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Political Animal

Running Scared

By Brian Morton | Posted 10/15/2008

America is now a nation living on a foundation built of fear.

It's as if we're living in an alternate universe where time started traveling backward from the Gilded Age and Pearl Harbor, and now we're skidding toward the stock-market crash of 1929. We are afraid of fear itself. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have thrown us headlong into the past.

I recall driving around downtown D.C. the evening of Bush's second inaugural and remarking how it truly looked like something out of Escape From New York. Armed police at every corner, in black shock-troop style uniforms, automatic weapons at the ready. The last two nominating conventions for the major political parties featured mass arrests of peaceful protesters, giant roundups of people in no way violent or subversive, and the creation of Orwellian "free speech zones" blocks away from any press coverage or visibility.

If you've had a street encounter with police, you can probably recall asking the officer a question, and the cop replying with some variant of, "If you don't shut up, I'll take you downtown, too." What you'll probably find unsurprising is how completely unconstitutional this is--and how little that matters.

In February 1982, one Raymond Wayne Hill of Houston saw a friend on foot trying to stop busy traffic to allow a vehicle to enter the road when a police officer intervened. During the heated exchange, Hill, then a paralegal and the executive director of the Houston Human Rights League, began shouting at the officer from across the street, trying to distract him from his friend. After yelling, "Why don't you pick on somebody your own size," the officer arrested Hill, under the Houston Code of Ordinances, for "willfully or intentionally interrupt[ing] a city policeman... by verbal challenge during an investigation." The friend was not arrested, and Hill was acquitted after a nonjury trial.

Hill then sued the city in federal court over the incident, and provided records showing how often police arrested people under the ordinance, including evidence of reporters arrested in similar fashion. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hill on First Amendment grounds in the case of Houston v. Hill, the majority opinion stating, in part:

The ordinance's plain language is admittedly violated scores of times daily yet only some individuals--those chosen by the police in their unguided discretion--are arrested. Far from providing the "breathing space" that "First Amendment freedoms need... to survive," the ordinance is susceptible of regular application to protected expression... [T]he First Amendment recognizes, wisely we think, that a certain amount of expressive disorder not only is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, but must itself be protected if that freedom would survive.

This opinion was handed down 21 years ago. Do you have any doubts that today, under the John Roberts court, such a ruling would be in favor of the police and not Hill?

In the post-Sept. 11 world, federal monies are disbursed to localities in order for metropolitan police departments to outfit themselves with riot-style gear worthy of the Italian carabinieri, despite the greatest everyday danger they face is from their own irate citizenry unused to being treated automatically as terrorist suspects. The Maryland State Police, in 2005, entered the names of nonviolent anti-death penalty protesters into the federal database that tracks terrorism suspects, and the former state police superintendent who authorized the addition recently justified it by claiming the program staved off possible future violence and called the activists "fringe people."

For years the tools have been there for a slide into an authoritarian state, but the feds never availed themselves of them. Bush and Cheney, after Sept. 11, saw that opportunity, and from "Total Information Awareness" and warrantless wiretapping to "homeland security," we are seeing the intrusion of the government into our privacy, our security, our liberty, and our freedoms down to the level of the state and city.

We are on the precipice of an era that can define ourselves as a people. Do we succumb, a little bit each day, to a fear that makes us enemies of ourselves, terrified of our neighbors at home and around the world? Or do we recognize that the world is a sometimes dangerous yet complex place, worthy of thoughtful responses to actual threats?

I'm wagering it won't be long before we know the answer.

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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