Police State & Prison Time

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Police State In Wyoming the Immigration and Naturalization Service raids the celebrity town of Jackson Hole, rounding up Latino workers right and left. Arresting them en masse, they write identification numbers on their forearms. Eventually the workers with clean legal status are released, but the undocumented are "transported off to detention in a manure-strewn cattle truck." The America that Christian Parenti describes in Lockdown America is rabidly anti-Other and unconscious of echoing unforgotten evils. An event like the murder of Amadou Diallo does not even need to be highlighted as an example of contemporary policing. In this book the criminal justice system stands unadorned, the assembled weapon of Americans' rage at violent, impoverished, marginalized groups.

    In this terrifying, informative and gripping book, Parenti cuts back and forth between the outrages of the East and the excesses of the West, as New York and California play different leadership roles in the new policing. As he zeroes in on New York as the hotbed of the re-engineered, amped-up policing of the 90s, the NYPD stars throughout the book. Its policies have led the revolution in policing across the country. And in California we see a hybrid between traditional beat policing and a military buildup that is worthy of the Balkans.

    Parenti prompts us to wonder what happened to the United States that we find ourselves moving toward police statehood at the end of this century. There are economic forces that create populations who must be kept in line because they have no role in the new global economy. But Parenti's analysis lacks the punch that gritty, real-life tales would give it. Lockdown America gives readers of all perspectives plenty of fodder to chew on when pondering what happened to all the opportunities we've had in the past 50 years to develop a civil society, yet provides few answers.

    This is a detailed history of American criminal justice since the Civil Rights era, starting with the devolution of law enforcement from 50s-era donut-munching beat cops with no greater technology than a pistol and club. Confronted with the social turmoil of the 60s, America turned against itself in ways that it hasn't begun to recover from. The history that Parenti recounts is one of increasing segmentation, segregation and internal conflict from the 60s to the present. Weaponry graduated from handguns to SWAT-tech. The Police Foundation?funded at startup by the Ford Foundation?turned policing into a science. And by 1993 in New York, "killings were so clustered that 12 of the city's 75 police precincts? reported?43.6 percent of the total." The new policing is the law and order of the New Economy. Apparently a scion of Wired's corporate node-culture, Giuliani-appointed commissioner William Bratton created this landscape by reengineering the NYPD as if the new management technique was going out of style. Describing Bratton and his henchman Jack Maple, Parenti writes that "[they] set about streamlining and decentralizing bureaucracies, 'empowering' the seventy-six precinct commanders, and instituting new mechanisms of performance-related accountability." In this perfect merger of clean-pressed management theory with social control, it is clear that the New Economy is more than just a pop social and economic trend. It is a broadly applied way of doing business in the 90s that fits right in with the needs of the elite to marginalize the people they failed to come to terms with in the past four decades.

    Parenti presents one creepy factoid after another to illustrate his argument that this total quality management-style policing works in goosestep sync with increased militarization of American police forces. The result is a country where an aura of rifle-enforced purity of lifestyle is becoming the norm, and where more people are employed in the prison industry than in any Fortune 500 company except General Motors.

    Clinton's proposal to put 100,000 more cops on the streets is fingered as a root of the malignant growth. In Lockdown America, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) is the starring ogre. Featuring nearly nine billion dollars in federal matching grants for police funding, and only one billion less than that for prison building, this Democratic spending juggernaut also allowed for the expansion of federal capital punishment and three billion dollars to be spent on the war against immigrants.

    In California Parenti finds the big guns?western style. The book's most vivid and disturbing chapter describes the marriage between SWAT teams and beat policing in Fresno, an out-of-the-way frontier through which America's new love for paramilitary policing is sweeping the (nonwhite) populations. Policing the people with machine guns, "flash-bang grenades," blunt trauma ordnance and smoke bombs, cops in camouflage and body armor cruise in helicopters over hollowed-out suburbs. This is Fresno's Violent Crime Suppression Unit. Parenti rode with the VCSU, so that chapter has a hyperreal vividness of point-of-view dramatic narrative, reading like tales from Blade Runner.

    Lockdown America leans hard on the drama inherent in visions like these, and the suggested images of the Army and the Navy SEALs encroaching on white suburban America. For readers who are likely to be insulated for the time being from the terrors of "dynamic entry" policing, it would be helpful if the militarization were explained more clearly. Parenti assails his readers with descriptions of MP-5s, APCs, AR-15s and M-79s. Unless you're a regular reader of Guns & Ammo, the fear these acronyms generates is generalized to firepowers that can only be imagined. The book could be improved by detailing the names, characteristics and firepowers of the various weapons described, adding a dose of reality to the text that would surely be more frightening than the specters of mysterious?and therefore unreal?arsenals.

    The armored, SWAT-enhanced and high-tech police systems Parenti declaims would be terrifying enough by themselves, but, as he reports, police forces are also cross-fertilizing with other nonpolice paramilitary forces such as the INS' Border Patrol. He describes a "growing trend toward increased cooperation and 'cross-deputation' between law enforcement and immigration authorities." This is the militarized war on immigrants that is being fought across the country, as the INS in places like Jackson Hole teams up with police, the FBI, the DEA and the military to create "multi-agency interior enforcement operations."

    Parenti meticulously details this iron grip that the nation's police forces hold on marginalized populations. His report is so graphic and convincing that the few tales of successful civilian opposition stand out starkly, and then are largely ignored. For example, he describes what happened after Border Patrol agents in Fresno stormed a high school and arrested and deported three Latino youths: "The next day students walked out in protest and managed to get one of the youths brought back from Mexico." We're left wondering how they managed to do that. For one thing, the protesters are teenagers?a marginalized population?even if they happen to be white and middle-class.

    Although Parenti acknowledges that his book is "short on tales of protest," he doesn't explain why. Whatever those kids did, it was awfully effective if they managed to get a deported alien allowed back into the country. Lockdown America would be more powerful if more stories like that were mined from the dirty depths of American criminal justice.

    In the rundown of America's big growth industry, the prison industrial complex, it is clear that modern incarceration exists more to neutralize the unwanted than to rehabilitate the deviant. For example, prison literacy has basically been banned. In spite of ample evidence that literacy and education are powerful tools that enable people to escape poverty and criminal association, the VCCLEA wiped out Pell grants to prisoners. "With the loss of that money, degree-granting programs in thirty-two prison systems simply ended." Within the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), prisons have also eliminated law libraries, in line with punitive anti-access legislation that harshly restricts prisoners' ability to use the legal system.

    I wish that Parenti had done more to connect the horrors he describes to the lives of his safe, educated readers. Most Americans live comfortably indoors with their television versions of the news, indifferent to the arsenals building up around them. As they watch Cops and the like, the police state becomes normalized as entertainment. In Portland, OR, Parenti reports that recent police acquisition of military AR-15 rifles has "provoked very little political complaint," in contrast to the public acrimony that accompanied the police's acquisition of shotguns in the 1970s.

    Apparently, brainwashing with banality may be the American state's most effective weapon against its people?inside the joint as well as out. Literacy for prisoners is being downsized, but, as Parenti quotes convict journalist Adrian Lomax discussing Wisconsin's prisons: "[H]aving your own TV is not permitted, it's encouraged? Prisoners who can't buy their own TVs can borrow the state owned sets at no cost."