Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

Radley Balko's new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces is a sobering look at how modern police, especially via SWAT teams, are terrorizing America.  A good chunk of the book is anecdote after depressing anecdote detailing the special-ops style police raids that have drastically increased in frequency in recent years.  Balko details how these raids:
  • often operate without a warrant, or functionally without one (no-knock warrants)
  • leave a trail of property destruction, sometimes via tanks bursting through a door
  • are often used where no force is required, as in serving a warrant
  • frequently result in the injury or death of people or animals
  • utilize dangerous equipment, such as flash-bang grenades and submachine guns
  • overwhelmingly used to handle nonviolent offenders, especially drug suspects
  • essentially are exempted from oversight, reporting and scrutiny
  • have often been conducted on the wrong house or location
  • are carried out by police who are all but immune to criminal prosecution
  • are subsidized and encouraged by national "anti-terrorism" efforts and the "war on drugs"
Balko devotes many pages to detailing how the legal and extralegal protections against these kinds of raids have been eroded over time.  He identifies the Castle Doctrine (the idea that one's home should be a place of privacy and sanctuary), the Third Amendment (prohibiting quartering of soldiers in homes) and the Fourth Amendment as the cornerstones of anti-SWAT protection that have been chipped away over the past several decades and, now, obliterated.  He spills ink on the people (Richard Nixon, Daryl Gates, Ronald Reagan), the institutions, the court cases and the laws that have brought about oppressive policing.

The most interesting part of the book, however, is Balko's beginning where he details the history of policing.  Before a brief description of the first police force in Rome and early English law enforcement, he traces the birth of modern policing as a consequence of urbanization.  Prior to that, he says, disputes were handled within pre-capitalist agricultural communities as "community mores, social stigma and shaming were the most important ways of maintaining order." (x)  Balko notes that the original American colonists despised several things that our modern police forces have come to use and resemble: a standing army, the general warrant and the writ of assistance.  He opens book with the provocative question "Are cops constitutional?" which underscores how alien the Founding Fathers would have found modern policing methods.

The alternatives to the unnecessary, violent, costly, and often deadly SWAT model are pretty obvious (namely, not conducting military-style raids!) and Balko gives several examples in his book of cities, such as San Diego and Washington DC, that have at various points tried more reasonable community policing methods and obtained a lower crime rate, arguably as a result.  Instead of heavily armed, military fatigued, stone-faced officers zipping around in police cruisers, police officers would live in the community, actually assist with people's problems (imagine that!), walk the streets and interface with citizens, employing force as an absolute last resort.

Balko's last chapter provides a number of sensible policy proposals to reverse the militarization of the police: scale back the drug war, halt mission creep, increase transparency, initiate community policing, change police culture, and make police accountable.  Still, his celebration of the meager victory of having Maryland police keep records of SWAT team use at the end of the book gives a sense of what reform is up against -- the entire police-military-industrial complex and the inertia that it has acquired over the past fifty years.  Balko concludes that it is difficult to say that today's police forces are consistent with the principles of a free society.  He remarks that "the police today may be more militarized than the military" and says that we have entered "a police state writ small." (335)

Balko bills his book as not an "anti-cop" book but instead claims "if anything, this is an anti-politician book." (xv) Sure, politicians deserve their share of the blame for getting America to this point, but I would have liked to have seen a deeper analysis rather than using politicians as a convenient punching bag.  For a book that tries to answer the question "How did we get here?" (xiv) it would have been nice to see more reporting into the business forces that are tipping these politicians' hands.  It also would have benefitted the book to look at other factors (labor markets, urban planning, the prison system, etc.) rather than focusing on the surface phenomena of political bickering.

On the FISA Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing

(Originally posted at )

Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing (video heretranscripts here) on the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and their (lack of) oversight and accountability was pretty vacuous.  Seeing as how the committee virtually ensured nothing was at stake during the hearing, it was dreadfully boring.  Having slogged through the entire video recording, I almost want to write committee chair (and one of my senators) Dianne Feinstein and request three hours of my life back.
The vast majority of the
automatons participants seemed to rotate between three modes of operation:
  1. Bashing Edward Snowden and “the media” for exposure of the National Security Agency’s activities
  2. Emphasizing the legal and transparent nature of everything the NSA, FISC, etc. do
  3. Praising the dedication, patriotism, intelligence, etc. of the United States’ national security employees and the members of the committee
Taking a page from the Condoleezza Rice book of fearmongering, the committee members stoked fear about the constant terrorist threats that the United States is purportedly facing.  DiFi opened up the hearing with a completely irrelevant news update about the recent al-Shabaab attack in Kenya.  Several other members, notably NSA Director Keith Alexander, repeatedly implied that disrupting the NSA’s programs would result (or would have resulted) in terrorist attacks upon American soil.
Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden, the two on the intelligence committee who have been mildly critical of the NSA, were the lone exceptions to the hours-long monotony.  They at least asked some questions that could not be characterized as softballs, but were really unable to pursue a line of questioning given the five-minute limit that DiFi placed on each senator’s question and answer session with the panelists (Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole).
The hearing finished up with statements from two NSA supporters, Ben Wittes and Tim Edgar.  Their sycophantic performances ensured the hearing could conclude without any interesting information filtering through to the public.
Several senators in their non-questions to Alexander and Clapper seemed to have a less than adequate grasp of the hearing’s subject matter.  Marcy Wheeler comments that these senators “filibustered themselves so they wouldn’t have to ask any questions (and therefore betray ignorance).”
DiFi again should win the award for most supercilious defense of a secretive government national security program.  Opening the hearing with the statement that “The public has a misperception and that must be corrected,” she gaslighted throughout the hearing, uttering such ridiculous assertions as “Much of the press has called this a surveillance program.  It is not.”
It is very hard to escape the conclusion that Glenn Greenwald came to after watching the hearing: “The very idea that meaningful reform of the NSA will come out of this annexed, captured, corrupted Committee is ludicrous on its face.”
Coverage on the hearing:
Further commentary on the hearing:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Comments on Degendering Value by Anne Elizabeth Moore in Jacobin Magazine

The most recent issue of Jacobin Magazine devoted three articles to intellectual property (IP).  The first, Property and Theft by Peter Frase, introduces the other two, Locked Out by Sean Andrews and Degendering Value by Anne Elizabeth Moore.  I want to focus on Moore’s article here.

The majority of Moore’s text examines the gendered dimensions of patents and copyrights.  She reveals, for instance, that traditionally female activities such as cooking and sewing are not eligible for copyright or patent protection; 6% more women than men are denied patents; etc.  She also states at the outset:

[O]ur primary order of business in updating IP rights should be eradicating barriers — all gender barriers, as well as those of race, nationality, and physical ability — in access to opportunity. Even for those who would resist globalization. Even for those who plot its demise.

Which is a statement with which I heartily agree.  In fact, just sticking to copyrights for a second, I would advocate for complete abolition (as do others), which is one way (in fact, the only way I can see) of bringing a non-gendered IP system about.  But Moore instead advocates for a shuffling around of the laws based on more attentiveness to gender, etc.  In her last paragraph she concludes:

There may, I concede, be more radical solutions to IP reform that will implement gender parity but restrict corporate influence, and I am eager to hear them. But until they also correct for generations of cultural misogyny ... they should be dismissed as tainted by a values system fostered under biased IP laws.

I find this to be a very strange conclusion, especially for an article in a socialist journal.  Not only do I disagree with it, but Moore seems to be arguing against it in the rest of the article as well.  In this last paragraph she seems to argue that any IP reform that doesn’t abolish the gendered legal system should be dismissed out of hand.  But earlier she argues in favor of such reforms: “[W]e cannot wait for capitalism to self-destruct before we implement strategies to improve people’s lives right now.”  It seems to me that any part of the oppressive system ought to be dismantled if possible, and that includes most IP laws.

An analogy: suppose one was to argue that we shouldn’t repeal New York City’s infamously racist Stop and Frisk program until we can correct for generations of racism in America.  Clearly, repealing Stop and Frisk would be part of that program of social justice, not something we should wait to do until the much harder task of redressing generational wrongs transpires.

In any event, the idea that anyone should be advocating for copyright / patent extension to encroach more into the lives of women just seems wrong.  As a hypothetical, what if someone managed to copyright or patent the houndstooth pattern, or ratatouille?  Would that lead to similar “life-destroying” consequences as the Frase article documents for musical IP infringement?  I would rather not find out.

Is the Anti-NSA "Competitive Disadvantage" Argument as Strong as Civil Libertarians Think?

The National Security Agency’s assault against privacy has troubled many civil libertarians.  Since fighting for civil liberties is often a losing battle politically, especially when set against the claims of “national security,” many civil libertarians are trying to come up with arguments for dialing back surveillance that policy makers find more convincing.

One argument is that the civil libertarians are pushing these days is the claim that the surveillance-friendly American legal regime puts American companies at a competitive disadvantage when compared to companies of non-American origin.  The articles that I have seen seriously arguing this point all cite a short report called How Much Will PRISM Cost the U.S. Cloud Computing Industry? put out by an organization named The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The idea of competitive disadvantage carries a number of assumptions: first, that there are other countries whose legal regimes are less surveillance-friendly than the United States and, second, that a business or customer has sufficient information to make an informed decision between them.

Unfortunately, I think both of these premises are false.  First, using ITIF’s own report, we can undermine the first assumption:

While the reputations of U.S. cloud computing providers (even those not involved with PRISM) are unfortunately the ones being most tarnished by the NSA leaks, the reality is that most developed countries have mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) which allow them to access data from third parties whether or not the data is stored domestically. The market research firm IDC noted in 2012, “The PATRIOT Act is nothing special, indeed data stored in the US is generally better protected than in most European countries, in particular the UK.” In Germany (yes, the same country that wants to suspend data transfers to the United States) the G10 act gives German intelligence officials the ability to monitor telecommunications without a court order.

A Time Magazine article mentions the Chinese Cloud Valley initiative, but is anyone really going to favor the Great Firewall of China over the NSA in terms of surveillance?

The second assumption is also, I think, pretty weak.  The surveillance capabilities of a nation-state are often unknown or at best murky.  What power the surveillance apparatus may have may be extra-legal (that is, pretty much unregulated), or rely on novel interpretations of the law.  Case in point: the NSA.  

So, I don’t think the “competitive disadvantage” argument is that strong on the face of it.

A version of the argument I find more convincing is that countries don’t compete on actual privacy records but perceived privacy records.  That is, the more damning stories about American surveillance that get printed, the less psychologically appealing it is to customers to purchase American Internet / computer products, regardless of an actual hard-nosed, rational comparison of the relative merits of various countries’ privacy regimes.  But this version of the argument leads to the recommendation of tweaking the propaganda / news reporting on various countries’ surveillance rather than altering the underlying fundamentals of the surveillance apparatus, so I don’t think that’s a very productive point to argue if one is concerned about actual privacy.  Furthermore, this version of the argument casts the leadership qualities of business people in a questionable light, and I am sure one would not want to malign the entrepreneur-heroes that drive the world economy!

Is Copyright Racist?

Here is a novel argument against copyright.  At the top of a PDF of Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism, it reads:
COPYRIGHT: From a Counter-Racist perspective, this is nothing other than a mechanism employed by White Supremacists (Racists) that has been designed to control access to information by non-White people
I'm not sure if this comment was present in the original Césaire text or not.  I have a hunch it wasn't and was added by whoever created the PDF.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Speech at 99% Coalition Anti-Syria-Intervention Anti-Surveillance Anti-Pelosi Rally

I gave something approximate to this text as a speech at the Nancy Pelosi; Stop NSA's spying on US! rally.

Hello, my name is Danny and I'm with Restore the Fourth.

Let me try and connect the two issues we are here to talk about today, Syria and surveillance. I happened to visit Syria in 2006, before the start of the civil war. I saw many of Syria's treasures, some of which are being destroyed today, such as the Muslim Citadel in Aleppo, the Krak de Chevaliers in the countryside, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. But I also saw, in an imperfect way, the poor state of political freedom in the country -- there seemed to be a member of the police or secret police on nearly every city block.

Now I think it is fair to say that pre-civil war Syria was an authoritarian state; a police state where political freedoms were severely curtailed. It would be obscene to suggest that political freedom in America is anything like that now, but anyone who says "It can't happen here" is kidding themselves.

In fact, the United States has put in place what William Binney, a former National Security Agency employee, called a "turnkey totalitarian state." A key feature of this state is the ability to see what any citizen is doing at any time. The NSA has made it its goal to slurp up all communications of Americans -- phone calls, emails, text messages, location data, video chats, browsing activity, search terms, etc. This activity makes a mockery of the Fourth Amendment; of a person's inalienable right to privacy.

And of course, there are many other agencies that also surveil US citizens. During the May Day march in Oakland last year, my friends and I counted the number of law enforcement agencies monitoring us: California Highway Patrol, Oakland Police, Alameda County Sheriff, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Bart Police, Amtrak Police -- we may not live in a police state, but we do live in a security state and a surveillance state.

How do we beat back this erosion of freedom? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has suggested a new Church Committee. Personally, I think we ought to go further. I think we need a complete dismantling of the National Security Agency and the rest of the security state apparatus and criminal prosecutions for those that set it up.

Whatever you think might the solution might be, I think it's clear that Nancy Pelosi does not have it. Pelosi, as we know, has been working overtime to continue the surveillance state.

It's going to require a collective effort to defeat Pelosi's policies. If the surveillance issue matters to you, please get in touch with Restore the Fourth. Thanks.