A War for All Seasons:
the return of law and order

excerpted from the book

Lockdown America

Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis

by Christian Parenti

Verso Books, 1999



Rising unemployment was a very desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes . . . What was engineered - in Marxist terms-w as a crisis in capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labor, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Alan Budd, chief economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher



Years ago criminologist Steven Spritzer described the cast-off populations produced by capitalism as either "social junk" or "social dynamite."' A rather blunt and painful nomenclature to be sure, but Spritzer makes useful distinctions. These different segments of the "surplus population" require uniquely tailored strategies of social control.

"Social junk" are those whose spirits and minds are shattered; they are the deinstitutionalized mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts, and cast-off impoverished seniors; the lonely, beaten drifters with no expectations of a future and little will to fight. This population - the collateral damage of unchecked market economics-is managed through spatial and social containment. They must be driven away from the beaches, malls, and tony shopping areas of resort towns, financial districts, and the pleasure zones of theme park cities. They are, as Mathiesen put it, "sand in the machine." They pose an ontological threat to market social relations but they rarely coalesce into an organized political threat.

The other segment of the surplus population-"social dynamite" - are those who pose an actual or potential political challenge. They are that population which threatens to explode: the impoverished low-wage working class and unemployed youth who have fallen below the statistical radar, but whose spirits are not broken and whose expectations for a decent life and social inclusion are dangerously alive and well. They are the class that suffers from "relative deprivation." Their poverty is made all the more unjust because it is experienced in contrast to the spectacle of opulence and the myths of social mobility and opportunity. This is the class from which the Black Panthers and the Young Lords arose in the sixties and from which sprang the gangs of the 1980s. In the 1930s this same class provided the brawn for the Communist Party-organized Unemployed Councils that forcibly stopped evictions in New York's Lower East Side.

Thus social dynamite is a threat to the class and racial hierarchies upon which the private enterprise system depends. This group cannot simply be swept aside. Controlling them requires both a defensive policy of containment and an aggressive policy of direct attack and active destabilization. They are contained and crushed, confined to the ghetto, demoralized and pilloried in warehouse public schools, demonized by a lurid media, sent to prison, and at times dispatched by lethal injection or police bullets. This is the class or more accurately the caste, because they are increasingly people of color-which must be constantly undermined, divided, intimidated, attacked, discredited, and ultimately kept in check with what Fanon called the "language of naked force."

Carrying the big stick: Paramilitary policing

For a sneak preview of a future American police state, travel south from the comfortable illusions of the San Francisco Bay Area on Interstate 99 into the dirty air of California's Central Valley, to Fresno, a sprawling, poorly planned city of 400,000. Pass the forest of pole-perched McDonald's, Best Western, and Motel 6 signs and turn off on one of the city's southern exits into the sprawling ghetto of the southwest side. There, on the pocked streets, among the stucco bungalows and dying rail yards, you'll find massive paramilitary police operations underway on almost any night of the week . . .

It's a cold October evening, a helicopter clatters overhead, sweeping its lights across the shabby trees and flat homes. Nearby in the shadows, three squads of ten police officers in combat boots, black fatigues, and body armor lock and load their Heckler and Koch (H&K) MP-54 submachine guns (the same weapons used by the elite Navy SEALs) and fan out through the ghetto. Meet Fresno's Violent Crime Suppression Unit (VCSU), local law enforcement's "special forces" and America's most aggressive SWAT team. Since 1994 these soldier-cops have been conducting the criminal justice equivalent of search and destroy missions in Fresno's "gang-ridden" badlands. "It's a war," explains a police spokesperson. ~

Paramilitary policing-that is, enforcement using the equipment, training, rhetoric, and group tactics of war-is on the rise nationwide. Fresno's VCSU is only the most extreme example of America's more than 30,000 paramilitary Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. First developed by a young LAPD commander named Daryl Gates in 1966 (see chapter one), SWAT teams also known as "tactical" or paramilitary policing units-were conceived as an urban counterinsurgency bulwark. As one early SWAT officer explained: "Those people out there - the radicals, the revolutionaries, and the cop haters - are damned good at using shotguns, bombs or setting ambushes, so we've got to be better at what we do." Tactical units still treat policing as war, and that is what makes them fundamentally dangerous. 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.

The culture of militarism

In reality, military technology and training do not make people safer. Military gear brings embedded in it a set of militaristic social relations. Aggressive group tactics, automatic weapons, and infrared scopes all displace and preclude the social skills, forbearance, and individual discretion essential to accountable and effective civilian policing. The metaphor of war also implies the possibility of victory in which one side vanquishes another. Thus one impact of the new paramilitary police technology is a "culture of militarism" that gestates in the world of tactical policing. Peter Kraska, the pre-eminent sociologist of SWAT, argues that young officers find the military regalia of SWAT "culturally intoxicating." In part this is because "the elite self perception and status granted these police units stems from the high status military special operations groups have in military culture."

But the military world-view is not confined to the ranks of SWAT. Tactical units, having close relations with the armed forces, act as ideological transmission-belts between the military and the regular police. As we saw above, the use of automatic weapons is already spreading from the military to SWAT teams, and from there to regular cops. Promulgating the gospel of war and "special ops" is even written into the mission of many tactical units. Fresno's VCSU, like the L.A. and Miami SWAT teams, spends much of its time training regular rank-and-file police in the special arts of what increasingly looks like low-intensity conflict, or counterinsurgency warfare.

The culture of militarism is also fostered by the weapons industry, professional associations of tactical officers (which are organized at a state, regional, and national level), and a slew of magazines, books, and videos aimed at cops and gun freaks. Foremost among these "cultural mediators" is the National Tactical Officers Association (the largest SWAT officers association) and its publication Tactical Edge, which is marketed exclusively to police; civilians are prohibited from subscribing. Tactical Edge is best described as "news you can use" for SWAT officers. Articles cover new law enforcement technology (long exegeses on ammunition testing are common), tactics, conferences, and the politics of managing SWAT teams in what the authors usually perceive as a misinformed and hostile political environment. Many of the writers have impressive backgrounds in policing, spooking, and law enforcement planning. And most of what appears in Tactical Edge has a pragmatic, clinical tone. For example:

The sniper team is most often considered to have primary responsibility for delivering "real time" intelligence information during the course of an operation. Don't forget, however, that the officers manning the inner perimeter are in excellent positions to complement and expand upon a sniper's efforts in this area. By virtue of their location, inner perimeter team members are often in better positions to detect both visual and audible indicators of activity that can be crucial to identifying a suspect's location and anticipating his actions.

Less secretive and very widely read is the magazine SWAT, subtitled "Special Weapons and Tactics for the Prepared American." Published by Larry Flint, of Hustler fame, SWAT's ammunition and weapons reviews are peppered with lines like "tactical officers and home owners will be glad to know . . ." These panegyrics generally read like pornography for gun nuts and over-eager cops. For example:

During penetration, the prestressed Quick Shok projectile expands rapidly and then splits into three even sections. These segments or fragments penetrate in separate directions in an ever-widening pattern inside a soft target. Fragmentation is the main cause of tissue disruption.

Like Tactical Edge, SWAT is replete with articles analyzing new hollow-point shells, fragmenting rounds, bean-bag rounds, H&K weapons, training opportunities, etc. But S WA T also indulges in easy-reading profiles of tactical squads and special operations groups from around the world. Dozens of similar cop-oriented publications and scores of books and videos also promulgate the paramilitary, technophilic police culture. Woven into this discourse is a right-wing political world-view in which impending chaos is held back only by the besieged, misunderstood men and women of law enforcement who, despite the efforts of pernicious liberals, endeavor to protect the public and face up to the ever greater challenge of "better armed criminals . . . bigger and more violent street gangs . . . increased numbers of extremists [and] increased violent crime."

Conclusion: The spectacle of terror

If there is a parable to be drawn from the story of paramilitary policing in the US, it is that the political theatrics of terror are by no means dead. Physical terror and spectacular displays of violence are shll central to the state's control of the dangerous classes. The helicopters, guns, and constantly barking dogs of the American tactical army are a blunt semaphore to the lumpen classes and working poor. So too are the frequent gang sweeps, field interviews, and curfew busts. In all cases the message is clear: "They wouldn't do this in north Fresno," is the constant refrain from that city's working class African Americans and Latinos. 'The VCSU, like many SWAT teams, even brags about the "deterrent" effect of its high-profile ruthlessness. The point is that ritualized displays of terror are built into American policing. Spectacle is a fundamental part of how the state controls poor people. As one VCSU sergeant put it: "They see our big gray SWAT bus, and the weapons, and they know we mean business."

If violent theatrics help insinuate the power of the state into the everyday life of the ghetto, then Michel Foucault's thesis-that power is increasingly exercised through relatively invisible, increasingly medicalized discursive means, such as psychiatry, psychology, medicine, and social sciences-seems in need of revision.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the history of punishment and social control in Europe (or more particularly France) involves a shift from punishing the body directly to controlling subjectivity, the soul, or the human interior, thus making bodies docile and useful. Foucault focuses on the spectacular public torture rituals of the ancien regime, in which the sovereign re-established power by taking revenge upon the body of the criminal. Foucault then traces the ruptures that lead to modern "disciplinary" forms of control; forms of power that act upon human consciousness and subjectivity, and thus enlist us in the useful, productive regulation of ourselves and our bodies. Thus he writes, ''[t]he soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy: the soul is the prison of the body."

For Foucault this shift is not a history of improved human rights or moral progress, but rather one of increasingly effective, totalizing, and pernicious mechanisms of social regulation. While public executions may at first glance seem rather a muscular expression of legal power, they were, as Foucault argues, dangerously inefficient, wasteful, and almost haphazard affairs. Foremost among public torture's inefficiencies was the role of the crowd, to which far too much power was distributed. The spectators, a central part of the ritual of public torture and execution, sometimes rebelled and rioted, attacking the scaffold to free or kill the prisoners and in other ways disrupt the power of the sovereign. As a result punishment was increasingly hidden and professionalized, its effects made more constant and continuous. The ancient art of torture and confession transmogrified into the modern methods of investigation and interrogation by which judicial truth and the inner workings of the modern delinquent are known. And thus was born the criminal subject, with free will, a sense of morality, and a "soul."

This progression, away from sovereign power towards "disciplinary power" or "bio-power" is, for Foucault, linked to the development of capitalism and industrial society's need for more constant and totalizing exploitation of bodies. "Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced, 'docile' bodies. Discipline increases the force of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminished these same forces of the body (in political terms of obedience).

From the vantage point of the late sixties, the height of the therapeutic, rehabilitation era, the age of "full employment" in many European economies, this argument made sense. The increasing embourgeoisement of the European and American working classes, the medicalization of social problems like poverty, and the totalizing modernist faith in rational and technical solutions to all human problems, gave resonance to the continued progression of Foucault's thesis. In the name of science and increased humanity, social control was achieved less and less through the semiotics of physical terror and increasingly through scientific explanations and therapeutic interventions that turned the deviant into his or her own regulator, thus producing useful and docile bodies.

But as the class terrain of advanced capitalist society began to bifurcate in response to the profit crisis of the early seventies and its neoliberal solutions, so too has social control. The middle classes still immerse themselves in the discursive prisons of "self-help" and self-actualization; their deviance is "sickness" (addictions, compulsions, and other maladies); their cure is an attempt to function better, realize their "full potential," maximum health, find spiritual "wholeness," achieve "proper time management," business success, etc. But on the other side of the class divide, amidst the social and economic wreckage of the down-sized American dream, the energy of bodies and minds is not so needed. Here deviance is no longer seen as individual sickness, as it was during rehabilitation's heyday. Rather, the surplus classes are simply bad people made so by a corrosive "culture of poverty" or, in the Charles Murray school of thought, by crypto-racist, "genetic" deficiencies. Thus the "super-predators" - as neoconservative criminologist Di lulio calls the impoverished pre-teens of America-and "lost generations" of the ghetto cannot be saved, or used efficiently. And so we see state power once again manifest in an increasingly violent, ritualized politics of terror. As "actuarial" crime control becomes the name of the criminological game, whole communities become the target of social control.

After all, paramilitary sweeps, like the public executions of the ancien regime, "make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sovereign [or in this case, the modern state and its police]. The public execution [like a paramilitary police sweep] did not re-establish justice: it reactivated power." Nor are SWAT operations in public space the only site of such ritualized displays: the courts, the jail house visiting room, the cell block, and the endless - seemingly looped-real-life action footage of shows like Cops, LAPD, and True Stories of the Highway Patrol all serve to distribute terror into the everyday lives of the poor. This class-biased shift away from reform toward an updated discourse of evil makes sense: many bodies-particularly those of young working class and lumpen men of color-are superfluous to capital's valorization. A growing stratum of "surplus people" is not being efficiently used by the economy. So instead they must be controlled and contained and, in a very limited way, rendered economically useful as raw material for a growing corrections complex.

Lockdown America

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