U.S. Police State’s Answer to Free Speech Is
By John W.
“Since when have we Americans been expected
to bow submissively to authority and speak
with awe and reverence to those who
represent us? The constitutional theory is
that we the people are the sovereigns, the
state and federal officials only our agents.
We who have the final word can speak softly
or angrily. We can seek to challenge and
annoy, as we need not stay docile and
quiet.”—Justice William O. Douglas,
dissenting, Colten v. Kentucky,
407 U.S. 104 (1972)
everything you’ve ever been taught about free
speech in America.
all a lie.
can be no free speech for the citizenry when the
government speaks in a language of force.
this language of force?
Militarized police. Riot squads. Camouflage
gear. Black uniforms. Armored vehicles. Mass
arrests. Pepper spray. Tear gas. Batons. Strip
searches. Surveillance cameras.
Lethal weapons. Less-than-lethal
weapons unleashed with deadly force. Rubber
bullets. Water cannons. Stun grenades. Arrests
Crowd control tactics.
Intimidation tactics. Brutality.
not the language of freedom.
not even the language of law and order.
the language of force.
Unfortunately, this is how the government at all
levels—federal, state and local—now responds to
those who choose to exercise their First
Amendment right to peacefully assemble in public
and challenge the status quo.
This police overkill isn’t just happening in
troubled hot spots
such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., where
police brutality gave rise to civil unrest,
which was met with a militarized show of force
that caused the whole stew of discontent to
bubble over into violence.
decade earlier, the NYPD engaged in mass arrests
of peaceful protesters, bystanders, legal
observers and journalists who had gathered for
the 2004 Republican National Convention. The
protesters were subjected to blanket
fingerprinting and detained for more than 24
hours at a “filthy,
toxic pier that had been a bus depot.”
That particular exercise in police intimidation
tactics cost New York City taxpayers nearly $18
million for what would become the largest
protest settlement in history.
Demonstrators, journalists and legal observers
who had gathered in North Dakota to peacefully
protest the Dakota Access Pipeline reported
pepper sprayed, beaten with batons, and strip
searched by police.
More recently, this
militarized exercise in intimidation
reared its ugly head in the college town of
Charlottesville, Va., where protesters who took
to the streets to peacefully express their
disapproval of a
planned KKK rally
were held at bay by implacable lines of
gun-wielding riot police. Only after a motley
crew of Klansmen had been safely escorted to and
from the rally by black-garbed police did the
assembled army of city, county and state police
declare the public gathering unlawful and
proceed to unleash canisters of tear gas on the
few remaining protesters to force them to
clear, this is the treatment being meted out to
protesters across the political spectrum.
police state does not discriminate.
As a USA Today article notes,
“Federally arming police with weapons of war
silences protesters across all justice movements…
People demanding justice, demanding
accountability or demanding basic human rights
without resorting to violence, should not be
greeted with machine guns and tanks. Peaceful
protest is democracy in action. It is a forum
for those who feel disempowered or
disenfranchised. Protesters should not have to
intimidation by weapons of war.”
militarized police response to protesters poses
a danger to all those involved, protesters and
police alike. In fact,
militarization makes police more likely to turn
to violence to solve problems.
As a recent study by researchers at Stanford
University makes clear, “When law enforcement
receives more military materials — weapons,
vehicles and tools — it becomes … more likely to
jump into high-risk situations.
Militarization makes every problem — even a car
of teenagers driving away from a party — look
like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15
Even the color of a police officer’s uniform
adds to the tension. As the Department of
Justice reports, “Some research has suggested
that the uniform color can influence the
black producing aggressive tendencies,
tendencies that may produce unnecessary conflict
between police and the very people they serve.”
want to turn a peaceful protest into a riot?
in the militarized police with their guns and
black uniforms and warzone tactics and “comply
or die” mindset. Ratchet up the tension across
the board. Take what should be a healthy
exercise in constitutional principles (free
speech, assembly and protest) and turn it into a
lesson in authoritarianism.
you, those who respond with violence are playing
into the government’s hands perfectly.
government wants a reason to crack down and lock
down and bring in its biggest guns.
want us divided. They want us to turn on one
want us powerless in the face of their artillery
and armed forces.
want us silent, servile and compliant.
certainly do not want us to remember that we
have rights, let alone attempting to exercise
those rights peaceably and lawfully.
they definitely do not want us to engage in
First Amendment activities that challenge the
government’s power, reveal the government’s
corruption, expose the government’s lies, and
encourage the citizenry to push back against the
government’s many injustices.
You know how the Charlottesville mayor
characterized the tear gassing of protesters by
the riot police? He called it an “unfortunate
know what else is unfortunate?
unfortunate that these overreaching,
heavy-handed lessons in how to rule by force
have become standard operating procedure for a
government that communicates with its citizenry
primarily through the language of brutality,
intimidation and fear.
unfortunate that “we the people” have become the
proverbial nails to be hammered into submission
by the government and its vast armies.
it’s particularly unfortunate that government
officials—especially police—seem to believe that
anyone who wears a government uniform—soldier,
police officer, prison guard—must be obeyed
rationale goes like this:
Do exactly what
I say, and we’ll get along fine. Do not
question me or talk back in any way. You do
not have the right to object to anything I
may say or ask you to do, or ask for
clarification if my demands are unclear or
contradictory. You must obey me under all
circumstances without hesitation, no matter
how arbitrary, unreasonable, discriminatory,
or blatantly racist my commands may be.
Anything other than immediate perfect
servile compliance will be labeled as
resisting arrest, and expose you to the
possibility of a violent reaction from me.
That reaction could cause you severe injury
or even death. And I will suffer no
consequences. It’s your choice: Comply,
as Officer Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police
If you don’t want to get
shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a
baton or thrown to the ground, just do what
I tell you.
Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names,
don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t
say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that
you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t
scream at me that you pay my salary, and
don’t even think of aggressively walking
not the rhetoric of a government that is of the
people, by the people, and for the people.
not the attitude of someone who understands, let
alone respects, free speech.
And this is certainly not what I would call “community
which is supposed to emphasize the importance of
the relationship between the police and the
community they serve.
police officer who tells you that he needs
tanks, SWAT teams, and pepper spray to do his
job shouldn’t be a police officer in a
All that stuff in the First Amendment (about
freedom of speech, religion, press, peaceful
assembly and the right to petition the
government for a redress of grievances) sounds
great in theory. However, it amounts to little
more than a hill of beans if you have to
exercise those freedoms while facing down an
army of police equipped with deadly weapons,
surveillance devices, and a slew of laws that
empower them to arrest and charge citizens with
“contempt of cop” charges
(otherwise known as asserting your
doesn’t have to be this way.
are other, far better models to follow.
For instance, back in 2011, the St. Louis police
opted to employ a passive response to Occupy St.
Louis activists. First, police gave the
protesters nearly 36 hours’ notice to clear the
area, as opposed to the 20 to 60 minutes’ notice
other cities gave. Then, as journalist Brad
the police finally showed up:
show up in riot gear and helmets, they
showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces
showing. They not only didn’t show up with
SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual
weapons at all, and what weapons they had
all securely holstered. They politely woke
everybody up. They politely helped everybody
who was willing to remove their property
from the park to do so. They then asked, out
of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many
people were volunteering for being-arrested
duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and
10 hours to sweat it over, only 27
volunteered. As the police already knew,
those people’s legal advisers had advised
them not to even passively resist, so those
27 people lined up to be peacefully
arrested, and were escorted away by a
handful of cops. The rest were advised to
please continue to protest, over there on
the sidewalk … and what happened next was
the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd
control policing I have heard of in my
entire lifetime. All of the cops who weren’t
busy transporting and processing the
voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the
stairs down into the plaza. They stood
shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and
silent. They positioned the weapons on their
belts out of sight. They crossed their hands
low in front of them, in exactly the least
provocative posture known to man. And
they peacefully, silently, respectfully
occupied the plaza, using exactly the same
non-violent resistance techniques that the
protesters themselves had been trained in.
As Forbes concluded, “This is a more
humane, less costly, and ultimately more
productive way to handle a protest. This is
great proof that
police can do it the old fashioned way
- using their brains and common sense instead of
tanks, SWAT teams, and pepper spray - and have
will not voluntarily give up their gadgets and
war toys and combat tactics, however. Their
training and inclination towards
authoritarianism has become too ingrained.
are to have any hope of dismantling the police
state, change must start locally, community by
community. Citizens will have to demand that
police de-escalate and de-militarize. And if the
police don’t listen, contact your city councils
and put the pressure on them.
Remember, they work for us. They might not like
hearing it—they certainly won’t like being
reminded of it—but we pay their salaries.
people” have got to stop accepting the lame
excuses trotted out by police as justifications
for their inexcusable behavior.
“we the people” believe in free speech or we
we live in a constitutional republic or a police
Justice William O. Douglas advised in his
dissent in Colten v. Kentucky,
“we need not stay docile and quiet” in the face
Constitution does not require Americans to be
servile or even civil to government officials.
does the Constitution require obedience
(although it does insist on nonviolence).
emphasis on nonviolence goes both ways. Somehow,
the government keeps overlooking this important
element in the equation.
is nothing safe or secure or free about
exercising your rights with a rifle pointed at
police officer who has been trained to shoot
first and ask questions later, oftentimes based
only on their highly subjective “feeling” of
being threatened, is just as much of a danger—if
not more—as any violence that might erupt from a
Compliance is no guarantee of safety.
Then again, as I point out in my book
Battlefield America: The
War on the
if we just cower before government agents and
meekly obey, we may find ourselves following in
the footsteps of those nations that eventually
fell to tyranny.
alternative involves standing up and speaking
truth to power. Jesus Christ walked that road.
So did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.,
and countless other freedom fighters whose
actions changed the course of history.
had Christ merely complied with the Roman police
state, there would have been no crucifixion and
no Christian religion. Had Gandhi meekly fallen
in line with the British Empire’s dictates, the
Indian people would never have won their
Martin Luther King Jr. obeyed the laws of his
day, there would have been no civil rights
movement. And if the founding fathers had
marched in lockstep with royal decrees, there
would have been no American Revolution.
adopt a different mindset and follow a different
path if we are to alter the outcome of these
interactions with police.
American dream was built on the idea that no one
is above the law, that our rights are
inalienable and cannot be taken away, and that
our government and its appointed agents exist to
be that things are too far gone to save, but
still we must try.
Constitutional attorney and author John W.
Whitehead is founder and president of The
His new book Battlefield
America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks,
2015) is available online at www.amazon.com.
Whitehead can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
views expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and do not necessarily reflect the
opinions of Information Clearing House.