Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis.
A battalion of police officers surrounds a house in the "badlands." Decked out in ski masks, camouflage, body armor, and combat boots, they train their submachine guns and grenades on the front door and windows. With lights flashing, a chopper whirring overhead, and German shepherds barking, they wait anxiously for the signal to attack. Is this Robocop? Enemy of the State? Try again: It's a routine night in Fresno, California.
This scene, taken from Christian Parenti's compelling new book, Lockdown America, offers a sneak preview of the emerging American police state. The show of force is standard operating procedure for
Fresno's Violent Crime Suppression Unit, the local SWAT team, which patrols with a vengeance seven nights a week, knocking down doors and collaring "bad guys" at gunpoint. As one cop says, "It's war."
"Paramilitary policing--that is, enforcement using the equipment, training, rhetoric, and group tactics of war--is on the rise nationwide," Parenti writes, with SWAT team units quadrupling between 1980 and 1995. From Albuquerque, New Mexico, to New Britain, Connecticut, police are loading up on military hardware and laying siege to ghettos and border towns.
"If police are soldiers instead of civil servants, and their task is destruction and conquest, then it follows that the civilian community will be the enemy," Parenti warns.
While there has been no shortage of books in recent years on the failures of the American criminal justice system, what separates Parenti's from the others are his gripping descriptions of gang sweeps, border raids, and jailhouse violence. He rides along with SWAT teams and the Border Patrol, providing vivid details of the technological advancement and methodical violence of these operations. His excellent on-the-ground reporting is paired with a radical--but rarely raving--class analysis of the police and prison crisis. He argues that the criminal justice system serves to contain the millions cast into poverty by the insatiable quest for corporate profits.
The build-up began in the late 1960s when--in reaction to the era's social upheaval, particularly the violent inner-city riots-politicians increasingly turned to law-and-order rhetoric and thinly veiled racial scapegoating for votes. This political hype spawned the drug war--"the Trojan horse for deeper federal involvement in policing"--and millions of dollars poured out from Washington to modernize, professionalize, and militarize local law enforcement over the next decade.
In the 1980s, the policies of the Reagan Administration created more angry poor people--the ingredients of what criminologist Steven Spritzer calls "social dynamite." How to keep the masses from exploding? Reagan shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars for the drug war, appointed dozens of reactionary judges to the federal bench, and pushed through harsh crime bills (expanded by Bush and Clinton) that established mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders and launched a prison-building frenzy.
In the 1990s, police forces began to implement "zero-tolerance" policies, the hallmark of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The basic theory: If police come down on so-called quality-of-life offenses-graffiti, public drunkenness, loitering-violent crime will diminish. Thus scores of people--mostly young, poor, and black or Latino--are repeatedly stopped, searched, and arrested. Police brutality complaints in New York City have jumped 62 percent since Giuliani took office. The well-publicized cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo show the barbarity this kind of policing can create.
Parenti recounts a list of instances around the country where the police shot first, asked questions later. SWAT encounters showed a 34 percent increase in the use of deadly force between 1995 and 1998, he says. All too often, the bad guys turn out to be unarmed, innocent, or mentally ill. "It is the strategy of colonial war," he writes. "Peace through superior firepower."
The real reason for these demonstrations of force, he believes, is pure theatrics. The ritual of terror--barking dogs, noisy helicopters, big guns, loud explosions--"is a fundamental part of how the state controls poor people," he writes.
The violence continues behind bars. Focusing on California prisons, Parenti exposes egregious examples of abuse: Inmates forced to square off as gladiators before being shot by guards; small-time troublemakers locked away with known sexual predators; male guards raping female inmates; and the tacit encouragement of vicious prison gangs.
The state's strategy--"packing prisons, fomenting violence, then using the bloody statistics to leverage more tax money"--has worked all too well, he argues. Meanwhile, prisoners' rights have been eroded, as everything from conjugal visits to law libraries have been eliminated.
Almost two million people are now locked up, most of them nonviolent drug offenders. But the tremendous growth of the prison population (from 1980 to 1994 the male prison population surged by 300 percent, the female population by 500 percent) has necessitated a prison-building boom. Parenti notes that an average of $7 billion was spent annually to build penitentiaries in the past decade, and that the American corrections industry currently employs more than half a million people.
For-profit prisons, which now account for about 5 percent of the nation's correctional facilities, are perhaps the most noxious aspect of this trend. But Parenti disputes the idea that specific corporate interests are driving criminal justice policy. "Capitalism always creates surplus populations, needs surplus populations, yet faces the threat ... from those populations," he writes. "Prison and criminal justice are about managing these irreconcilable contradictions."
There are some frustrations inherent in this type of analysis, however. Capitalism makes an amorphous villain, and it's hard not to wince when Parenti points a finger at "the Man." And sometimes he casts too wide of a net. From Bretton Woods to Fred Hampton to Michel Foucault, Parenti crams a lot into one volume, leaving some sections feeling a bit unfinished.
However, his solution to the criminal justice crisis is appealingly simple: We need less law enforcement, not more. Instead, what we need is economic justice. In a country where African American men are chronically underemployed, living-wage jobs certainly would do a lot more to cut down on crime than any number of SWAT teams.
Parenti also calls for a reinvigorated criminal justice reform movement, which has been largely dormant since the 1970s. But there are some positive signs: the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, the Black Radical Congress, the thousands who took to the streets of New York, Chicago, and Riverside, California, after police killings of unarmed civilians, and the outpouring of support for Mumia Abu-Jamal have galvanized interest in prison and criminal justice issues. But it will take much more to get the politicians to respond.
Craig Aaron is Managing Editor of In These Times.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1999|
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