Occupy the Police State

The photograph on the cover of Andrew Kolin's book is all too familiar.

Police officers dressed in riot gear, gripping batons, square off against protesters in what appears to be a tense situation that is on the brink of turning violent. Although the photograph was shot during a protest on the streets of Pittsburgh 2009, it's an image that is now seared into the public's consciousness following the brutal crackdowns by local law enforcement on the Occupy movement in Oakland and New York City last month.

Important questions have been raised about what role, if any, the federal government has played in dismantling the Occupy encampments around the country and what the protesters and civil liberties groups say is ultimately an attempt to stifle dissent.

While we wait for those answers, Kolin, a political science professor at Hilbert College in Buffalo, New York, has done a masterful job of tracing the origins of the “political repression of mass-based movements” and the rise of the “police state” in his exhaustively researched book, “State Power and Democracy: Before and During The Presidency of George W. Bush.” (Click here to read an excerpt.)

In an interview with Truthout, Kolin said, all police states, “and Germany in the [1930s] is the classic example,” develop by “crushing democracy.”

The goal of a police state, Kolin said, is to “modernize state functions and concentrate control over society through the creation of specialized departments.”

It was Watergate, Kolin said, that became a “dress rehearsal” for the police state under which US citizens currently live.

“There was cause for optimism with the Church Committee hearings exposing the criminality of the Nixon administration,” Kolin said. “But again, as I discuss in my book, the reform that came out of the Church Committee that actually made a police state more possible was the creation of the secret [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] court, which for the first time, made government surveillance legal. Then, president after president sought to reassert their power post-Watergate in domestic and foreign policy.”

In the introduction to “State Power,” Kolin explains how the national security policies implemented by Bush and embraced by Obama, such as the Patriot Act, which authorized the warrantless wiretapping of US citizens, were the culmination of extraordinary tension between state power and democracy dating back to the founding of the Republic.

The expansion of state power over the course of US history came at the expense of democracy. As state power grew, there developed a disconnect between the theory and practice of democracy in the United States. Ever-greater state power meant it became more and more absolute. This resulted in a government that directed its energies and resources toward silencing those who dared question the state's authority. Such questioning of state power had emanated as a response to mass-based political movements striving to further democracy with an increase in freedom, especially for the downtrodden. This put mass movements in direct confrontation with the elite politics of policy makers. So, over time, as the US government continued on its course of seeking to increase state power by extending ever-greater control over people and territory, it also meant it worked toward a goal to diminish mass-based political movements.

This is an important history lesson, especially for the generation who became politically aware during Bush's presidency and view the crackdown on the Occupy protests as somewhat unprecedented.

Kolin argues that the roots of such “political repression” can be traced back to the end of the Revolutionary War, beginning with “the conquest of North America and by the start of the twentieth century,” when the US government began to implement policies “intended to eliminate democracy inside and outside the United States.”

“It is no coincidence that as the state enacted measures to crush democracy, there appeared federal agencies with an antidemocractic mission…,” Kolin writes. “Nonetheless, political repression ebbed and flowed, often determined by historical factors and the ability of progressive movements to affect social change during periods of unrest.”

Kolin said the leaderless Occupy movement, like political uprisings in the US that preceded it, has a simple goal: “the excluded seeking to be included, which is the one thing standing in the way of mass democracy.”

“It's eerily disturbing how history is once again repeating itself,” Kolin said, as he watches law enforcement, which he noted is beginning to look increasingly “like a civilian branch of the military,” and local government officials are “trampling upon the rights of citizens and doing so in ways that are becoming more violent,” in order to “repress dissent.”

A report published earlier this week by Business Insider may help explain why local police forces are beginning to appear more and more militarized.

Credit a “little-known endeavor called the '1033 Program' that gave more than $500 million of military gear to U.S. police forces in 2011 alone,” Business Insider reported.

1033 was passed by Congress in 1997 to help law-enforcement fight terrorism and drugs, but despite a 40-year low in violent crime, police are snapping up hardware like never before. While this year's staggering take topped the charts, next year's orders are up 400 percent over the same period.

This upswing coincides with an increasingly military-like style of law enforcement most recently seen in the Occupy Wall Street crackdowns.

One member of Congress, however, is speaking up about police tactics used against protesters. On Tuesday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to launch a full-scale investigation “into law enforcement activities surrounding the Occupy Wall Street protests and similar events in other cities, to determine whether the unlawful use of force, or the unlawful targeting of individuals [via surveillance] based on their participation in constitutionally protected activities, occurred.”

Still, Kolin is highly critical of the Obama administration for remaining completely silent as disturbing images of peaceful protesters, such as the University of California, Davis, students who were pepper sprayed by campus police as they sat with their arms linked, flashed across television screens and went viral on the Internet.

“We don't want a government that is representative of the one percent,” Kolin said. “But the silence by this administration speaks volumes and indicates, to me, that this is a movement the government wants to crush.”

However, “in spite of political repression on the federal, state, and local levels, for much of the twentieth century,” Kolin writes in “State Power,” “many mass-based movements persisted for two reasons: one, they appealed to many Americans, and two, as political repression was mounted against these movements, eventually the government believed that the political crisis that triggered such movements had ended.”

Kolin admits that he had believed Obama would eventually “correct the self-destruction of the Bush police state through piecemeal reforms” after he was sworn into office nearly three year ago.

Instead, Obama's executive power grab went further. To cite one example, the president authorized the targeted assassination of a US citizen living in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was suspected of inspiring failed terrorist attacks against the US and being a top member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki, despite his US citizenship, was not entitled to due process under the Constitution, the administration concluded.

Kolin said Awlaki's assassination underscores one of the problems with a two-party system: Democrats and Republicans “fall in line when it comes down to certain issues.”

“Democrats march in lockstep with their Republican counterparts,” Kolin said. “We saw that during the Bush administration and we're seeing it again when it comes to economic and national security issues under Obama. I don't see much difference between the two parties. I really don't. Obama has proven to be just like his predecessors. He's interested in the powers he inherited from Bush and the new powers he acquired. And he continues to fulfill the wishes of Wall Street and the financial backers who bankrolled his election.”

Kolin said the struggle for economic democracy will form the basis of his future research.

“One cannot have political democracy in the absence of economic democracy,” he said. “By that, I mean that without worker control of the workplace, political decisions will continue to be made by the economic elite.”

In the meantime, he believes the erosion of the police state, where “mass based democracy, which rules for the masses, not political and economic elites,” is still a possiblity and he sees the Occupy movement playing a crucial role.

“Keep in mind that police states are by their inherent nature dysfunctional,” Kolin said. “The Occupy movement is hope of a return to mass democracy as a countervailing force to the police state and to it's possible breakdown.”

Editor's note: “State Power and Democracy” was released in January 2011. An earlier version of this story had characterized it as a new title.