November 13, 2016 Editor

For Abolition: Prisons and Police Are More Than Brutality, They’re State Terror

Saturday, 12 November 2016 00:00

By Frank Castro, The Hampton Institute | News Analysis

photo above: Jobs For Felons Hub; Edited: LW / TO

This is an incredibly powerful assessment of “state terror” in arguably the most oppressive democracy of recent times: the United States of America. The author’s analysis rings true at every turn: true to needing to step outside the “rigged system” (thanks Donald Trump) in America that is centuries old, that is designed like an iron-clad caste system to keep the masses (overwhelmingly non-white) in their place in perpetuity. The step outside like a good anthropologist, is the only way there is to even hope that from that vantage point one can cry out, “But the Empire has no clothes!” – is a complete sham, is Public/Planet Enemy Number One in the way it wages terror on all who would oppose it, who too often by virtue of colour alone from birth on are terrorized victims.

To read this article is to weep at the blatant injustices endured by those who fall afoul of “the Law”, a law that too often at once generates the drug trade (for instance), then punishes those who use the drugs authorized and channeled by the very system which created the laws. In this way, “the system” has its cake and eats it too.

How Long O Lord?” is ever the heartfelt cry in the Psalms, in the Book of Revelation, in the Prophets, in myriad human experiences of profound victimization and injustice. And so we work and wait for “Thy Kingdom Come“. Amen.

an excerpt:

In his speech “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” now deceased Professor Eqbal Ahmad elucidated five types of terrorism: state, religious, mafia, pathological, and political terror of the private group. Of these types, the focus in mainstream political discourse and media has almost always centered itself on discussion of just one: “political terror of the private group” — organizations like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. But as Ahmad (and Ben Norton) pointed out, this is “the least important in terms of cost to human lives and human property.” Rarely discussed is state terror, which has the highest cost in terms of human lives and property. According to Norton, Professor Ahmad estimated that the disparity of “people killed by state terror versus those killed by individual acts of terror is, conservatively, 100,000 to one.”

Undoubtedly, the professor’s observations were meant to provide insight into the material costs of global militarism, where millions, if not billions, have found themselves caught in — between or on the receiving end of state domination. While this may invoke imagery of American drones scalping the Middle East and North Africa for resources, its aircraft carriers patrolling international waters, or even thousands of refugees huddled into camps outside cities under siege, these are only instances of the United States’ most visible crimes. They are the sites of its most demonstrative, and yet least diffuse, violence. In the turmoil and spectacle of US foreign policy, often other forms of state terror remain relatively unknown, their intersections with overarching structures of oppression obscured beneath overt cruelty.

But Professor Ahmad’s analysis of state violence can be applied directly to operations within state borders as much as it can be applied internationally. Militarism outside America, paired with its domestic institutions of terror, ought to be viewed inseparably as two sides of the same coin. Here, imperial power complements prisons and policing as institutions for producing obedient, governable subjects, both locally and globally. It does so in a variety of ways: By supplying local police departments with an ever-escalating arsenal of repression, by constantly reconstructing the context for social control, and by extending white supremacy and colonial rule into the 21st century. Combined, governments like the United States have been responsible for far more terror than any private group, possibly, in history [emphasis added].

Our task is to understand and to decide what we are going to do about it.

From Battlefield to Battlefield

War profiteering has a formulaic pattern. No conflict? No problem. The Pentagon will just create one and enrich a tiny minority (remember the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction“). The pattern continues by pointing out the devastation of war, then, like a revolving door, it uses the conflict it stirs as justification for more. This is how the United States has been embroiled in the Middle East for the better part of 50 years, how it armed and supported Osama bin Laden as a “freedom fighter” against the Soviets only to later have cultivated the forefathers of al Qaeda and ISIS. Meanwhile, weapons manufacturers have steadily supplied arsenals to the battlefield, and like any capitalist enterprise, it requires new markets — and new battlefields — to survive.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon introduced the ultimate market to arms manufacturers. The “War on Drugs” provided increased federal funding to local police departments. But more importantly, in 1990 Congress enacted the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which enabled the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is — (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter — drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” Section 1208 states further, under the “Conditions for Transfer,” that any property transferred must be “drawn from existing stocks,” meaning any purchased surplus can be offloaded to local police agencies with little to no obstruction.

The consequences of which have been far reaching. Today, municipal police departments serve as a release valve for the overflow of military grade weapons produced by arms manufacturers. Amended versions of the NDAA have provided local law enforcement agencies with armored personnel vehicles, grenade launchers, high-caliber assault rifles, and an ever-escalating stockpile of combat-ready equipment. It is not just weapons either. Imperial war has imported the ideology of military combat, blurring the distinction between the “Rule of Law” and the “Rules of Engagement,” and brought it to bear upon the intimate details of everyday life. We have seen an escalation of military — styled “special ops” teams within police agencies, the dismantling of the 4th amendment, and heightened advocacy for complete submission to the state in the name of national security, no matter how intrusive.

But no matter what manifestation state violence takes, as physician Gabor Maté accurately observed, it is never waged against inanimate objects, it is waged against people. In the case of the “War on Drugs,” “we are warring on the most abused and vulnerable segments of the population,” an observation that remains true internationally as well. If there were no wars waged against the most vulnerable of the planet, none to constantly supply with arms to subjugate the poor, it stands likely that there would be drastically less weapons to be wielded against the addicted and destitute in our streets.

Expanding State Terror

As New York State prisoner David Gilbert noted, there is simply no way the “War on Drugs” was a “well-intentioned mistake” with Prohibition having proven such an abysmal failure. Rather, he writes, it “was conceived to mobilize the US public behind greatly increased police powers, used to cripple and contain the Black and Latino communities, and exploited to expand the state’s repressive power.” Gilbert’s poignant observations notwithstanding, the “War on Drugs” did not mark the first time US government used drugs as an instrument to develop state dominance. It has been done many times before. In “Drug Wars,” Professor Curtis Marez demonstrates how the United States has historically wielded the drug trade not to end it, but to channel its flow in order to enhance imperial power:

“The use of drug traffic to support the state is evident in a number of ways. First, the United States has supported drug traffic to finance imperial wars. US participation in the cocaine trade as a means for funding rightwing military proxies such as the Contras could be viewed as the refinement and expansion of the strategies first deployed during the Vietnam War, in which the United States promoted heroin trade in order to support anti-communist Hmong forces in Laos. Second, at the same time as it fostered drug traffic internationally, the state used the “drug problem” as an excuse for the criminalization and suppression of domestic dissent… And finally, the United States has indirectly promoted drug consumption as a method for controlling people of color… Drugs have been deployed, in other words, as weapons of counterinsurgency that aimed to dissipate or sedate oppositional energies.”

The techniques of wielding the drug trade have roots closer than Vietnam or Central America. They rest in US attempts to disrupt and destroy indigeneity, first with alcohol through the 1800s, but more recently through substances such as peyote. By prohibiting or restricting access to drugs, government creates the pretext for selective enforcement and criminalization, and ultimately generates substantial leverage for social control. Marez reveals the circularity of this process, noting that “criminalization generates the very forms of criminality it is supposedly meant to prevent, which in turn provides new opportunities for further criminalization.” In other words, “the law does not work simply through the prohibition of crime” but also through a “production of criminality” placed principally upon minorities.

Political prisoner Leonard Peltier once wrote, “When you grow up Indian, you don’t have to become a criminal, you already are a criminal.” Through the drug trade, US government has effectively marketed the policing and imprisonment of minorities as the key to public safety, and therefore marked them as targets of state terror. This unearths how Native men can be incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, how Native women can be incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. It demonstrates how the flooding of crack cocaine into Black communities during the ’70s correlated with a sharp increase in minimum sentencing laws that helped put 1.7 million Black people under some form of correctional control. It reveals how native Hawaiians, who represent just 20 percent of the state’s population, can comprise 40 percent of the its incarcerated.

It also explains, in part, how America’s imprisoned population exploded to 2.4 million since the start of Nixon’s “War on Drugs” — an increase of 700% . But mass incarceration, like most drug policy, has little to do with safety and everything to do with the maintenance and expansion of state power. With the exception of capital punishment, the ability to revoke a person’s freedom, to condemn one to a lifetime in a cage, is the ultimate exercise of state violence. To visit Michel Foucault’s seminal text Discipline and Punish, “There can be no doubt that the exercise of the [state] in the punishment of crime is one of the essential parts of the administration of justice. […] The right to punish… is an aspect of the [state’s] right to make war on [its] enemies: to punish belongs to ‘that absolute power of life and death.’ ”

As we have seen, however, when “crime” is engineered around selective enforcement it is constructed to control the political and economic aspirations, and the very bodies, of the oppressed. Indeed, of minorities and the poor it fashions enemies of the state with the intent to exercise terror. From the origins of police, to the school — to — prison — pipeline, to the vast network of US incarceration, this has been the enduring legacy of the American judicial system — not safety, and certainly not justice. For the legal system which reigns over the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised has not been of their own design, but was created entirely by a white, patriarchal upper class that is incapable of expressing anything but malcontent for those who struggle against it.

The end result is a sprawling cornucopia of state violence supported at every level of America’s social structure — and which relies principally on police for enforcement. After all, we should never forget that every single person convicted for a violent or a non-violent crime, every single person wrongly convicted, every single person corralled for simply being different or standing up for justice, every single person unable to navigate poverty, homelessness, or addiction, who is placed in a cage to work in servitude or slavery, was put there by a cop. It follows that if ever we are to mobilize to dismantle mass incarceration, it must also be a movement to extract the final breath from policing itself, and to abolish for all time every manifestation of state terror.

In the words of prisoners themselves:

“We need support from people on the outside. A prison is an easy lockdown environment, a place of control and confinement where repression is built into every stone wall and chain link, every gesture and routine. When we stand up to these authorities, they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside. Mass incarceration, whether in private or state-run facilities is a scheme where slave catchers patrol our neighborhoods and monitor our lives. It requires mass criminalization. Our tribulations on the inside are a tool used to control our families and communities on the outside. Certain Americans live every day under not only the threat of extra-judicial execution… but also under the threat of capture, of being thrown into these plantations, shackled and forced to work.”

Abolition, then, is the only answer to a system whose currency is terror.

Please click on: State Terror


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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.