Sunday, November 6, 2011

So what is a police state, anyway?

Last spring, at a convivial luncheon here in Seattle with several other science fiction writers, a disagreement arose about the term "police state." One of my colleagues took an authoritarian state in the Middle East as an example of a "real" police state and advanced the argument that because here in the US we don't feel fearful, in our day-to-day lives, of arbitrary violence from the police, it's absurd to say we live in a police state. When someone (perhaps me) brought up the fact that many people in the US do feel fearful in their day-to-day lives of such violence, she wasn't shaken from her position in the least: they are exceptions, she said, not the rule. As I recall, she said that "ordinary" people need to feel daily fearfulness. Since then, I've several times mused about just what a police state is, and also about whether it needs to touch everyone with fear. Long after the conversation was past it occurred to me that probably "Aryan" middle-class Germans were not touched with such fear under Hitler, or most Italians under fascism. Yet who would argue that Hitler and Mussolini presided over police states? 

The question arose freshly for me when reading the Guardian's article on the recent beating, jailing, and belated intensive-care hospitalization of Kayvan Sabehgi, an Iraqi-war vet (and small business owner) in Oakland-- off the site of the Occupy Oakland action. The question didn't arise so much for the pre-arrest part of the story (which can be written off with the bad-apples narrative that is so often trotted out to explain the arbitrary police violence that is endemic across the country) as the part that happened after Sabehgi's arrest. Though of course what happened before the arrest is bad enough:
On Wednesday night, police used teargas and non-lethal projectiles to drive back protesters following an attempt by the Occupy supporters to shut down the city of Oakland.

Sabehgi told the Guardian from hospital he was walking alone along 14th Street in central Oakland – away from the main area of clashes – when he was injured.

"There was a group of police in front of me," he told the Guardian from his hospital bed. "They told me to move, but I was like: 'Move to where?' There was nowhere to move.

"Then they lined up in front of me. I was talking to one of them, saying 'Why are you doing this?' when one moved forward and hit me in my arm and legs and back with his baton. Then three or four cops tackled me and arrested me."

Sabeghi, who left the army in 2007 and now part-owns a small bar-restaurant in El Cerrito, about 10 miles north of Oakland, said he was handcuffed and placed in a police van for three hours before being taken to jail. By the time he got there he was in "unbelievable pain".
It's the next part of Sabeghi's account that for me points to profoundly serious problems at the institutional level-- not just in the Oakland PD (which would be the rotten-apple narrative), since we know damned well that this instance reveals a set of assumptions and attitudes that are the standard throughout our entire law enforcement system, at every level, and that those small portions of the institution that don't hold those assumptions and attitudes are the exceptions rather than the rule. To continue with the Guardian's report:
He said: "My stomach was really hurting, and it got worse to the point where I couldn't stand up.

"I was on my hands and knees and crawled over the cell door to call for help."

A nurse was called and recommended Sabehgi take a suppository, but he said he "didn't want to take it".

He was allowed to "crawl" to another cell to use the toilet, but said it was clogged.

"I was vomiting and had diarrhoea," Sabehgi said. "I just lay there in pain for hours."

Sabehgi's bail was posted in the mid-afternoon, but he said he was unable to leave his cell because of the pain. The cell door was closed, and he remained on the floor until 6pm, when an ambulance was called.

He was taken to Highland hospital – the same hospital where Olsen was originally taken after being hit in the head by a projectile apparently fired by police.

Sabehgi was due to undergo surgery on Friday afternoon to repair his spleen, which would involve using a clot or patch to prevent internal bleeding.
I wonder, if Sabehgi had accepted the suppository, he would now have grounds for suing for medical malpractice. In any case, being forced to lie in a cell in a pool of vomit and liquid feces ought to be considered a level of police abuse that is unthinkable. In fact, of course, it's not at all unthinkable. This is where we are now, in 2011, in the US.  Sabehgi's experience holds up a mirror of our society. There's nothing unfamiliar about the ugly sight that greets us in that mirror.

We all know that such treatment of a convicted felon in any prison in the US would not raise so much as an eyebrow.  (And do please remember that no country in the world incarcerates as big a proportion of its population as the US does.) Even for those who think that such conditions for convicted felons are as it should be (regular readers of this blog and readers of my Marq'ssan Cycle know that I myself do not), the problem for our polis-- if we can actually, at this point, claim to have one-- is that once it becomes ordinary to treat convicted felons in such a way, it then becomes ordinary to treat any detainees in the same way, without distinction. At any given time quite a few detainees in the US are people who have not been convicted in a court of law-- and a growing number of detainees are people (and children) who have not been charged with crimes at all. (Whole classes of people now have no "right" to the due process of the law.)

And then, of course, there is a perhaps more obvious point: in city after city, the response of civil authorities to dissent is to wield violence and detention against the dissenters. This, too, is routine. But ask yourself this: what does it mean that the response to any visible dissent (as opposed to that of the polite letters to the politicians who couldn't care less what their "constituents" since what really matters is pleasing the people who hold the purse strings [aka "the 1%]), dissent that might actually mean something, is repression by any and all means available? Can we speak honestly of "democracy" that cannot accommodate (much less respect) dissent?

I won't even go into the level of surveillance we live with in the US. Or the fact that the US intelligence establishment is bigger and more far-reaching than any of its people at the top even knows.  Or the fact that the US Supreme Court has in effect ruled that the US is a plutocracy in which political speech is to be treated as a commodity.

Perhaps the US is as not as terrible a police state as certain Middle-Eastern autocracies are, but surely we can agree that there can be degrees of being a police state, and that sadly, so sadly, we are if not there already, heading there fast.


Rebecca said...

For blacks when I was growing up in the South, the US was a police state. I use here what I remember of black behavior in a dominant white society to judge whether Nicaragua has internal control problems. At this point, I feel that Nicaragua is freer than the US South was. People disagree with each other, fight during elections, but there's no sense that someone is going to have problems if they freely speak their minds.

And this is supposed to be a soft-authoritarian state.

Josh said...

Eh, we've been told for thirty years that Nicaragua is a soft-authoritarian state. Don't worry about it.

As for the U.S., whether in the Sixties or the present: Timmi's interlocutors were talking about "ordinary people," not African American men! Very telling.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Despite policies on racial profiling, "driving while black" is still enough to get folks pulled over in this country. And what about those anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Alabama, and Oklahoma? Plus poor people in general are at risk. All those seem like "ordinary" people to me. Of course, I live in Texas, where the Anglo population is less than 50 percent, making the number of middle class white people -- which I assume was what the colleague meant by ordinary -- considerably smaller than that.

Josh said...

Jonathan Skinner: "for many in our society, the U.S. has been a police state for decades. what is emerging, as middle class poets and white folks take it on the chin, is not a new order, but the collapse of an illusion. there is opportunity, in this collapse, to take on a state incapable of acting otherwise. also to confront one's own stubborn fantasies."