A Society of Captives
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to launch a pilot program in New York City to place body cameras on police officers and conduct training seminars to help them reduce their adrenaline rushes and abusive language, along with the establishment of a less stringent marijuana policy, are merely cosmetic reforms. The killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island was, after all, captured on video. These proposed reforms, like those out of Washington, D.C., fail to address the underlying cause of poverty, state-sponsored murder and the obscene explosion of mass incarceration — the rise of the corporate state and the death of our democracy. Mass acts of civil disobedience, now being carried out across the country, are the only mechanism left that offers hope for systematic legal and judicial reform. We must defy the corporate state, not work with it.
The legal system no longer functions to protect ordinary Americans. It serves our oligarchic, corporate elites. These elites have committed $26 billion in financial fraud. They loot the U.S. Treasury, escape taxation, drive down wages, break unions, pillage pension funds, gut regulation and oversight, destroy public institutions including public schools and social assistance programs, wage endless and illegal wars to swell the profits of arms merchants, and — yes — authorize police to murder unarmed black men.
Police and national intelligence and security agencies, which carry out wholesale surveillance against the population and serve as the corporate elite’s brutal enforcers, are omnipotent by intention. They are designed to impart fear, even terror, to keep the population under control. And until the courts and the legislative bodies give us back our rights — which they have no intention of doing — things will only get worse for the poor and the rest of us. We live in a post-constitutional era.
Corporations have captured every major institution, including the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government, and deformed them to exclusively serve the demands of the market. They have, in the process, demolished civil society. Karl Polanyi in “The Great Transformation” warned that without heavy government regulation and oversight, unfettered and unregulated capitalism degenerates into a Mafia capitalism and a Mafia political system. A self-regulating market, Polanyi writes, turns human beings and the natural environment into commodities. This ensures the destruction of both society and the natural environment. The ecosystem and human beings become objects whose worth is determined solely by the market. They are exploited until exhaustion or collapse occurs. A society that no longer recognizes that the natural world and life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves. This is what we are undergoing. Literally.
As in every totalitarian state, the first victims are the vulnerable, and in the United States this means poor people of color. In the name of the “war on drugs” or the necessity of enforcing immigration laws, those trapped in our urban internal colonies are effectively stripped of their rights. Police, who arrest some 13 million people a year — 1.6 million of them on drug charges and half of those on marijuana counts — were empowered by the “war on drugs” to carry out random searches and sweeps with no probable cause. They take DNA samples from many whom they arrest to build a nationwide database that includes both the guilty and the innocent. And they charge each of the sampled arrestees $50 for DNA processing. They confiscate cash, cars, homes and other possessions based on allegations of illegal drug activity and use the proceeds to swell police budgets. They impose fines in poor neighborhoods for absurd offenses — riding a bicycle on a sidewalk or not having an ID — to fleece the poor or, if they cannot pay, toss them into jail. And before deporting undocumented workers the state levels fines, often in the thousands of dollars, on those being held by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in order to empty their pockets before they are shipped out. Prisoners locked in cages often spend decades attempting to pay off thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, in court fines from the paltry $28 a month they earn in prison jobs; the government, to make sure it gets its money, automatically deducts a percentage each month from their prison paychecks. It is a vast extortion racket run against the poor by the corporate state, which also makes sure that the interest rates of mortgages, car loans, student loans and credit card loans are set at predatory levels.
Since 1980 the United States has constructed the world’s largest prison system, populated with 2.3 million inmates, 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Police, to keep the system filled with bodies, have had most legal constraints on their behavior removed. They serve as judge and jury on the streets of American cities. Such expansion of police powers is “a long step down the totalitarian path,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas warned in 1968. The police, who are often little more than predatory, armed gangs in inner-city neighborhoods, arbitrarily decide who lives, who dies and who spends years in prison. They rarely fight crime or protect the citizen. They round up human beings like cattle to meet arrest quotas, the prerequisite for receiving federal cash in the “drug war.” Because many crimes carry long mandatory sentences it is easy to intimidate defendants into “pleading out” on lesser offenses. The arrested are acutely aware they have no chance — 97 percent of all federal cases and 94 percent of all state cases are resolved by guilty pleas rather than trials. An editorial in The New York Times said that the pressure employed by state and federal prosecutors to make defendants accept guilty pleas — an action that often includes waiving the right to appeal to a higher court — is “closer to coercion” than to bargaining. There are always police informants who, to reduce their own sentences, will tell a court anything demanded of them by the police. And, as we saw after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and after the killing of Garner, the word of police officers and prosecutors, whose loyalty is to the police, is law. A Department of Defense program known as 1033, which was begun in the 1990s and which the National Defense Authorization Act allowed along with federal homeland security grants to the states, has provided $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police forces, either free or on permanent loan, the website ProPublica reported. The militarization of the police, which includes outfitting departments with heavy machine guns, ammunition magazines, night vision equipment, aircraft and armored vehicles, has effectively turned urban police, and increasingly rural police as well, into quasi-military forces of occupation. “Police conduct up to 80,000 SWAT raids a year in the US, up from 3,000 a year in the early ’80s,” reporter Hanqing Chen wrote in ProPublica. The American Civil Liberties Union, in Chen’s words, found that “almost 80 percent of SWAT team raids are linked to search warrants to investigate potential criminal suspects, not for high-stakes ‘hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.’ He went on to say, “The ACLU also noted that SWAT tactics are used disproportionately against people of color.”
The bodies of the incarcerated poor fuel our system of neo-slavery. In prisons across the country, including the one in which I teach, private corporations profit from captive prison labor. The incarcerated work eight-hour days for as little as a dollar a day. Phone companies, food companies, private prisons and a host of other corporations feed like jackals off those we hold behind bars. And the lack of employment and the collapse of education and vocational training in communities across the United States are part of the design. This design — with its built-in allure from the illegal economy, the only way for many of the poor to make a living — ensures rates of recidivism of over 60 percent. There are millions of poor people for whom this country is little more than a vast penal colony.
Lawyer Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” identifies what she calls a criminal “caste system.” This caste system controls the lives of not only the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated but also the 4.8 million people on probation or parole. Millions more people are forced into “permanent second-class citizenship” by their criminal records, which make employment, higher education and public assistance difficult or impossible, Alexander says.
Totalitarian systems accrue to themselves omnipotent power by first targeting and demonizing a defenseless minority. Poor African-Americans, like Muslims, have been stigmatized by elites and the mass media. The state, promising to combat the “lawlessness” of the demonized minority, demands that authorities be emancipated from the constraints of the law. Arguments like this one were used to justify the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.” But once any segment of the population is stripped of equality before the law, as poor people of color and Muslims have been, once police are permitted under the law to become omnipotent, brutal and systematically oppressive tactics are invariably employed against the wider society. The corporate state has no intention of carrying out legal reforms to curb the omnipotence of its organs of internal security. They were made omnipotent on purpose.
Matt Taibbi in his book, “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap,” brilliantly illustrates how poverty, in essence, has become a crime. He spent time in courts where wealthy people who had committed documented fraud amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars never had to stand trial and in city courts where the poor were called to answer for crimes that, until I read his book, I did not know existed. Standing in front of your home, he shows in one case, can be an arrestable offense.
“That’s what nobody gets, that the two approaches to justice may individually make a kind of sense, but side by side they’re a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee,” Taibbi writes. “And it’s evolved this way over time and for a thousand reasons, so that almost nobody is aware of the whole picture, the two worlds so separate that they’re barely visible to each other. The usual political descriptors like ‘unfairness’ and ‘injustice’ don’t really apply. It’s more like a breakdown into madness.”
Hannah Arendt warned that once any segment of the population is denied rights, the rule of law is destroyed. When laws do not apply equally to all they are treated as “rights and privileges.” When the state is faced with growing instability or unrest, these “privileges” are revoked. Elites who feel increasingly threatened by the wider population do not “resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police,” Arendt writes.
This is what is taking place now. The corporate state and its organs of internal security are illegitimate. We are a society of captives.