I remember, years ago, when the news of torture in Iraq first came out, I wrote an article entitled US Finally Treats Iraqis Just Like Americans. The point was that abuse and rape is so rife in US prisons and jails, that waterboarding and stress positions are really only embellishments. To an outsider it is evident that the US police and prison system is out of control.
So when I read that police in St. Paul pepper sprayed a jailed woman over her entire body, then refused to let her wash it off—I’m not surprised. When I read that a number of prisoners were on a hunger strike to convince guards to get medical care to an anemic women who had passed out, I’m not surprised.
‘Cause here’s the truth. Shoving people around can be a lot of fun. And being a cop or prison guard lets you do it almost as much as you want to. As a practical matter, brutality and abuse of power almost never leads even to a slap on the wrist, let alone being fired or criminal charges. Don’t piss off the really important people (of whom there are fewer and fewer every year) and you can be a petty tyrant to anyone else you please.
A lot of cops are good folks, but a lot of people who join the police or become prison guards do so because they want authority, because they want to be "the man". Once inside, they join a society which has a strong undercurrent of hostility and contempt for civilians, who are seen, in many cases literally, as either sheep or criminals. In part this is natural, police interact with people when they’re at their worst or weakest—either with people who have committed crimes, or people who have suffered crimes. Neither group comes across well—the first are scum, the second are often shattered and seem weak. That’s the police life, day in, day out. So many police come to see civilians through that lens, because that’s most of what they see of civilians.
Add to this contempt the attitude of those who direct the police in operations like this, such as the Bush Secret Service, who have been corrupted by Bush into his Praetorian guard whose main job is less security than making sure no one can ever show dissent anywhere Bush could possibly see it, and you have a real problem. Most people are very malleable, they do what people in authority tell them to. People who stand up to authority are very rare. Police, by the very nature of the job, don’t actually tend to be mavericks, movie stereotypes aside. They tend towards authoritarian personality types. They like to give orders and they like to take orders. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are definitely not the rule.
Combine the fact that cops see civilians as an out-group (not like us) with official encouragement and fear mongering (terrorist anarchists) along with the personality profile of many folks attracted to the job and you have a group which is primed and ready to be brutal towards people they believe "deserve it". Add to that the fact that police being disciplined for brutality and for violating people’s rights is actually quite rare, add in dollops of new police powers given by Congress, the executive branch and the Supremes over the last few years, and it’s practically a guarantee of police abuse of power, the destruction of the right to assembly and the end of real free speech. (The joke about free speech zones, of course, is "wasn’t the entire country a free speech zone?")
Police are probably necessary in society. I do say probably, because large and complex societies often had far far fewer people performing police functions than modern societies and most modern societies have even fewer than the US does. But as with standing armies, they’re profoundly dangerous not just for all the reasons listed above, but because large paramilitary forces (and US police are paramilitary, they have been systematically militarized, first by the war on drugs then by the war on terror, over the last 30 years) inevitably not only have to justify themselves by doing something (and what they’re best at is violence against civilians), but also provide a temptation to those in power. Why listen to people, why fix problems, when those who complain about the problems can just be intimidated or beaten into silence?
So a society which is really concerned about liberty and freedom has to watch its cops very carefully. They can’t be allowed to get out of control, to forget that they exist to serve civilians, not to shove civilians around. In the US the evidence is that the line has been crossed. This happens so regularly now that it’s just expected. It’s hardly commented on in the press, despite being the exact same behavior that has the press so excited and outraged when it happens in other countries like China. No major politician can be bothered to call it out as inappropriate. It’s just the new normal.
And so it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that if the US isn’t exactly a police state, it’s certainly not a free state. And with more people locked away than any other country in the world, it’s also impossible not to conclude that it’s also a prison state. Violence and the threat of violence is so endemic in the US that most Americans don’t even notice any more that they live in a an incredibly violent society which is kept on track by intimidation, and when necessary, actual violence. They don’t notice that their cops are out of control, ill-disciplined and essentially above the law.
Instead it falls mostly to those of us from outside, or Americans who have lived elsewhere to say "there’s something wrong here. Something deeply pathological."
More on this in some later pieces. For now, though, look at the US, at the RNC, at your prisons, as if you weren’t American, and see what you see. Because I can tell you now, no other western first world nation is like the US in this regard. And it’s not one of those things Americans should be proud of.