The Making of a Prison Society

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“That’s why you shouldn’t bring kids to protests.”

This taunt, which issued from the sneering lips of an armored riot policeman, struck Don Joughin with the force of a billyclub as he tried to comfort his children – a three-year-old and a newborn – after they had been showered with a chemical agent by a riot policeman.

That assault did not take place during any of the recent "Occupy"-inspired protests. It occurred in August 2002, during a fundraising visit by then-President George W. Bush to Portland, Oregon. 

In keeping with then-recently established "security" protocols, local police were deployed in riot gear to keep demonstrators confined inside “free speech zones” located several blocks away from the motorcade route. Joughin, who was accompanied by his wife and three children, was present when police unleashed a pepper-spray fusillade against a small group of protesters who had taken a few steps outside the designated protest zone.

After the police attack began, Joughin and his family attempted to leave, but found themselves penned in. Acting on the tragically innocent assumption that the police were present in order to keep the peace, Joughin politely asked the officer obstructing an exit how he and his family could leave the turbulent intersection. “He pointed and said to exit to the [northeast], into the spraying police opposite him,” Joughin recalled. 

With his family in danger of being trampled by protesters fleeing the chemical barrage, Joughin asked the officer to let him and his family through. “He looked at me, and drew out his can from his hip and sprayed directly at me,” Joughin recalled. He didn’t bear the brunt of that criminal assault, but his three-year-old caught some of the blast. The assailant then turned on Joughin’s wife and the infant “and doused both of their heads entirely from a distance of less than three feet,” Joughin testified.

As his children were screaming in agony, Joughin pleaded with the cops to allow him and his family to leave and seek help. They responded by closing ranks and blocking the Joughin family’s escape. They didn’t relent until someone in “authority” gave them permission to set them free. The last thing Joughin and his traumatized family heard as they left the scene was the sadistic taunt hurled by one of the tax-devouring thugs who had assaulted the children with a chemical weapon. 

While millions of Americans have been horrified by recent incidents of armored police officers beating and pepper-spraying unarmed, unresisting protesters, those nauseating spectacles are neither novel nor particularly rare. In "Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks," a heavily sourced paper recently published in the journal Sociology Compass,  Patrick F. Gillham of the University of Idaho observes that current police doctrine dictates that public protests are to be treated as "security threats," and dealt with using methods inspired by "a new penology philosophy."

From that perspective, every public demonstration – however peaceful and orderly it might be –   is to be treated as the equivalent of a prison riot. This means that police are free to employ every available means – pre-event surveillance, pre-emptive arrest, hostage-taking, and the use of incapacitating "less-lethal" weaponry – in order to "neutralize" people suspected of being "disruptive" elements.

Under the "strategic incapacitation" model, Gillham notes, "police often refuse to communicate at all with possible or actual transgressive protesters except to issue commands once protest events have already begun." (Emphasis added.) It's not enough to confine protest to "free-speech zones"; the right to assemble itself is subject to modification or revocation without prior notice – even in the absence of disorderly behavior on the part of the protesters. 

Typically, phalanxes of riot police will appear and slowly herd protesters into a confined area. An announcement will be made that the demonstration has been designated an "unlawful assembly," and shortly thereafter the attack will begin, typically culminating with either mass arrests, needless injuries, or some combination thereof. 

A September 2001 anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. offered the first opportunity to field-test this approach. A small group of anarchists were driven into an improvised holding area by riot police, where they were literally held as hostages: "After 2 hours of detention, police conveyed the terms under which protesters would be released to a neutral third party of legal observers and not to the detained protesters."

Two years later, during the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami, "police not only pre-emptively arrested perceived transgressive protesters, they also arrested scores of union members and student activists walking to permitted events, as well as credentialed reporters and curious bystanders," recalls Gillham. Most of those arrested had not been ordered to disperse, and had violated no law – including a draconian anti-assembly law that had been enacted by the city government just days prior to the summit. In addition, Gillham observes, "Bails were set high as a further way to keep those arrested off the streets."

The same approach was used at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2008. In one particularly memorable application, 284 people were arrested at a public park in St. Paul, Minnesota on Labor Day 2008 during the Republican Convention. A huge contingent of riot police – supplemented by the National Guard's JTF-RNC, and equipped with chemical munitions and gas masks – cut off access to the park, which was bordered on one side by train tracks and the other by a river. This turned the park, however temporarily, into a huge open-air detention center.

An amplified version of the same tactics was employed by police in Pittsburgh when the 2009 G-20 summit brought the crème de la scum of the world's criminal class to that city.

As helicopters plied the night air and serried rows of armored riot police assembled, a robotic voice announced: "By order of the chief of police, this has been declared an unlawful assembly. I order all those assembled to immediately disperse. You must leave the immediate vicinity. If you do not disperse, you may be subject to arrest, and/or other police action" – the latter being a euphemism for summary punishment through "the use of riot control agents and/or less lethal munitions." 

Once again, protesters were ordered to leave, and threatened with severe reprisals if they didn't – only to find that the police already had them surrounded and were determined to arrestor assault at least some of them. 

Those crackdowns, in keeping with the "strategic incapacitation" doctrine, were not employed in response to criminal violence, or to deal with any impending threat of the same. Gillham points out that under the new approach "arrests are selectively applied to neutralize known or suspected transgressive actors often times before any crimes are committed." 

The same is true of aggressive violence employed by riot police, notes Gillham: "Less-lethal weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, Tasers, rubber bullets, wooden missiles and bean bag rounds are now the weapons of choice…. Evidence suggests that police use these weapons as a means to temporarily incapacitate potentially disruptive protesters and repel others away from areas police are trying to defend such as entrances and exits to secured zones." 

Of course, once the riot police appear and the decree goes forth that a given protest is an "unlawful assembly," the protest area itself is designated a "secure zone," and those within it can only leave with the permission of their captors. 

All of this is manifestly the product of a military mind-set – one better suited to a military prison camp than a battlefield. The behavior of domestic police in dealing with political demonstrations is nearly identical to that of specialized "Immediate Reaction" forces (IRFs) deployed in military prisons such as those at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

In his memoir, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, Turkish national Murat Kurnaz – who was kidnapped by Pakistani bounty hunters and sold into U.S. custody for $3,000 – describes his captivity in Gitmo (as well as Bagram) as a supposed "unlawful combatant.” Any violation of the arbitrary – and ever-changing – rules of prisoner conduct provoked an attack by the IRF, a unit consisting of “five to eight soldiers with plastic shields, breastplates, hard-plastic knee-, elbow-, and shoulder-protectors, helmets with plastic visors, gloves with hard-plastic knuckles, heavy boots, and billyclubs.” In other words, they were accoutered exactly like the domestic riot police who have become such a familiar presence in recent weeks.

Breaking a rule wasn't a prerequisite for a visit from the IRF. The team would be summoned to inflict punishment for any act of defiance – such as an insult hurled at an abusive guard, or even an attempt to exercise. Typically the IRF would soften up the target by infusing the cell with a liberal dose of Megyn Kelly's much-discussed "food product" – weaponized capsaicin. Once the prisoner had been left entirely incapacitated, the IRT would swarm him to deliver a beating.

Former military interrogator Erik Saar provides a parallel account in his remorseful memoir, Inside the Wire.

"The five IRF-team MPs lined up outside the cell door," writes Saar. "Starting in the back, they each shouted `Ready!' and one by one slapped the shoulder of the next soldier up. The first soldier opened the door and directed a good dose of pepper spray at the detainee, then started to back him into a corner with his shield. But the captive managed to swipe the shield away and tried to kick the second soldier in line. He landed a good blow to the shoulder, but before he could put his foot down the third soldier, thinking fast, grabbed it and jerked. The detainee's body rose in the air and came crashing to the metal floor."

"All five MPs swarmed over him," continues Saar's account. "One was responsible for securing his head, and the other four were supposed to take one limb each. The detainee was kicking and squirming, fueled by his hostility. Mo [an Army translator] was shouting to him in Arabic to stop resisting. One of the stronger soldiers who had a solid grip on one arm was punching him in the ribs…." 

Nearly identical tactics were used at "Camp Greyhound" in New Orleans, an improvised jail modeled after Gitmo and operated by FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Among those imprisoned there was Syrian-American businessman Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who was seized in his own home by National Guardsmen, imprisoned on unspecified charges, and escaped with his life only because of the providential intervention of a Christian clergyman who happened to visit his cell after Zeitoun had been transferred to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center

For Zeitoun and the other prisoners, the Camp Greyhound experience was one of tedium punctuated by sheer terror. The guards exploited any excuse to inflict exemplary “discipline” on the detainees, most of whom had been arrested for violating curfew or similar petty matters.

“Always the procedure was the same,” recalled David Eggers in his book Zeitoun; “a prisoner would be removed from his cage and dragged to the ground nearby, in full view of the rest of the prisoners. His hands and feet would be tied, and then, sometimes with a guard’s knee on his back, he would be sprayed directly in the face” with pepper spray. “If the prisoner protested,” continued Eggers, “the knee would dig deeper into his back. The spraying would continue until his spirit was broken. Then he would be doused with [a] bucket and returned to his cage.”

The victims of this pointless and whimsical cruelty included one disturbed man with the intellectual and emotional capacity of a child who was “punished” because he displayed the irrepressible symptoms of mental illness.

These ritual acts of sadism, Eggers observes, were “born of a combination of opportunity, cruelty, ambivalence, and sport.” They were intended to torment the other prisoners, most of whom – like Zeitoun – were possessed of more decency than their captors and thus left sick with rage by the spectacle of helpless men being tortured.

“Under any normal circumstances [Zeitoun] would have leapt to the defense of a man victimized as that man had been,” observes Eggers. “But that he had to watch, helpless, knowing how depraved it was – this was punishment for the others, too. It diminished the humanity of them all.”

The same treatment continued once Zeitoun was transferred from the makeshift FEMA detention camp to a "regular" prison. For more than two weeks he and his cellmate were abused, insulted, humiliated, and treated to a visit from a Gitmo-style “Extreme Repression Force” (ERP). Swaddled in riot gear, wielding ballistic shields, batons, and other weapons, the ERP “burst in as if [Zeitoun] were in the process of committing murder,” writes Eggers. “Cursing at him, three men used their shields to push him to the wall. As they pressed his face against the cinderblock, they cuffed his arms and shackled his legs.”

After heroically subduing an unresisting man – who by this time was dealing with an infected foot and a mysterious kidney ailment – the ERP tore apart the cell before forcing the victim to strip and submit to another body cavity search. By some oversight, the ERP neglected to use pepper spray on the innocent and helpless man. All of the prisoner-control tactics used in Gitmo and “Camp Greyhound” have been employed against peaceful protesters in New York, Oakland, and elsewhere

Civil libertarians are understandably concerned about sections 1031 and 1032 of the proposed National Defense Authorization Act, which would authorize the indefinite military detention of Americans – including those seized here in the United States – who are suspected of terrorism. That abhorrent measure represents an enhancement of current policies and procedures, rather than an abrupt departure from them. Whether or not the Senate approves the NDAA, the people in charge of Regime Security already consider this country to be one vast military prison, and are willing to act on that assumption whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Reprinted with permission from Pro Libertate.