Wednesday, April 4, 2012

One Nation of Suspects, With Justice for None

Here's just one of many shocking takeaways from this week's Supreme Court decision (Florence vs Board of Chosen Freeholders) allowing strip searches for all prisoners, regardless of the alleged offense: Anthony Kennedy is a judicial pretzel of twisted logic. In his opinion for the majority, Kennedy surmised that since most of this country's mass murderers and serial killers also had records of minor traffic offenses in their pasts, it follows that all traffic offenders might also be mass murderers and serial killers. So making everybody strip naked before joining a filthy, overcrowded jail population will make them safe, make their fellow prisoners safe, and make the poor overworked guards safe. The American citizen has officially been presumed guilty simply by virtue of existing. Keeping. Us. Safe. Sound familiar?

Lead Plaintiff Albert Florence

The Constitution is not just being chiselled away, little piece by little piece. It's being pounded to dust by the sledge hammers of all three branches of government. In the eyes of The Homeland, we are all potential terrorist threats. And the terror comes in endless forms.  Justice Kennedy rationalized that one peachy-keen reason for strip searches is that enforced nudity will allow jail personnel to detect disease and parasites, including.... scabies! Kennedy should keep his medical opinions to himelf, because nobody can detect scabies with the naked eye. Scabies are teensy little mites that burrow under the skin and cause intense itching, mainly at night. Diagnosis is made by taking skin scrapings and examining them under the microscope.

We as a nation are suffering a massive infestation of psychic scabies. The fear of the unknown has crept under our collective skin and made us all nuts. Terror has become a cottage industry. The Supreme Court decision is just one more manifestation of how bin Laden won. Our democracy is not just beginning to be subsumed by the quicksand of  totalitarianism -- it has already been sucked in up to its eyeballs.

That President Obama's Justice Department had filed an amicus brief in the recent court case in support of strip searches should come as no surprise. This administration is going down as one of the most authoritarian and repressive in modern history. No Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson has seized upon, and fomented, fear like this one. It was during World War One that the Espionage Act was passed, making it a crime to be anti-war. It is no coincidence that Bradley Manning is now being charged under the Espionage Act for his heroic whistleblowing of war crimes. It is no coincidence that the same government which forced Bradley Manning to stand naked in his jail cell for weeks is now urging that millions more citizens suffer the same humiliation. Strip-searching is simply a corollary to indefinite detention without charge, and the self-proclaimed right to assassinate people by secret decree. It's an all-inclusive program of The Naked and the Dead.

Let's be clear -- the unfettered strip-searching of suspects has little to do with safety, and everything to do with the cowing of the underclass, and sexual humiliation -- and since the majority of inmates are male, and black -- emasculation. This is especially true for Muslim prisoners, for whom forced nudity is the ultimate horror. Look at Abu Ghraib. Look at Gitmo. Now, look to Rikers Island in New York, the world's largest penal colony.

The Supreme Court decision is just one more manifestation of this country's institutional racism. If you are guilty of walking while black or brown, the next big thing after being stopped and frisked will be getting hauled off to jail and being forced to strip naked, and worse. Writes D.L. Chandler:

Last year alone, the NYPD stopped and questioned almost 700,000 persons, 87 percent of them being either Black or Hispanic. The low level of arrests made by way of this aggressive program is another matter deserving of investigation. Further, one of out of ten African-American men are in prison. According to research from the American Leadership Forum, 1 out of 3 Black boys born in 2001 have the potential to spend a lifetime in jail.
Should a person with a few unpaid parking tickets or missed court dates for a rent hearing be subjected to the same cavity search of a known murderer? The sensible answer is that the criminal proven to have the more violent record should be treated as such. The wide-sweeping assumption that every person with a traffic violation or similar minor offense needs to be treated like the town’s biggest drug dealer is a foolish one.
The practical ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling remain to be seen, says the ACLU. Will police use it as an excuse to strip-search Occupy protesters the next time they're arrested on trumped-up charges of blocking a sidewalk? Judging from the Obama Administration's own amicus brief, the authoritarians have this possibility very much in their paranoid little minds. In oral arguments, according to Steve Bergstein of the Z Magazine blog, a Justice Dept. lawyer said:

"Protesters...who decide deliberately to get arrested... might be stopped by the police, they see the squad car behind them. They might have a gun or contraband in their car and think hey, I’m going to put that on my person, I just need to get it somewhere that is not going to be found during a patdown search, and then potentially they have the contraband with them.” This position would probably be identical to that advanced by a Republican presidential administration.

The arguments, and ensuing decision, justify strip searches because your very presence within an incarceration facility automatically strips you of your civil rights. The legality of your arrest is not taken into consideration. The security of the institution always supersedes individual rights. Wide-ranging deference must always be paid to corrections personnel, says the Obama Justice Department and the concurring Supremes. They don't mention the fact that said corrections personnel are more and more likely to be underpaid and unscreened security guards in private prisons. Or that a lot of the smuggling of contraband into jails is done by corrupt guards and wardens. 

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the liberal members of the Court did not side with the Obama Administration on this one, and for that moment of sanity we should be grateful.

I had been wondering if perhaps the Justice Department would start an investigation of the Supreme Court on suspicion of influence peddling and corruption and financial malfeasance in light of the Citizens United ruling and canoodling with the Koch Brothers. There are indeed grounds for charging Clarence Thomas will failure to disclose his finances and ties with his wife's Tea Party group. There is precedent; Abe Fortas was forced to resign during the Johnson Administration after it was revealed he was on the take from Wall Street. But if past performance is any indication, Eric Holder and his boss will most likely view the judicial jokesters as useful idiots to run against during the campaign.  

Government corruption is nothing new. What is new is that all three branches and their apparatchiks are in it up to their scalps. The wrong people are being strip-searched.

Stay tuned for a grade F for the United States when Human Rights Watch comes out with its next report. As Glenn Greenwald noted in his excellent column today, the strip-searching of detainees is also a blatant violation of international human rights treaties.  

We are exceptional, all right. Exceptionally sadistic.


James Singer said...

It's one way to find out if Romney wears the garment.

4Runner said...

33% of SCOTUS were appointed by members of one family (Bush), while another 22% were appointed by a president with early onset Alzheimers. Most of these abominable decisions emanate from that 55% faction.

Keara said...

Thank you, Karen, for your usual cogent analysis. This is such a terrible decision. I feel that we all live in a nightmare world now.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for writing about this. I wanted to link to another Trayvon Martin-like story but blogspot isn't letting me paste.

It's in the NY Daily News today, name of Chamberlain.

68-y.o. Black Marine veteran shot dead (by cops this time, not vigilantes) when his cardiac device went off. The cops responded to the medical emergency by tasing him, thereby killing him.

Perhaps we can discuss why tasers are illegal in Germany?

Anonymous said...

Okay, Karen, blogger's now letting me paste, so before I paste the Chamberlain story, let me share something nice:

Okay, now for the bad news:

Anonymous said...

from NY Daily News article, read it if you have a strong stomach only, it's nausea-inducing, esp. the part wherein the cops mock Chamberlain's military service:

"Chamberlain’s niece, Tonyia Greenhill, who lived in an apartment upstairs, came down and tried to talk with police, but was ignored. Her uncle sounded scared and was begging the police through the door to leave him alone, she recalled.

One of the family’s lawyers is Mayo Bartlett, a former Westchester assistant district attorney. He and the dead man’s son said someone can be heard screaming at Chamberlain on the LifeAid tape:
“I don’t give a f--k, n----r, open the door!”

One of the people banging outside was also reportedly heard yelling: “I need to use your bathroom to pee!”

Others were taunting Chamberlain’s military service after they discovered he was a former Marine.

The LifeAid dispatcher, who was listening to every word of the commotion, offers at one point to contact family members of Chamberlain to intercede, and even tries to cancel the call for police assistance.

But a police officer is heard saying “We don’t need any mediators,” according to the lawyers.
Two other video cameras captured part of the events that night, and the family and its lawyers have seen those as well.

One is a security camera in the hall of the building. Another is attached to the stun gun police used.

Those reportedly show police prying the door partly open. At one point, according to Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., a metal object is slipped through the gap in the door and falls in the hallway.

“It’s hard to tell what it is, but that could be what police are saying was a hatchet,” the son said.

The tape runs for several more minutes while cops and firefighters work to remove the hinges to the door.

When they finally do, a camera reveals Chamberlain Sr. standing inside his apartment, wearing only boxer shorts, with his arms at his side and his hands empty, according to the son and the family’s lawyers.

“The minute they got in the house, they didn’t even give him one command,” Bartlett said. “They never mentioned ‘put your hands up.’ They never told him to lay down on the bed. The first thing they did ... you could see the Taser light up ... and you could see it going directly toward him.”

Why anyone would use a stun gun on a man with a known heart condition is astounding in itself.

But the cameras don’t capture anything more after that point, according to the son and lawyers. Police say Chamberlain later came at them with a knife, and one cop fired two shots. More than four months after the incident, authorities have refused to identify that cop.

Public Safety Commissioner Chong’s office declined Tuesday to say anything about the case, saying only that there’s an ongoing investigation.

Read more:

Valerie said...

I think it is very telling that the police were mocking Chamberlain's military service.

All we can hope is that his family gets a huge settlement and that the police bullies involved are severely reprimanded and it basically costs them their careers.

I think it would be a good moment for Fred Drumlevitch to jump in with his idea of police having to wear cameras on their uniforms. Take it away, Fred!

And good point, @4Runner!

Valerie said...

You are absolutely right, Karen, the REAL purpose behind this is power over anyone the police see fit to arrest. The police are being armed like the military and now they are allowed to use humiliation tactics like this.

I didn't realise they did this to Bradley Manning. That poor young man. The price he has paid for doing the right thing.

What bothers me most is that so few Americans seem to care. Not just the nutjob wingnuts on the Right, but normal, decent people - people twenty years ago would realise that it was wrong - just turn the other way.

It is like Niemoeller's poem. As long as it doesn't affect them or someone they care about . . .

Jay–Ottawa said...

It’s reasonable to expect that convicted felons, once sentenced to prison, will forgo Fourth Amendment rights in much the same measure as they surrender many other rights. That’s the nature of prison.

At the same time, shouldn’t a society that thinks of itself as humane stay vigilant on another front to preserve itself from excesses against the incarcerated population? Is there no balance point along the continuum between lawlessness and the order, chaos and the gulag? Or must a democratic society slide along that continuum towards the gulag, just to be on the safe side? What do we think of a society that keeps piling up totalitarian practices on the law books?

We celebrate the US Constitution -- as amended. A few delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 got it right in their concern over authority that tends to tyranny. The Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the authorities from acting with increasing narrowness and harshness as they settled comfortably into power.

After reading the Solicitor General’s amicus brief, especially as it relies so much on the Bell v. Wolfish precedent (1979), I can appreciate the difficulties of keeping the lid on in a vast prison system. What’s missing in his brief is any suggestion of restraint on the police authority.

Surely, the Obama Administration has no wish to see the average American ill treated by the police. Then why not make that position crystal clear while simultaneously supporting good order in the penal system? Instead, Obama’s Solicitor General was all in for the strip search whenever, wherever, for whatever.

Additionally, the Solicitor General repeatedly and pettily faults the plaintiff’s team for not coming up with a tight definition for a ‘minor’ crime. Lacking such a distinction, the court had no choice but to regard every arrestee as dangerous to the prison population and the guards. So keep it simple and strip search everybody.

The DOJ has the stable of lawyers and the talent and the obligation to make such distinctions to insure law enforcement does not lose all sense of proportion as it goes about its duties. The DOJ is beholden to all the people, after all, not just the people wearing badges.

The US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. The pool of detainees (prison, parole, probation) amounts to 3.1% of the population, or more than 7 million. The numbers climbed steeply after 1980. Did Americans suddenly become more lawless, or did the laws become more intolerant, more vindictive and more profitable to the incarceration business?

The Fourth Amendment is virtually irrelevant for people behind bars. What’s new and disturbing is that the Fourth Amendment is steadily growing more irrelevant for the entire population of the US. Every citizen may ‘reasonably’ be treated to severe screening before trial, upon being booked.

As the ACLU suggested in its reaction to the Florence decision, too many people are being picked up, booked and jailed in the first place. At what point will the incarceration rate of the US give us pause? If we could just stop exercising absolute control over an ever-increasing number of people, the prison population would drop and the control issue might not be so challenging for the keepers that they feel obligated to humiliate everyone as a precaution.

I would have thought the NDAA was the cherry on the sundae that would set off massive protests and a reversal of the authoritarian drift. Nothing of the kind happened. Florence will probably go down the same way, quietly. So we can expect more of the same until the authorities are finally assured that the whole population is subdued, accepting and conformist.

Look at the bright side: we don’t have too much further to go before the 99% can be viewed as sufficiently docile and pleasing unto the 1%.

Denis Neville said...

Orwell’s “Room 101," the interrogation room where a prisoner's deepest fears are realized and applied, meets the lawyers and judges of Kafka's The Trial.

Even the threat of Ministry of Love’s strip searches, an instrument of oppression and rule, is meant to break and render submissive.

How many more of our rights (are there any left?) will be eliminated? How much more will the public passively tolerate? Are they too lazy or too despondent to rebel? Are they doomed to do as they are told, follow the rules and regulations, fight wars they do not believe in? Will their humanity be extinguished?

“The world's evolution has placed Orwell at the heart of our present complexities, and we go to his writing not in any spirit of aloof research but to find solutions to existing problems.” - Patrick Reilly, George Orwell: The Age's Adversary

Scott Horton @ Harpers, “The High Court’s Body-Cavity Fixation,” writes:

“Just as the Florence decision was being prepared, the Department of Defense released a previously classified training manual used to prepare American pilots for resistance to foreign governments that might use illegal and immoral techniques to render them cooperative.”

“Key in this manual are the precise practices highlighted in Florence. Body-cavity searches are performed, it explains, to make the prisoner “feel uncomfortable and degraded.” Forced nudity and invasion of the body make the prisoner feel helpless, by removing all items that provide the prisoner with psychological support. In other words, the strip search is an essential step in efforts to destroy an individual’s sense of self-confidence, well-being, and even his or her identity. The value of this tool has been recognized by authoritarian governments around the world, and now, thanks to the Roberts Court, it will belong to the standard jailhouse repertoire in the United States. Something to consider the next time you walk Fido without scooping up his droppings—a cop may well be watching, ready to seize the opportunity to invade your rectum.”

As Karen said, “We are exceptional, all right. Exceptionally sadistic.”

National Wind Watch -- said...

4Runner said ... 33% of SCOTUS were appointed by members of one family (Bush), another 22% by a president with Alzheimers, and most of these abominable decisions emanate from that 55% faction.

And all but 1 of those was approved be a Democratic-majority Senate or with overwhelming Democratic support.

And as noted in this post, Obama's "Justice" Dept. filed a brief in support of this abominable decision.

Zee said...


Thank you for this excellent post. I agree with you--and all of the previous commenters on this thread--completely. In reaching their opinion on the legality of routine "strip searching," the Supreme Court has erred grievously.

@Anonymous, @Jay--Ottawa and @Denis Neville, thank you for your particularly thoughtful and informative comments.

Procedures that the DoD regard as "uncomfortable and degrading" will now be routine in this country for even the most minor of criminal violations. Great.

Moreover, though it's a minor point, I have to question the reasoning powers of the DoJ lawyer who thought that a strip search would be necessary for a traffic offender who, fearing that police would detect a contraband gun in his/her car, would transfer the gun to her/his person to conceal it against a "patdown search."

Huh? Except for the tiniest of handguns--and, yes, they do exist--a patdown would reveal the presence of virtually any handgun without a strip search. And a metal detector would do just as good a job of detecting a gun, too.

Again, I say "Huh?"

Anonymous said...

Here are some other cases that have come up in light of the Martin shooting:

1) Man (white) killed by cop for wielding golf club:

2) Church Lady (white) blown away for rolling up car window:

3) OTHER Marine (black) blammo'd to death by cops in his own car and in front of his own very young daughters; daughters are then detained by police for 12 hours without access to lawyer:

4) Honor Student (black) has crap beaten out of him by cops for no apparent reason. Mother suing, thank God.

5) NYPD smothers to death innocent female (black) in response to request for MEDICAL assistance:

Bear in mind this is just a small percentage of the material that actually makes it into print.

Someone should do a serial on this...

Anonymous said...

And one more, this one's really, really a winner:

6) White male electrician with announced heart condition tasered for actually following NPS Ranger's instruction to leash his dog.

Video of baffled neighbor, a Mr. Bartlett, is priceless, I recommend watching the video on the link.

Just as we've seen the increasing militarization of the police, we see police tactics and weaponry introduced into areas where they never were utilized before. I spoke with a former park ranger who quit his job a few years ago in Washington State because he was so disgusted by the increasing "police-ification" of the ranger position.

For the record, the Park Service has invoked, as justification for the tasering of the peaceful dog walker, the Jan 1, 2012 shooting death of the female park ranger by an out of control Iraq vet in Washington State.

Literally, it was announced that the dead ranger in Washington State was a "hero". Which was weird, because the same government insists that all of our soldiers, no matter their individual shortcomings, are also "heroes".

Thus, the NPS "hero" was shot by the US military veteran "hero", which, in the stilted logic of NPS, thereby justified the "heroic" tasering of an ordinary citizen "non-hero" schmuck dog walker 863 miles south of the place of the martyred park ranger "hero".

I wish I were exaggerating, but that was basically the gist of their rationale.

Those of us who pointed out that ONE ranger death in nine years in these United States did not justify IN ANY WAY tasering in the back a totally unrelated, non-threatening, and retreating park visitor with a heart condition 863 miles away merely for leashing his terrier on the instructions of NPS were promptly told to go bleep ourselves. Which, of course, we did.

I was following about a month ago this back-and-forth on Karen's blogspot about how close we are to the development to a fascist state. I really have to say that I think we're there, in terms of the total intimidation of the populace, and how much abuse is happening to people behind prison walls, or in low-income communities.

Anonymous said...

Great story KG.

Off topic, Justice Elena Kagan is now a hunting buddy with Scalia. Thanks Obama.

"He's made a huntress out of me," Kagan said.

Kagan said she has come to view hunting as "really good fun."

Elizabeth Adams said...

Here is something that has happened in my area. This has the potential to go national, I think.

Zee said...

@Elizabeth Adams--

A sad article from my home state.

“Basically I heard them say that if a cop asks, you answer no matter what and, to me, that’s the definition of a police state.” -- Chris Aahz, Fremont, CA

I think that I agree with Mr. Aahz.

Well, you know what is often said of my home state: As California goes, so, eventually, goes the nation.

Heaven help us.

Michael P. Murphy said...

Karen....why don't you move to Newark and send your kids to public school?

Fred Drumlevitch said...

Great column, Karen, and great comments by everyone. I'll echo @Zee's tip-of-the-hat today to @Jay-Ottawa, @Denis Neville, and @Anonymous for their highly-relevant lengthy comments, and add one to @Valerie for encouraging me to take the opportunity to re-state some points I've made previously.

My nomination for an abuse-of-police-power case which deserves national attention — and justice, though that is far less likely — involves Jose Guerena, a Tucson-area man shot dead in a fusillade of 71 shots fired by the local SWAT team.

The ways in which the raid was an obscene abuse of power are many and varied. It appears that his sister-in-law, and his sister-in-law’s sister and father — none residing at his house — were all involved in drug dealing, but that should not have been a capital offense for him. It appears that the surveillance on which the warrant was based was poorly done and very stale — more than a year old. The video recording of the raid (link #3) shows that there was only a few seconds of police siren prior to the swat team breaking down his door that morning — and certainly not long enough for someone who had worked the night shift at a copper mine to be adequately alert and to fully process that those coming through the door were law enforcement. Though holding a rifle, he did not fire a single shot. His wife and young child were at the house at the time of the raid, and are very lucky to not have also been struck by the fusillade fired by the SWAT team. (An early editorial (link #6) refers to him being shot 60 times, but that was later revised downward to “only” 22 times. That later figure also means that nearly 50 shots fired by the SWAT team went astray, each endangering others.) Law enforcement did not allow medical help through for more than an hour, so, basically, they let him bleed out. The subsequent statements by law enforcement were misleading and self-serving, if not outright deceptive. And that’s just the beginning.

(Note: The two audio links (links #4 & #5) above are not currently functioning with Internet Explorer on my computer, but do work with Firefox. Not sure if that’ll be the situation on other computers.)

This case, like many others, demonstrates the need for individual-officer-mounted always-recording untamperable video cameras and highly-visible identifying-numbers. It also suggests that while those technical measures may help, the militarized police forces of the United States need, at minimum, a significant attitude adjustment with regard to both their role as law enforcers and permissible tactics. A more complete solution would include the public, the lawmakers, and the courts all jettisoning the implied presumption of police and prosecutorial righteousness which encourages law enforcement overreach with seldom any consequences — but I won't hold my breath waiting for that to occur.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

@Zee (and all):

Note (via link #2 in my previous post) the shameful behavior of the Republican Party towards a local Republican Party official who took issue with such police behavior.

Also note (via the two links below) some of the police firearms-discharge evidence.

Zee said...


A truly astounding account of police incompetence, beyond-excessive use of deadly force, and subsequent concealment of evidence of wrong-doing!

“a 'Keystone Kops' operation. Now they're lying to cover up...They know this is a bad shoot—there's no question in my mind...

...a virtual textbook on how not to do things, not only in the execution of the raid itself, but also in the investigation—if you can call it that—that led up to the affidavit for the search warrant. I remain amazed that any judge would have authorized a search based on that affidavit.” – Tim Vanderpool, quoting Mike McDaniel (law enforcement veteran, former SWAT team member, and conservative blogger on police issues)

“It was a travesty that should have never happened...They shouldn't have had a SWAT team involved in that case to begin with.” – Tim Vanderpool, quoting Richard Mack (former sheriff of Graham County, AZ and a nationally recognized gun-rights advocate)

Now a completely innocent young father, shot some 22 times, is dead, leaving behind a young widow and child.

Why am I not surprised that Sheriff Clarence Dupnik—who likes to shoot his mouth off as much as his SWAT team seems to enjoy shooting innocent people—is at the apex of this tragedy?

Nor am I surprised that Arizona's rank-and-file Republican Party has lined up in support of the “operation” and the Pima County Sheriff's Department. I have been trying for some time now to persuade you Progressives that more often than not, Republicans are NOT Conservatives, or, at least, not thinking Conservatives. They are a peculiar admixture of religious, social, political and economic values that are generally internally inconsistent.

For example, while claiming to “revere” the Constitution, many Republicans work overtime to ignore the First Amendment, seeking to persuade themselves and others that America is really a Christian nation; then, they further seek to impose their ersatz version of Christianity on everybody else.

Or they are too dense to understand that their Medicare and Social Security are government programs.

While I'm not a paragon of internal consistency myself, I at least try to acknowledge and understand those inconsistencies. And not that I haven't proven myself—both over at Reality Chex and in this forum—to be either dense or, at least, somewhat “visually impaired” regarding some of my formerly closely held beliefs. When I've truly had my nosed rubbed in my misunderstandings, I think I have acknowledged it openly.

It was said in the context of the first article about the shooting of Jose Guerena, to which you provided the link, but somehow it seems to fit here, too.

"Each side has their own blind spots. They want people to be free in one aspect, but not in another aspect." --Tim Vanderpool quoting Brian Miller ( former chairperson of the Pima County Republican Party

A true Conservative wants everyone to be as free as he/she can be in every possible aspect of his/her life without infringing on the freedom of others, yet still while avoiding becoming a crazed Libertarian.

It's a tough walk.

PS: I find the photographic juxtaposition of the marked bullet trajectories and the painting of Our Lady of Guadulupe to be beyond tragically ironic.