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Stephan Salisbury: Weaponizing the Body Politic

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When I covered the Occupy Wall Street protests last fall, I just couldn't stay focused, despite the fact that people from across the country and around the world were traveling to that block-long half-acre park of granite walls and honey-locust trees in lower Manhattan to build a new mini-society. It boasted free housing, free food, free medical care, free education, and free music. Every day in Zuccotti Park there were thrilling rap sessions and you could watch direct democracy in action as people came together to exchange ideas in provocative new ways. To steal a well-worn activist phrase, it looked like another world was possible.

And there I was, staring across the street. While it seemed like 99% of the 99% were captivated by the excitement in the park, I was transfixed by the police.

Day after day, I would cover Occupy Wall Street and day after day, I would get hassled by members of the New York City Police Department. They didn't like it when I asked questions about their Sky Watch tower -- a two-story-tall, Panopticon-like structure outfitted with black-tinted windows, a spotlight, sensors, and multiple cameras that spied on the park. They got angry when I counted their dozens of police vehicles around the plaza's perimeter, or when I asked questions about the unmarked white truck that just happened to have a camera mounted on a forty-foot pole protruding from its roof.

They trailed me, took pictures of me, demanded my identification, and repeatedly confronted me. One cop even declared my reporting "illegal." But I couldn't help myself. Watching the NYPD was like gawking at a car wreck. I was reminded of the police response to the 2004 Republic National Convention, but on steroids. To take just one example, back then, the NYPD had around 9,000 steel barricades to pen in protesters around the city -- enough, that is, to stretch from one tip of Manhattan to the other. More than seven years later, the approximately 150 steel barricades that formed a cordon around Zuccotti Park were part of a NYPD inventory that could enclose the entire island in a formidable ring of steel.

In his latest article, TomDispatch regular Stephan Salisbury assures me that I was never alone in my fixation on the rise of a homeland security state, and his reporting gives even me pause. With Occupy protesters gearing up for a spring resurgence, Salisbury spells out just what activists will be up against -- think unmanned drones, tanks, and super-sophisticated surveillance systems from New York City to Scottsbluff, Nebraska -- in the months ahead. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses post-9/11 police "mission creep" in this country, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Nick Turse

How to Fund an American Police State
Real Money for an Imaginary War

By Stephan Salisbury

At the height of the Occupy Wall Street evictions, it seemed as though some diminutive version of "shock and awe" had stumbled from Baghdad, Iraq, to Oakland, California. American police forces had been "militarized," many commentators worried, as though the firepower and callous tactics on display were anomalies, surprises bursting upon us from nowhere.

There should have been no surprise. Those flash grenades exploding in Oakland and the sound cannons on New York's streets simply opened small windows onto a national policing landscape long in the process of militarization -- a bleak domestic no man's land marked by tanks and drones, robot bomb detectors, grenade launchers, tasers, and most of all, interlinked video surveillance cameras and information databases growing quietly on unobtrusive server farms everywhere.

The ubiquitous fantasy of "homeland security," pushed hard by the federal government in the wake of 9/11, has been widely embraced by the public. It has also excited intense weapons- and techno-envy among police departments and municipalities vying for the latest in armor and spy equipment.

In such a world, deadly gadgetry is just a grant request away, so why shouldn't the 14,000 at-risk souls in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have a closed-circuit-digital-camera-and-monitor system (cost: $180,000, courtesy of the Homeland Security Department) identical to the one up and running in New York's Times Square?

So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.

But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.

All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that "the police" have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.

Perhaps the pepper spray used on Occupy demonstrators last November at University of California-Davis wasn't directly paid for by the federal government. But those who used it work closely with Homeland Security and the FBI "in developing prevention strategies that threaten campus life, property, and environments," as UC Davis's Comprehensive Emergency and Continuity Management Plan puts it.

Government budgets at every level now include allocations aimed at fighting an ephemeral "War on Terror" in the United States. A vast surveillance and military buildup has taken place nationwide to conduct a pseudo-war against what can be imagined, not what we actually face. The costs of this effort, started by the Bush administration and promoted faithfully by the Obama administration, have been, and continue to be, virtually incalculable. In the process, public service and the public imagination have been weaponized.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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