much of the notoriety that allowed him to triumph to his many years as a clownish “reality television” star – the blustering boss of “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”  He is a product of the mass entertainment media complex.  As was the case with the former grade-B Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan during the late 1960s, the mention of his name as a serious political candidate has long and until quite recently elicited chuckles, eye-rolls, and disdainful amusement in liberal and left circles.

On the other hand, Trump’s campaign persona and policy promises have oozed with racist, white-nationalist, sexist, nativist, and eco-cidal violence. He encouraged the beating of Black protestors at his ugly Make America Great [Hate]Again rallies. His racially toxic neo-Nixonian calls for “law and order,” a “national stop and frisk law” (his draconian response to Black Lives Matter[BLM]), mass deportations, a giant military build-up, and national greatness (lost but restored) carry more than a vague whiff of repressive, Iron Heel fascism. Will the trivial Trump of Celebrity Apprentice and the New York tabloids prove to have provided juvenile cover for the rise of Herr Trump the remorseless crusher of dissent? Will he warm War College and white supremacist hearts and pad Big Carbon pocketbooks by declaring BLM activists, pipeline-fighters, prison-state opponents, serious trade unionists, and immigrant rights activists “terrorists”? We will find out soon enough.

Veterans are Key: Standing Rock Showdown

Buy a gun,” an Iowa City radical tells me as Herr Trump’s installment looms closer: “we know how this movie turns out.” Well, shoot, there’s nothing wrong with equipping and training oneself reasonably and responsibly for self-defense against right-wing vigilantes these days.  That would seem almost like a necessity now in communities of color. But, of course, we the people are not going to take on the militarized American police state with small arms and have the slightest chance of prevailing. Force matters, of course, but to defeat that police-state we will need – among other things – people inside to defect and turn against it, to stand down, to refuse to target citizens even with so-called non-lethal repression tools and methods.  And that means difficult moral and political work.  Nobody is more equipped to reach out and do that work than the many U.S. military veterans who are now key members of the movements for social justice, peace, equality and sustainability.  And that’s why the coming remarkable gathering and confrontation in Standing Rock in two days – with two thousand veterans going to serve as human shields for the water-protectors while wearing the uniform of the U.S military – is potentially of great historical significance

Paul Street’s new book is The Passive Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.