John Whitehead's Commentary
The Stealing of America by the Cops, the Courts, the Corporations and Congress
“What the government is good at is collecting taxes, taking away your freedoms and killing people. It’s not good at much else.” —Author Tom Clancy
Call it what you will—taxes, penalties, fees, fines, regulations, tariffs, tickets, permits, surcharges, tolls, asset forfeitures, foreclosures, etc.—but the only word that truly describes the constant bilking of the American taxpayer by the government and its corporate partners is theft.
We’re operating in a topsy-turvy Sherwood Forest where instead of Robin Hood and his merry band of thieves stealing from the rich to feed the poor, you’ve got the government and its merry band of corporate thieves stealing from the poor to fatten the wallets of the rich. In this way, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. All the while, the American Dream of peace, prosperity, and liberty has turned into a nightmare of endless wars, debilitating debt, and outright tyranny.
What Americans don’t seem to comprehend is that if the government can arbitrarily take away your property, without your having much say about it, you have no true rights. You’re nothing more than a serf or a slave.
In this way, the police state with all of its trappings—from surveillance cameras, militarized police, SWAT team raids, truancy and zero tolerance policies, asset forfeiture laws, privatized prisons and red light cameras to Sting Ray guns, fusion centers, drones, black boxes, hollow-point bullets, detention centers, speed traps and abundance of laws criminalizing otherwise legitimate conduct—is little more than a front for a high-dollar covert operation aimed at laundering as much money as possible through government agencies and into the bank accounts of corporations.
The rationalizations for the American police state are many. There’s the so-called threat of terrorism, the ongoing Drug War, the influx of illegal immigrants, the threat of civil unrest in the face of economic collapse, etc. However, these rationalizations are merely excuses for the growth of a government behemoth, one which works hand in hand with corporations to profit from a society kept under lockdown and in fear at all times.
Indeed, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, the real motivating factor behind erecting a police state is not to protect the people, but to further enrich the powerful. Consider the following costly line items, all part of the government’s so-called quest to keep us safe and fight terrorism while entrenching the police state, enriching the elite, and further shredding our constitutional rights:
$4.2 billion for militarized police. Almost 13,000 agencies in all 50 states and four U.S. territories participate in a military “recycling” program which allows the Defense Department to transfer surplus military hardware to local and state police. In 2012 alone, $546 million worth of military equipment was distributed to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
$34 billion for police departments to add to their arsenals of weapons and equipment. Since President Obama took office, police departments across the country “have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.” While police departments like to frame the acquisition of military surplus as a money-saving method, in a twisted sort of double jeopardy, the taxpayer ends up footing a bigger bill. First, taxpayers are forced to pay millions of dollars for equipment which the Defense Department purchases from megacorporations only to abandon after a few years. Then taxpayers find themselves footing the bill to maintain the costly equipment once it has been acquired by the local police.
$6 billion in assets seized by the federal government in one year alone. Relying on the topsy-turvy legal theory that one’s property can not only be guilty of a crime but is also guilty until proven innocent, government agencies have eagerly cashed in on the civil asset forfeiture revenue scheme, which allows police to seize private property they “suspect” may be connected to criminal activity. Then whether or not any crime is actually proven to have taken place, the cops keeps the citizen’s property. Eighty percent of these asset forfeiture cases result in no charge against the property owner. Some states are actually considering expanding the use of asset forfeiture laws to include petty misdemeanors. This would mean that property could be seized in cases of minor crimes such as harassment, possession of small amounts of marijuana, and trespassing in a public park after dark.
$11,000 per hour for a SWAT team raid on a government dissident. The raid was carried out against Terry Porter, a Maryland resident who runs a welding business, is married with three kids, is outspoken about his views of the government, and has been labeled a prepper because he has an underground bunker and food supplies in case things turn apocalyptic. The raiding team included “150 Maryland State Police, FBI, State Fire Marshal’s bomb squad and County SWAT teams, complete with two police helicopters, two Bearcat ‘special response’ vehicles, mobile command posts, snipers, police dogs, bomb disposal truck, bomb sniffing robots and a huge excavator. They even brought in food trucks.”
$3.8 billion requested by the Obama administration to send more immigration judges to the southern border, build additional detention camps and add border patrol agents. Border Patrol agents are already allowed to search people’s homes, intimately probe their bodies, and rifle through their belongings, all without a warrant. As one journalist put it, “The surveillance apparatus is in your face. The high-powered cameras are pointed at you; the drones are above you; you’re stopped regularly at checkpoints and interrogated.” For example, an American citizen entering the U.S. from Mexico was subjected to a full-body cavity search in which she was subjected to a variety of invasive procedures, including an observed bowel movement and a CT scan, all because a drug dog jumped on her when she was going through border security. Physicians found no drugs hidden in her body.
$61 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, one of the most notoriously bloated government agencies ever created. The third largest federal agency behind the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, the DHS—with its 240,000 full-time workers and sub-agencies—has been aptly dubbed a “runaway train.”
$80 billion spent on incarceration by the states and the federal government in 2010. While providing security, housing, food, medical care, etc., for six million Americans is a hardship for cash-strapped states, it’s a gold mine to profit-hungry corporations such as Corrections Corp of America and GEO Group, the leaders in the partnership corrections industry. Thus, with an eye toward increasing its bottom line, CCA has floated a proposal to prison officials in 48 states offering to buy and manage public prisons at a substantial cost savings to the states. In exchange, the prisons would have to contain at least 1,000 beds and states would have to maintain a 90% occupancy rate for at least 20 years. This has led to the phenomenon of overcriminalization of everyday activities, in which mundane activities such as growing vegetables in your yard or collecting rainwater on your property are criminalized, resulting in jail sentences for individuals who might otherwise have never seen the inside of a jail cell.
$6.4 billion a year for the Bureau of Prisons and $30,000 a year to house an inmate. There are over 3,000 people in America serving life sentences for non-violent crimes. These include theft of a jacket, siphoning gasoline from a truck, stealing tools, and attempting to cash a stolen check. Most of the non-violent offenses which triggered life sentences were drug crimes involving trace amounts of heroin and cocaine. One person imprisoned for life was merely a go-between for an undercover officer buying ten dollars’ worth of marijuana. California has more money devoted to its prison system than its system of education. State spending on incarceration is the fastest growing budget item besides Medicaid.
93 cents an hour for forced, prison labor in service to for-profit corporations such as Starbucks, Microsoft, Walmart, and Victoria’s Secret. What this forced labor scheme has created, indirectly or not, is a financial incentive for both the corporations and government agencies to keep the prisons full to capacity. A good portion of the 2 million prisoners in public facilities are forced to work for corporations, making products on the cheap, undermining free laborers, and increasing the bottom line for many of America’s most popular brands. “Prison labor reportedly produces 100 percent of military helmets, shirts, pants, tents, bags, canteens, and a variety of other equipment. Prison labor makes circuit boards for IBM, Texas Instruments, and Dell. Many McDonald's uniforms are sewn by inmates. Other corporations—Microsoft, Victoria's Secret, Boeing, Motorola, Compaq, Revlon, and Kmart—also benefit from prison labor.”
$2.6 million pocketed by Pennsylvania judges who were paid to jail youths and send them to private prison facilities. The judges, paid off by the Mid Atlantic Youth Service Corporation, which specializes in private prisons for juvenile offenders, had more than 5,000 kids come through their courtrooms and sent many of them to prison for petty crimes such as stealing DVDs from Wal-Mart and trespassing in vacant buildings.
$1.4 billion per year reportedly lost to truancy by California school districts, which receive government funding based on student attendance. The so-called “solution” to student absences from school has proven to be a financial windfall for cash-strapped schools, enabling them to rake in millions, fine parents up to $500 for each unexcused absence, with the potential for jail time, and has given rise to a whole new track in the criminal justice system devoted to creating new revenue streams for communities. For example, Eileen DiNino, a woman serving a two-day jail sentence for her children’s truancy violations, died while in custody. She is one of hundreds of people jailed in Pennsylvania over their inability to pay fines related to truancy, which include a variety of arbitrary fees meant to rack up money for the courts. For example, “[DiNino’s] bill included a laundry list of routine fees: $8 for a “judicial computer project”; $60 for Berks constables; $40 for “summary costs” for several court offices; and $10 for postage.” So even if one is charged with a $20 fine, they may end up finding themselves on the hook for $150 in court fees.
$84.9 million collected in one year by the District of Columbia as a result of tickets issued by speeding and traffic light cameras stationed around the city. Multiply that income hundreds of times over to account for the growing number of localities latching onto these revenue-generating, photo-enforced camera schemes, and you’ll understand why community governments and police agencies are lining up in droves to install them, despite reports of wide scale corruption by the companies operating the cameras. Although nine states have banned the cameras, they’re in 24 states already and rising.
$1.4 billion for fusion centers. These fusion centers, which represent the combined surveillance and intelligence efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement, have proven to be exercises in incompetence, often producing irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence, while spending millions of dollars on “flat-screen televisions, sport utility vehicles, hidden cameras and other gadgets.”
In sum, the American police state is a multi-billion dollar boondoggle, meant to keep the property and the resources of the American people flowing into corrupt government agencies and their corporate partners. For those with any accounting ability, it’s clear that the total sum of the expenses being charged to the American taxpayer’s account by the government add up to only one thing: the loss of our freedoms. It’s time to seriously consider a plan to begin de-funding this beast and keeping our resources where they belong: in our communities, working for us.