By constitutional and civil rights lawyer John Whitehead, the Rutherford Institute.
“Everyday the future looks a little bit darker.” ― Alan Moore, Watchmen
Nothing has changed.
Just our luck that 2017 gave us more of the same bad news that we experienced the year before and the year before that: Endless wars. Toxic politics. Violence. Hunger. Police shootings. Mass shootings. Economic rollercoaster. Political circuses. Senseless tragedies. Loss. Heartache. Intolerance. Prejudice. Hatred. Apathy. Meanness. Cruelty. Poverty. Inhumanity. Greed.
Here’s just a small sampling of what we suffered through in 2017.
The new boss proved to be the same as the old boss. True to form, the new boss (Donald Trump) proved to be no better than his predecessors in the White House in terms of protecting the citizenry from the American police state. Indeed, after a year in office, Trump actually paved the way for further assaults on our freedoms: The predators of the police state wreaked havoc on our freedoms, our communities, and our lives. The government didn’t listen to the citizenry, refused to abide by the Constitution, and treated the citizenry as a source of funding and little else. Police officers shot unarmed citizens and their household pets. Government agents—including local police—were armed to the teeth and encouraged to act like soldiers on a battlefield. Bloated government agencies were allowed to fleece taxpayers. Government technicians spied on our emails and phone calls. And government contractors made a killing by waging endless wars abroad.
Police became a power unto themselves. Lacking in transparency and accountability, protected by the courts and legislators, and rife with misconduct, America’s police forces were a growing menace to the citizenry and the rule of law. Shootings of unarmed citizens, police misconduct and the use of excessive force continued to claim lives and make headlines. One investigative report found that police shoot Americans more than twice as often as previously known, a number that is underreported and undercounted. For example, a San Diego man was shot and killed after it was reported he was “fiddling” with a shiny metallic object: a pen. That doesn’t account for the alarming number of unarmed individuals who died from police using tasers on them.
911 calls turned deadly. Here’s another don’t to the add the growing list of things that could get you or a loved one tasered, shot or killed, especially if you are autistic, hearing impaired, mentally ill, elderly, suffer from dementia, disabled or have any other condition that might hinder your ability to understand, communicate or immediately comply with an order: don’t call the cops. For instance, Justine Damond called 911 to report a disturbance and ended up dead after police dispatched to investigate instead shot the 40-year-old yoga instructor. Likewise, Carl Williams called 911 to report a robbery and ended up being shot by police, who mistook him for a robber in his own home.
Traffic stops took a turn for the worse. Police officers have been given free range to pull anyone over for a variety of reasons and subject them to forced cavity searches, forced colonoscopies, forced blood draws, forced breath-alcohol tests, forced DNA extractions, forced eye scans, forced inclusion in biometric databases. This free-handed approach to traffic stops has resulted in drivers being stopped for windows that are too heavily tinted, for driving too fast, driving too slow, failing to maintain speed, following too closely, improper lane changes, distracted driving, screeching a car’s tires, and leaving a parked car door open for too long. Unfortunately, traffic stops aren’t just dangerous. They can be downright deadly at a time when police can do no wrong—at least in the eyes of the courts, police unions and politicians dependent on their votes—and a “fear” for officer safety is used to justify all manner of police misconduct.
The courts failed to uphold justice. A review of critical court rulings over the past decade or so, including some ominous ones by the U.S. Supreme Court, reveals a startling and steady trend towards pro-police state rulings by an institution concerned more with establishing order and protecting the ruling class and government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, continuing its disturbing trend of siding with police in cases of excessive use of force, a unanimous Supreme Court declared that police should not be held liable for recklessly firing 15 times into a shack where a homeless couple was sleeping.
A culture of compliance paved the way for sexual predators. Twenty years after America gave a collective shrug over accusations of sexual harassment by Bill Clinton, sexual harassment suddenly made headlines after a series of powerful men, including Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, were accused of predatory behavior in the workplace.
Patriotism trumped free speech. At a time when the American flag adorns everything from men’s boxers and women’s bikinis to beer koozies, bandannas and advertising billboards (with little outcry from the American public), a conveniently timed public dispute over disrespect for the country’s patriotic symbols during football games further divided the nation and detracted from more serious conversations that should have been taking place about critical policy matters of state.
Mass shootings claimed more lives. Mass shootings have taken place at churches, in nightclubs, on college campuses, on military bases, in elementary schools, in government offices, and at concerts. The mass shooting in Las Vegas that left more than 50 people dead and more than 500 injured was the deadliest to date and left us with more questions than answers, none of them a flattering reflection of the nation’s values, political priorities, or the manner in which the military-industrial complex continues to dominate, dictate and shape almost every aspect of our lives.
The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and healthcare costs skyrocketed. Despite being one of the world’s richest nations, America’s poor grew to 41 million people living in poverty. That doesn’t include the number of Americans struggling to pay their bills and make ends meet. Americans currently pay $3.4 trillion a year for medical care. We spent more than $10,000 per person on health care in 2016. Those attempting to shop for health insurance coverage right now are understandably experiencing sticker shock with premiums set to rise 34% in 2018. It’s estimated that costs may rise as high as $15,000 by 2023.
We became a nation of snowflakes. We have entered a new age where there can be no freedom speech, expression or thought. We have become a nation of snowflakes, snitches and book burners: a legalistic, intolerant, elitist, squealing bystander nation eager to report fellow citizens to the police for the slightest offense. Americans allowed their fears—fear for their safety, fear of each other, fear of being labeled racist or hateful or prejudiced, etc.—to trump their freedom of speech and muzzle them far more effectively than any government edict could. Ultimately the war on free speech—and that’s exactly what it is: a war being waged by Americans against other Americans—is a war that is driven by fear. That bottled up dissent bubbled over and fomented even more hate, distrust and paranoia among portions of the populace.
Civil discourse was drowned out by intolerance, violence and militarized police. In Charlottesville, Berkeley and St. Louis, the presence of violent protesters and militarized police turned First Amendment activities into riots. Charlottesville, Va., has become the latest poster child in a heated war of words—and actions—over racism, “sanitizing history,” extremism (both right and left), political correctness, hate speech, partisan politics, and a growing fear that violent words will end in violent actions. In Charlottesville, as in so many parts of the country, the conflict centered on how to reconcile the nation’s checkered past with the present need to sanitize the environment of anything—words and images—that might cause offense.
The courts empowered the government to wreak havoc on our liberties. In one particularly outrageous incident, a Virginia court authorized police to take pictures of a teenager’s genitals and force the young man to masturbate—or be subjected to “an erection-producing injection”—as part of a teen sexting case. A Massachusetts court had no qualms about forcing the subject of an investigation to unlock his phone so government agents could search it.
The cost of endless wars drove the nation deeper into debt. Waging endless wars abroad (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Syria) didn’t make America—or the rest of the world—any safer, any greater, or any richer. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure is falling apart. The interest alone on the money America has borrowed to wage its wars will cost an estimated $8 trillion.
Overcriminalization went into overdrive. A Florida couple was threatened with $50 daily fines for growing vegetables in their front yard. Arizona introduced legislation that would allow the government to seize the assets of anyone associated with protests that “disturb the public peace.”
The Internet of Things crossed over into the twilight zone. Google Home updated its features to allow users (and Google) to remotely control smart, internet-enabled devices such as lights, switches, thermostats, security cameras, washers, dryers, vacuums and more. Toys that talked back with the help of connected technologies also exposed kids to the risk of strangers hacking into and communicating with them, without their parents’ knowledge.
Government agencies padded their pockets at the expense of taxpayers. In Virginia, drivers traveling along a toll road during rush hour were hit with a $40 toll to travel a 10-mile stretch of road, part of a new dynamic price gouging scheme aimed at penalizing single-occupant vehicles traveling during peak times.
The plight of the nation’s homeless worsened. In communities across the country, legislators adopted a variety of methods (parking meters, zoning regulations, tickets, and even robots) to discourage the homeless from squatting, loitering and panhandling. One of the most common—and least discussed—practices: homeless relocation programs that bus the homeless outside city limits.
Free speech was dealt one knock-out punch after another. First Amendment activities were pummeled, punched, kicked, choked, chained and generally gagged all across the country. The reasons for such censorship varied widely from political correctness, safety concerns and bullying to national security and hate crimes but the end result remained the same: the complete eradication of free speech. Google also announced plans to dedicate 10,000 staffers to tracking down “extremist” content on YouTube.
The Surveillance State rendered Americans vulnerable to threats from government spies, police, hackers and power failures. The Department of Homeland, which has been leading the charge to create a Surveillance State, began deploying mandatory facial recognition scans at airports and improperly gathering biometric data on American travelers. Police were gifted with new surveillance gadgets that allows them to scan vehicles for valuable goods and contraband. Even churches got in on the game, installing “crime cameras” to monitor church property and churchgoers. The Corporate State tapped into our computer keyboards, cameras, cell phones and smart devices in order to better target us for advertising. Social media giants such as Facebook granted secret requests by the government and its agents for access to users’ accounts. Triggered by background noise, Google Assistant has been actively recording phone users’ conversations. And our private data—methodically collected and stored with or without our say-so—was repeatedly compromised and breached.
Technology drove teens to suicide. Studies show that the rapid explosion of cell phone use and increased screen time by young people have contributed to a climate in which teen mental health is failing and suicide rates among 13- to 18-year-olds are skyrocketing.
Police became even more militarized and weaponized. Despite concerns about the government’s steady transformation of local police into a standing military army, local police agencies continued to acquire weaponry, training and equipment suited for the battlefield—with full support from the Trump Administration. Connecticut expanded its crime-fighting tools to equip police with drones and surveillance to “analyze crime and traffic patterns and capture suspects.” Massachusetts police began using their military armored vehicle (intended for dealing with natural disasters) to intimidate residents making too much noise.
Drones became more lethal. DARPA, the government’s military research agency, unveiled a plan to deploy a swarm of armed, surveillance mini-drones. The Pentagon also provided a glimpse into its future plans for kamikaze drones and tethered, targeted killer drones.
Science got scary. Researchers created “humanized” mice using organs taken from fetal tissue. Genetic engineers created an entire synthetic DNA genome watermarked with encoded links and hidden messages. The FDA approved the first digital pill embedded with sensors to monitor patients’ intake. And DARPA funded research towards the creation of genetic extinction technologies that could be used to eradicate or alter whole populations.
The government waged a renewed war on cash. Championed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the government’s attempts to seize cash and other valuables under the guise of asset forfeiture moved into high gear. Denver made $2.4 million in car seizures in one year alone. One Alabama town turned its police force into a money-making operation to increase revenue.
Police waged a war on kids. So-called school “safety” policies, which run the gamut from zero tolerance policies that punish all infractions harshly to surveillance cameras, metal detectors, random searches, drug-sniffing dogs, school-wide lockdowns, active-shooter drills and militarized police officers, have turned schools into prisons and young people into prisoners. In Georgia, 900 high school students were subjected to body searches by sheriff’s deputies as part of a warrantless drug sweep.
The Deep State reared its ugly head. The Deep State—a.k.a. the police state a.k.a. the military industrial complex—took over. The American system of representative government was overthrown by a profit-driven, militaristic corporate state bent on total control and global domination through the imposition of martial law here at home and by fomenting wars abroad. When in doubt, follow the money trail. It always points the way.
The U.S. military industrial complex—aided by the Trump administration—armed the world while padding its own pockets. Not content to sell an arsenal of weapons and military equipment to the world, the U.S. government pushed to amend a global arms control agreement to allow it to sell military drones globally.
Let’s not take the mistakes and the carnage and the toxicity of this past year into a new year.
The power to change things for the better rests with us, not the politicians.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the police state is marching forward, more powerful than ever.
Thus, if there is to be any hope for freedom in 2018, it rests with “we the people” engaging in local, grassroots activism that transforms our communities and our government from the ground up.
Let’s resolve to work together to make this new year better than the last.