Top Ten American Steps toward a Police State

The police state, a term first coined in the mid-19th century in German (Polizeistaat), is characterized by a standing political police, by intense domestic surveillance and by restrictions on the movements of citizens. Police states are on a spectrum, and unfortunately in the past decade the Unite States has moved toward police-stateness in small but key ways. Here are the signs:

1. The United States National Security Administration recently requisitioned all Verizon phone records in the US for a period of 3 months. Your telephone records (who you called and for how long) say a great deal about you. This is a form of mass surveillance.

2. The US has assigned 250 NSA agents to sift through a massive further British database of US telecommunications and email, derived from attaching packet analyzers to transatlantic fiber optic cables.

3. The Federal government claims the right to examine the contents of the laptops of US citizens whenever the enter the United States, in contravention of the Fourth Amendment. Some 60 million Americans travel abroad annually.

4. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Those in prison have grown from 220 per 100,000 population to over 700 per 100,000 population since 1980. The US holds over two million inmates, and has 6 million people at any one time under carceral supervision– more than were in Stalin’s Gulag. State spending on prisons has risen at 6 times the rate of spending on higher education.

5. Some 6 million persons convicted of felonies have been disenfranchised and cannot vote. Most are not in prison. Because of the ‘war on drugs,’ many of these persons are not actually guilty of serious crimes. The practice hits the poor and minorities. Some 7 percent of African-Americans is ineligible to vote, but less than 2 percent of whites is.

6. Police can take DNA samples of all arrestees on serious crimes, whether they are proven guilty or not. Even Justice Scalia believes the ruling opens the door for DNA sample collection for all arrests. Some 13 million Americans are arrested annually, 1.6 million on drugs charges and half of those on marijuana charges.

7. American police are becoming militarized, with SWAT teams proliferating, and use of drones, GPS tracking devices, and military equipment, as well as participation of National Guards in the ‘war on drugs.’

8. Legislators are increasingly attempting to criminalize public protest, as with a current bill that would make it a crime knowingly to ‘trespass’ in security zones where persons are found who are under secret service protection. Authorities have sometimes also attempted to restrict public protesters to “protest zones”, thus keeping them out of the view of news cameras.

9. The USA PATRIOT Act institutes gag orders that are a violation of the 1st Amendment,forbidding persons and companies from revealing that the government has secretly asked for surveillance records.

10. The same act allows government agencies (including the Pentagon) to issue “National Security Letters” without any warrant, making broad and unspecific demands for records on large numbers of persons.

34 Responses

  1. Juan: Great Post! So was the one about Cheney, Field Marshal Rumsfeld and Snowden. Shouldn’t you mention government control of the the press as part of a police state?

    • Dan, it might be worthwhile asking yourself if the deeper issue is whether the owners of the mass media control the government

      • Sure Castellio: Bob Schieffer said last Sunday that CBS had no control over who appeared on their Sunday show. CNN admitted that their coverage of the Turkey riots were at the whim of Erdogan. Many of those same political regulars on the air day after day have now discovered that the military has all their personal info and have to play ball with the NSA to get on TV. It is a YES SIR!! mentality that keeps them saluting and in power. C-Span is polluted with think tankers who just say the same stuff over and over. It is time to start some boycotts… how about against arsenic and growth hormone in your chicken?

  2. No. 4 states, in part, “The US holds over two million inmates, and has 6 million people at any one time under carceral supervision– more than were in Stalin’s Gulag.” This is a cheap shot, attempting to draw a false equivalence between the US prison population and inmates in Stalin’s Gulag. One can decry the number in US prisons without suggesting a “Gulag” equivalency where there is none.

    • Why a cheap shot? The Gulags were created by largely arbitrary and unnecessary incarcerations of large segments of the population: is that not happening in the US? Is that not an equivalency worth considering?

      • If you think the Gulags were simply places of incarceration for lawbreakers, like US jails and prisons, you are seriously deficient in your knowledge of Stalin’s use of the Gulags. They were located in the harshest climates where opponents of Stalin (real and imagined) were sent with little clothing and less food. Thousands perished of overwork, cold, and starvation.

        No, that is not an equivalency worth considering. If you really are interested, I suggest you read the book “Gulag,” by Anne Applebaum, not to mention “The Gulag Archipelago,” by Alexander Solzhenitzen.

        • I’ve read them both, Bill. I have no illusions about the Gulags.

          You, however, may have some illusions about the nature of “arbitrary and unnecessary” within the American penal system.

          You might also remember that the Gulags presented cheap labour for certain state projects. Have you looked into the role of cheap labour in the American penal system? Have you had the time to contrast that to other “developed” nations?

        • “I’ve read them both, Bill. I have no illusions about the Gulags.”

          Then you will know that while there may be criticisms to be made about the American penal system, it in no way is comparable to the horror of the Gulag camps under Stalin, where thousands perished from overwork, cold, and starvation.

      • What’s scary is that the Gulags were not unnecessary in a certain sense; they may have been the only really productive part of the Stalin-era economy. It is estimated that up to 1/3 of Soviet GNP was produced by the camps.

        Which brings us, Bill, to the question of when our public will eliminate all restrictions to for-profit prison slave labor so as to quell their fears without having to pay taxes for prisons. Then it’s open season to imprison anyone who’s not popular, as was done in the Jim Crow-era South’s for-profit convict labor system. Think of it as a kind of Final Solution for American capitalism; simultaneously destroying the black vote (Democrats), wrecking wage leverage for the non-imprisoned, and freeing corporations from having to kiss Beijing’s ass.

        • Your feeble attempt to equate the American system with Stalin’s Gulag won’t wash, SUPER390. Yours is a completely ahistorical approach. No serious student of the Soviet era would buy it.

  3. No. 6 states, in part, “Police can take DNA samples of all arrestees, whether they are proven guilty or not.”

    What is the difference between taking DNA samples for identification purposes and the long-standing practice of taking someone’s fingerprints when he is booked?

      • “Wouldn’t you say exploring your genetic structure is a tad more intrusive?”

        I doubt that your local police department is interested in competing with Watson and Crick. Nothing wrong with using it for identification.

        • The way I’m reading the current law is that what is known as “familial [DNA] searches” are only prohibited in states that have expressly banned them. A number of states have passed laws enabling them with varying degrees of restriction.

          Familial Searching

          Familial searching is an additional search of a law enforcement DNA database conducted after a routine search has been completed and no profile matches are identified during the process. Unlike a routine database search which may spontaneously yield partial match profiles, familial searching is a deliberate search of a DNA database conducted for the intended purpose of potentially identifying close biological relatives to the unknown forensic profile obtained from crime scene evidence. Familial searching is based on the concept that first-order relatives, such as siblings or parent/child relationships, will have more genetic data in common than unrelated individuals. Practically speaking, familial searching would only be performed if the comparison of the forensic DNA profile with the known offender/arrestee DNA profiles has not identified any matches to any of the offenders/arrestees.

          link to

          See also States Using Familial Search

          link to

        • Right. The state can take highly intrusive information and keep it in a database, but it’s not a problem because we can trust them to only use it for simple identification. What could possibly go wrong?

  4. See Rachel Maddow’s recent report on the FBI killing of Ibragim Todashev. The story itself is disturbing in the extreme; the broader picture is the virtual impunity with which the FBI can kill suspects and even innocent bystanders.

  5. Do they have border patrol checkpoints on interior highways in Michigan, complete with armed thugs, cameras and dogs? They do in my area.

  6. Dear Professor Cole

    You missed Press Censorship, either Self Censorship or Overt Censorship.

    The UK D Notice process is an example of the technique.

  7. Excellent post — these are all worrisome developments. Just a minor correction: Polizeistadt in German would translate as “police city.” It should be Polizeistaat instead.

  8. I’m going to have to do some serious thinking because I’m starting to agree with you more. Please keep up this Great Topic of Amerika turning into E. Germany Stasi country.

  9. I would compliment you on your article, Dr. Cole, but I don’t want more demerits added to my NSA, CIA, FBI, DOD and other spying files.

  10. The “Land of the free, home of the brave” has become Land of the self-enslaved, home of the fearful” who surrendered essential freedom for a little temporary security. Ben Franklin would not approve.

  11. Top ten steps towards a police state.
    I don’t see people making the connection with: Financialization => more Inequality => protecting the Status quo => a Police State.

    Given all the high tech surveillance and security it’s hard to see how that can be reversed.

  12. I think it’s necessary to consider the actual damage done by terrorism versus the efforts we make to contain it. If you take all the terror incidents in the US over the last twenty years, you end up with slightly over 3000. That’s a little more than 150 deaths by terror a year.

    Contrast that to the 400,000 people a year who die by heart attack (for which I’m not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 70,000 people every year who die of diseases they picked up while in the hospital (for whom I’m not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 45,000 people who die every year due to a car accident (for whom I’m not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 30,000 people a year who die by gun violence (for whom I’m not required to give up my civil liberties) or the 7000 people who die every year because they’ve purchased the wrong over the counter pain medication (for whom I’m not required to give up my civil liberties) and you see just how big and well-propagandized the screw job actually is.

    In other worlds, you’re 45 times as likely to die because you bought the wrong kind of aspirin than because you were killed by a terrorist. In other words, it ain’t gonna happen. Feel free to spread this meme without fear of complaint by me, even if all you do is copy and paste this letter.

  13. The rights of convicted felons to vote varies from state to state.

    In Florida, the post-Civil War enfranchisement of former slaves led authorities in the late 1800s to obtain trumped-up criminal charges against ex-slaves to prevent them from voting.

    Currently, the relatively minor crimes that often constitute felony convictions – e.g. personal use drug possession, unpaid child support, shoplifting etc. may result in lifetime disenfranchisement in some jurisdictions.

    The subject of felon voting rights has been discussed:

    link to

    • And in FL, because of the way the statutes are administed, it’s no surprise that the disenfranchising runs about 3 to 1 as between black/Latino/other on the one hand, and white folk on the other.

      The sweetest election victory is the one you STEAL.

  14. Do Israelis put up with this kind of thing? How has surveillance been worked out over the years there? At any rate Israelis are under far greater danger from terrorist attacks – and some outright quasi-military attacks – than anyone in the US.

    • Israelis impose that kind of thing. Your comment should read: Palestinians and their neighboring countries are under far greater danger from terrorist attacks – and some outright quasi-military attacks –by the Israelis than anyone in the world.

  15. It looks like our national media (Fawning Corporate Media as Ray McGovern would say) did its part this morning by clearly being in sympathy with the witch hunt against Ed Snowden. Meet the Press and Face the Nation were well stacked with anti-Snowden types. CNN was particularly despicable calling on Michael O’Hanlon and James Woolsey, two of the most disreputable supporters of the Iraq War, to add their wooden nickel’s worth. Presumably, Georgie Stephanopoulous and Fox were as bad or worse.

    Then there was Chuck Schumer talking about “our ally, Russia.” Nations don’t line up missile “defense” systems at an ally’s door.

  16. #1 is false. The government did not request all data from Verizon, but from a subsidiary called Verizon Business Services, which does not handle home phones or ordinary cell phone accounts.

    This error has been known for weeks. The determination not to correct it, but to keep pushing information, does not fill me with confidence in the credibility of the people pushing this story. They keep asking us to take them at their word, and they keep getting caught passing bad information.

    But, hey, it gets people more riled up than the truth, and that’s good enough for a certain variety of journalist.

    • It isn’t like you add a correction with a simultaneous accusation of bad faith. I was unaware of the distinction.

      The GCHQ/ NSA Tempora program rather has left that story in the dust anyway.

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