April 1, 2015
The Criminalization of Everyday Life
Posted on Dec 9, 2013
By Chase Madar, TomDispatch
As for the Internet, for a time it was terra nova and so relatively free of a steroidal law enforcement presence. Not anymore. The late Aaron Swartz, a young Internet genius and activist affiliated with Harvard University, was caught downloading masses of scholarly articles (all publicly subsidized) from an open network on the MIT campus. Swartz was federally prosecuted under the capacious Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for violating a “terms and services agreement”—a transgression that anyone who has ever disabled a cookie on his or her laptop has also, technically, committed. Swartz committed suicide earlier this year while facing a possible 50-year sentence and up to a million dollars in fines.
Since the summer, thanks to whistleblowing contractor Edward Snowden, we have learned a great deal about the way the NSA stops and frisks our (and apparently everyone else’s) digital communications, both email and telephonic. The security benefits of such indiscriminate policing are far from clear, despite the government’s emphatic but inconsistent assurances otherwise. What comes into sharper focus with every volley of new revelations is the emerging digital infrastructure of what can only be called a police state.
Square, Site wide
Sex is another zone of police overkill in our post-Puritan land. Getting put on a sex offender registry is alarmingly easy—as has been done to children as young as 11 for “playing doctor” with a relative, again according to Human Rights Watch. But getting taken off the registry later is extraordinarily difficult. Across the nation, sex offender registries have expanded massively, especially in California, where one in every 380 adults is now a registered sex offender, creating a new pariah class with severe obstacles to employment, housing, or any kind of community life. The proper penalty for, say, an 18-year-old who has sex with a 14-year-old can be debated, but should that 18-year-old’s life really be ruined forever?
Equality Before the Cops?
It will surprise no one that Americans are not all treated equally by the police. Law enforcement picks on kids more than adults, the queer more than straight, Muslims more than Methodists—Muslims a lot more than Methodists—antiwar activists more than the apolitical. Above all, our punitive state targets the poor more than the wealthy and Blacks and Latinos more than white people.
A case in point: after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, a police presence, including surveillance cameras and metal detectors, was ratcheted up at schools around the country, particularly in urban areas with largely working-class black and Latino student bodies. It was all to “protect” the kids, of course. At Columbine itself, however, no metal detector was installed and no heavy police presence intruded. The reason was simple. At that school in the Colorado suburb of Littleton, the mostly well-heeled white families did not want their kids treated like potential felons, and they had the status and political power to get their way. But communities without such clout are less able to push back against the encroachments of police power.
Even Our Prisons Are Over-Policed
The over-criminalization of American life empties out into our vast, overcrowded prison system, which is itself over-policed. The ultimate form of punitive control (and torture) is long-term solitary confinement, in which 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are encased at any given moment. Is this really necessary? Solitary is no longer reserved for the worst or the worst or most dangerous prisoners but can be inflicted on ones who wear Rastafari dreadlocks, have a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in their cell, or are in any way suspected, no matter how tenuous the grounds, of gang affiliations.
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