Police State Mission-Creep

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Forget your good ol’ days when Constable Smith kept the peace on his beat all by himself. Now it’s pure strength in numbers. Even when spotted at the roadside conducting something as benign as "traffic control," i.e. a speed trap, there will always be two or more policemen, waiting to pounce.

Like at the DMV.

New Hampshire, where I live, prides itself on its small, efficient government. That’s why, after moving up from Virginia two years ago, I was able to easily pop down the road just a few miles and quickly get a new drivers license at the local DMV office, and register my car at City Hall. The trouble is, my wife is not a U.S. Citizen, and New Hampshire passed a law — after "everything changed" on 9/11/01 — requiring non-citizens to get new licenses at the state DMV headquarters in Concord, so they can show their Green Card, along with the customary proof-of-residency. Apparently local DMV employees aren’t up to the task — though no public official would ever dare risk offending the sensibilities of a state employee by suggesting such a thing.

So my wife took a day off work and I drove her to Concord last month. Her Virginia license was about to expire (yes, she broke the law — New Hampshire, like probably every state, requires that new residents update their drivers license within a month or two of moving here). She brought a few bills that are in her name, her passport, her birth certificate, our marriage license, her Social Security Card — but forgot her Green Card. Despite all the documentation she did have, our bureaucrat-protectors at the DMV turned her away. She lost half a day in pay for a pointless mistake — another "hidden" price tag that accompanies government stupidity, but I digress, and repeat myself.

Still needing to get her license, we went back to the Concord DMV a few days later. This time the lines were much longer, so we got to stick around for a couple of hours. While waiting with our son as my wife stood in line, I noticed that one of the lanes for "customers" (that’s right: according to the parking spaces outside, we’re "customers") was marked somewhat confusingly (imagine): there was a large sign which read "Driving Test Appointments Here" or something like that. But on the actual desk of the DMV employee in charge of this lane, a much smaller sign read "This lane closed."

Well, several people waited in that lane for several minutes before the bureaucrat — who looked none-too-busy, to say the least — finally bothered to mention that he wasn’t going to help them. Understandably, this irritated the people in the line, and one of them dared express his irritation to the "worker." In a millisecond (a startling contrast to the sloth-like response time of any other government employee) a State Trooper was out in the waiting area, talking with this upset "customer."

That’s how it works in this particular "business": at Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble customers talk to the manager; at the DMV, the "manager" wears a gun and a badge.

The first thing I noticed was that despite being irritated, the "customer" wasn’t irate; there was no raised voice; he wasn’t flailing his arms about in gesticulation. He calmly, but passionately, explained his problem to the Trooper, and to be fair, the Trooper was calm and respectful as well.

Then another trooper, twenty-five feet away, saw what was going on and had to get involved. Strength in numbers. She marched over like a Drill Sergeant (complete with hat and ever-so-shiny shoes) and stood, not next to the other Trooper, but off to the side and back just a little, in the space between him and the "customer." It was clearly a strategic posture; she was providing "back-up." She didn’t say anything, just stood there with her hands on her hips and stared, hard, at her "suspect." I’ve gotten used to government inefficiency and mismanagement, but before me stood a glaring and scary example of its ultimate consequence.

I don’t know how the issue was resolved — my wife finished her "business" and we left — but that image has stayed with me.

As has another experience. The New Hampshire legislature sits from January to May each year; ours is a true "citizens legislature"; our House of Representatives is the third largest legislative body in the world, but represents only about a million and a half people. With so high a proportion of reps it’s not uncommon to bump into one, and they pride themselves on being "accessible." When I went to Concord earlier this year to protest, along with about twenty other homeschoolers, a bill being debated in the State Senate that would affect our lifestyle, I had the opportunity to address the bill’s sponsor, one Senator Iris Estabrook (D-Durham).

Standing outside the Senate chamber, I waited until Sen. Estabrook approached and said to her, "Thank you, Senator." Thinking me sincere, she stopped and turned my way. "Thank you for all your hard work needlessly harassing homeschoolers," I said. I didn’t shout; didn’t wave my arms about or gesticulate in a threatening manner. Just said my piece and turned away from her.

"Officer," I heard immediately, "this man is harassing me."

I turned back around to see her walking away, and a millisecond later not one but two State Troopers were in my face, adopting the same posture and positioning as the Troopers mentioned above. Strength in numbers. They immediately informed me that "harassing" a State Senator would get me ejected from the Capitol building.

"I wasn’t harassing her," I argued.

"What did you say," they asked, and I told them.

"That’s sarcasm," one of them said.

"Yes it is," I replied, "but sarcasm is not harassment." Then our conversation went just like this:

"She said you were harassing her."

"I’m saying I didn’t; why does she get to define the term?"

"She doesn’t," I was told. "We do."

Nothing good came from the experience, except for this: when the "officers" walked away, I saw that my daughter was standing next to me, glaring after them. "Let this be a lesson to you," I told her then. "Anyone so afraid to debate with you that they will call the police to end the discussion is someone to be feared and hated." I stand by those words.

And just this week I got an alarming glimpse of how the Police State mentality might be spreading. We live in a Leftist city in a neo-con-but-slightly-libertarian-leaning state, and one of its prides is a mandatory recycling program. Plastics, glass, paper, cardboard (pronounced "cad-board" up here), and newspapers are all picked up separately from what we used to just call "trash." The plastics, glass, and cardboard are picked up by one truck, the paper and newspaper by another, the rest by yet another.

I always put the paper in empty dog food bags; they’re large and holdup better under the drizzling rain that seems to more-often-than-not accompany a New Hampshire morning, regardless of the season. And I put the plastic, glass and cardboard (typically empty cereal boxes, milk and juice cartons, and the like) all in the little green (of course) bin provided by the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW).

In two years of living here, I’ve never had a problem with any of this. Every week I look down the street and see that my neighbors are doing the exact same thing. Two weeks ago, however, my wife and I had a very large party, with about 50 to 60 people showing up throughout the course of the evening. Needless to say, the number of beer and wine bottles and soda cans was immense, far too many for the little bin. So I stacked them all neatly to the side. A few days later, they were still sitting there, purposely left by the DPW workers, and I ended up taking them to the recycling center myself. This week, by comparison, I had just enough recycling to fill the bin, but the DPW workers still drove right by and left it all sitting at the edge of my driveway. Confused, I caught up with them and asked what the deal was. I wasn’t angry or gesticulating, or acting aggressive. Just talking to them like I would any employee whose actions were confusing me.

Our conversation went something like this:

"You have to separate the cardboard from the rest — and we won’t pick it up off the ground," he added quickly. "That’s why we left your recycling two weeks ago." They clearly remember when a mere taxpaying citizen asks too much of them.

"There was so much recycling that day, I couldn’t have fit it all in five bins," I protested.

That’s when I became aware that there were two of them. Of course.

Yes, there’s a practical case for this: one drives the truck, the other hops off at the stops to pick up the recycling.

But the fellow driving that day wasn’t content to serve that purpose alone. He had to join us. He got out of the truck and walked around to position himself to the side and back a little — like the State Troopers. Strength in numbers.

Now I was irritated. Turning to the second one, I said pointedly, "I’m only talking to one of you at a time."

A highly unproductive conversation then ensued, with me pointing out that their "standards" were not only arbitrary but completely inconsistent, because everyone else on the street mixes their "cardboard" in with their plastics and glass. I was then lectured about the relevant City Ordinance, and ended up walking away in frustration, resolved to make things as difficult as I can for the DPW in future — however small a gesture it may be.

Don’t be fooled. We’re not the government’s "customers." If a private business dealt with people like the DMV, it would be out of business in a week; if the guy who bags my groceries at the supermarket acted like the guy who picks up my trash on Tuesdays, he’d be looking for work today.

And this is for certain: none of them would require thuggish-acting "back-up" to deal with a "customer" that just wants to get better service.

New Hampshire has a service called "Porc411," started by a Free State Project member who wanted to help people more easily "participate in New Hampshire’s growing liberty movement." The idea is simple: once you’ve subscribed, you can call a designated phone number and leave a voice message about "unusual or improper police activity," "distress calls," or "almost anything else of immediate interest to liberty lovers." The messages are immediately sent out via email to all subscribers.

Perhaps it’s time every state, city, town and village had such a service. We need some strength in numbers ourselves.

August 29, 2008