Policing Civil Liberties - dissent, difference & poverty as

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 2 Dec 1999 23:22:25 -0800 (PST)

FWD  1 Dec 1999 04:00:31 -0000
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From: "Common Courage Political Literacy Course"
Subject: Safety first?

Policing Civil Liberties

[Although not planned, this email has a certain relevance to WTO protests
and the extraordinarily forceful response by police today.]

As pointed out yesterday, the crime rate in the United States has
consistently dropped over the past several years. An alert reader says,
let me play devil's advocate: is increased incarceration the reason for
the drop in crime? Could the get-tough-on-crime advocates have a point? In
a Beyond the Book interview (available from our website), Paul Wright,
co-editor of "The Celling of America" gave his explanation for the drop:

The reason "why crime rates are dropping, I believe, has more to do with
the improved economic situation. Numerous studies have shown a direct
linkage between crime rate and the economic situation. One famous study
shows that for every percentage-point rise in the unemployment rate, a
year later it would lead to a five percent rise in the homicide rate."

Despite this, the so-called war on crime continues to take up headline
space across the nation. Why is this? To put it simply, there is an
increased desire by legislators--many of whom wrap themselves in the
Constitution--to put away those who do not fit into the plans of corporate
America. In their haste to lock up these folks, these so-called defenders
of the Constitution are dismantling its most important (to U.S. citizens)
and unique part, the Bill of Rights.

This process is, of course, not advertised as an attack on the
Constitution. Instead it is framed in terms which play on the fears and
desires of many Americans. Americans who are not rich but are afraid of
being poor and who, in their understanding of the economy, know their
situation is always precarious. As Christian Parenti puts it in his book
"Lockdown America" (Verso, 1999): "Repeating the mantras of anti-communism
helped fund the contras, buy ICBMS, and derail arms talks with the USSR,
but it failed to address the obvious social crisis caused by economic
restructuring." To address this, the right wing and its allies brought out
"an old and trusted trope: race spoken through the code of crime and
welfare." Almost simultaneously, the epidemic of crack cocaine that
destroyed the social structure of many U.S. urban neighborhoods in the
1980s took hold. Under the guise of stopping crack, the Congress passed a
crime bill which mandated steeper penalties for crack than any other form
of cocaine along with mandatory minimums for other drug possession
convictions, denied probation or suspended sentences, and provided $124.5
million for the Bureau of Prisons.

On top of this, President Reagan signed an executive order requiring all
federal employees to submit to drug testing. This order caused
conservative columnist and former Nixon speech writer William Safire to
write: "'The Reagan administration is undermining three of the most basic
rights guaranteed by the founders: No person shall be required to testify
against himself; each of us is protected against unlawful searches; and
every person is innocent until proven guilty'."

Of course, this new anti-drug hysteria and the laws that accompanied it
gave police much greater leeway in their enforcement efforts. City
departments created anti-drug/anti-gang units whose supposed purpose is to
keep gang crime off the streets. In practice, however, what is really
occurring is the creation of a database of "gang members and affiliates".
It doesn't take much to be labeled as such, either: "÷writing gang
graffiti, wearing gang-style clothing,÷writing a letter to your
incarcerated cousin, an alleged gangbanger" and you are on the police list
of gang members. In a clear violation of Constitutional prohibitions
against guilt by association, once on the list, any individual who police
decide is a gang member can be imprisoned for up to a year and, if
convicted of a crime, can have years added to their sentences because of
this label.

Another, even more insidious policing tactic that erodes citizens'
individual rights are the so-called quality of life laws enacted in many
towns and cities across the nation. Perhaps the most publicized of these
campaigns was that of New York Mayor Giuliani. Beginning with the police
war against the squeegee operators, this attack on New York's citizens has
encouraged police abuse, resulting in killings of people after stopping
them for violating ordinances against such "crimes" as throwing footballs
in the street (for which Anthony Baez was held in a choke hold that police
knew was lethal and that did kill him) or double-parking (for which Abner
Louima was brutally beaten). As for the Bill of Rights, Mr. Giuliani's
"civility" campaign has denied free speech to groups like the Church of
Universal Practical Knowledge by yanking its megaphone permit, and
"call(ed) non-profits and neighborhood associations to warn them against
participating in street demonstrations." The result of these machinations
is less exercise of civil liberties by New York's citizens due to fear of
the police.

But Parenti points out that the Constitution is being quietly undone
across the nation, not just in New York. And the pattern has an eerie
homogenous quality across the land. In Baltimore, the same heavy-handed
control is justified under the mantra of zero tolerance. Here's a look at
the world from one zealot's point of view. Parenti quotes:

"People say Z.T.[zero tolerance] doesn't work because in New York or
Baltimore, 80% of the quality of life tickets are never paid and an
enormous amount of the misdemeanor court dates are no-shows," says
zero-tolerance apostle Lt. McLhenny of the Baltimore PD. "But hey, that
doesn't matter. Unpaid tickets become [arrest] warrants. What counts is
we've got them in the system! We're building a database."

These facts come from Christian Parenti's "Lockdown America: Police and
Prisons in the Age of Crisis," Click on

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TOMORROW: Selecting Juries--A Class Act

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Email 63, November 30 1999. Week 13: Justice USA
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