Something Wicked this Way Comes

CounterPunch: 2015  

 

The Patriot Act. The National Security Agency. The prison industrial complex.

 

Most Americans are aware of these actors and how they are stripping them of their rights, their privacy, their ability to function as engaged members of society.

 

But there are many other thespians in that play. Not necessarily hidden or unknown, but drifting separately on the fringes of the national consciousness, making it difficult to get a full picture of the emerging totalitarianism or to see the breadth of possible alliances bubbling within.

 

For example, the right to vote, supposedly settled when women and blacks got the franchise, is in danger. As a result of a 2013 lawsuit filed by an Alabama county, the Voting Rights Act has been gutted. On October 6 of this year, Alabama closed drivers license bureaus in 31 of its 67 counties, including every one that is at least 75 per cent black. Alabama requires a photo ID to vote and now nearly half the state will have problems getting one. 

 

In his 2008 book Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, Greg Palast detailed a mostly invisible side of the war against voting in the United States. When Barack Obama ran against John McCain…

 

 

767,023 provisional ballots were cast and not counted

1,451,116 ballots were “spoiled,” not counted

488,136 absentee ballots were mailed in but not counted

 

 

That’s 2,706,725 votes in the 2008 Presidential election that were not counted. In addition:

 

 

2,383,587 would-be voters had their registration rejected

491,952 voters were registered but were wrongly purged from the rolls

320,000 properly registered voters were turned away from the polls because they didn’t have an acceptable ID

 

 

In another dangerous attack on voting, the state of Michigan has installed “emergency financial managers” in several cities, including Detroit. This makes the right to vote essentially meaningless. EMFs reign supreme over city councils, school boards, and mayors elected by local voters. On a whim, emergency managers can write up new laws, cancel labor contracts, or sell off public property on the cheap to corporations.

 

In Benton Harbor, Michigan, the local corporate-friendly EMF has been opposed by a movement led by the Rev. Edward Pinkney. To clear the way for a complete civic takeover by Whirlpool, the city’s most powerful corporation, Pinkney was arrested on charges of changing dates on petitions during a recall election of corporate-backed Mayor James Hightower. Despite a lack of evidence, Pinkney was convicted and is now in prison. Previously, he was incarcerated for quoting the Bible in court.

 

Pinkney isn’t the only public figure who’s been punished for trying to use the electoral process for the people’s benefit. Despite restrictions on ballot access for all political parties except Democrat and Republican, Green Party Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates Jill Stein  and Cheri Honkala were able get on the ballot in most states in 2012, garnering nearly half a million votes. However, when they attempted to enter the Presidential debates they were arrested and handcuffed to chairs overnight.

 

The right to vote isn’t the only form of public participation under attack. The aptly named SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit is a lawsuit that seeks to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of legal defense until they abandon their opposition.

 

SLAPP suits have been used against people or groups who speak out against suburban developments that would harm the environment or who try to stop oil pipeline construction. They have been used by landlords against tenants, against those trying to stop foreclosures, and against Radio Shack employees who filed a class action lawsuit over the issue of unpaid overtime.

 

The corporations who file SLAPP suits almost never win in court but that’s not their goal. Their aim is to force people to use all their time and money to defend themselves, while sending a message of intimidation to all.

 

Intimidation also flows through the halls of academe. There has been an explosive growth of the number of part-time adjunct faculty who cannot freely exercise their First Amendment rights without risking their jobs. No matter how long they have worked at an institution, they can be let go without cause at the end of a semester.

 

In February, the Kansas legislature introduced a bill that would require colleges to prohibit employees who write newspaper opinion columns from including their “official title.” This applies to all faculty, adjunct or tenured. Rep. Virgil Peck, the man who introduced the bill, is a guy who likes to intimidate. During a 2011 appropriations committee meeting, Peck said that illegal immigrants should be shot like feral hogs.

 

Just two years ago, the Board of Regents at the University of Kansas adopted a social media policy under which administrators are directed to fire employees if their social media posts are deemed “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” University of Kansas professor David Guth was placed on academic leave after tweeting criticism of the National Rifle Association. In North Carolina, lists of public employees who’d been arrested during Moral Monday protests were widely circulated throughout the state by wealthy opponents of Moral Monday. This was a warning shot accompanied by an obvious message: Why are we paying these salaries? Let’s fire them all!

 

Kansas college teacher Danny Alexander says: “We know we're being phased out, and paranoia over Kansas social media policies and restrictions on teacher free speech all feed a climate that makes the classroom feel more risky than ever.”

 

It’s certainly becoming risky to teach about climate change. Despite the inevitability of South Carolina’s recent thousand-year rain, North Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee have all passed laws designed to undermine the idea that climate change is real, putting pressure on teachers and state employees to give fossil fuels a clean bill of health. In Florida, state environmental officials have been instructed not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming. “Sea level rise” is to be described only as “nuisance flooding,” this in the state most susceptible to oceanic catastrophe. North Carolina passed a law which forbids the state to base coastal policies on the prediction of a three-foot sea level rise. That prediction was made by the state’s own Coastal Resources Commission.

 

In September, National Geographic, a nonprofit publication since its inception in 1888, was sold (along with the National Geographic cable channel) for $725 million to Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch has been one of the most vocal deniers of climate change. The National Geographic Society’s mission includes giving grants to scientists. Will scientists who tell the truth about climate change ever get grants under the new for-profit ownership?

 

Meanwhile, two young children in Pennsylvania were, according to The Guardian, “banned from talking about fracking for the rest of their lives” under terms of a settlement reached by their parents with Range Resources Corp., a major fracker. What on earth would cause mom and dad to make such a deal with the devil? Poverty is often part of such scenarios. For example, in California the five million residents who live within a mile of an oil or gas well have a poverty rate one third higher than the general population.

 

Going beyond fracking of freedom of expression, Homeland Security and the Border Patrol are, under cover of “protecting ports of entry,” interrogating, searching and arresting people in the so-called border zone, which is defined as one hundred miles inland from all U.S. borders. Doctrines of probable cause and freedom from search and seizure have been explicitly tossed out.  This is being done primarily in Texas but the legal authority for it extends all around the edges of the country, potentially affecting 200 million people. Two federal courts have already condoned such operations outside the hundred mile zone.

 

The authority for this suspension of the Constitution comes from Department of Justice regulations that were put in place in 1953 during the Cold War. Other ticking time bombs include the Clinton/Gore administration’s Telecom bill, which makes it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to distribute or promote by any means music that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy.” The definition of those terms is left up to prosecutors, who are encouraged to go after not just artists or record companies but bloggers and DJs too. Among the 91 Senators who voted for the bill was current Vice-President Joe Biden.

 

In 2003, under Biden’s leadership, Congress passed the RAVE Act (98-0 in the Senate, 400-25 in the House), supposedly to ensure the safety of young party-goers. But the law is not specific to raves and makes the organizers of almost any public event liable for prison time and $250,000 fines.

 

We are losing our rights because the economy is changing. When the majority of Americans had good jobs and the rest of the population could survive via the social safety net, the clampdown was more selective, less pervasive, and less violent. The polarization of wealth was not as extreme (corporations even paid taxes) and less effort was required to protect the one per cent.

 

Today the exponential growth of poverty threatens to create a discontented, ungovernable mass and the result is the rush to a full-blown police state. 49.7 million Americans are now poor and, according to an Associated Press study, nearly 80 per cent of the entire population is “near poverty.” Michael Snyder of the Economic Collapse Blog estimates the number of working-age Americans without a job at 102 million. This is certain to get worse--a 2013 Oxford Martin School study estimates that 47 per cent of all jobs will be automated over the next twenty years.

 

Any one of us who is jobless or foreclosed upon or hungry could become a leader of the people. Overnight. So the entire population is now under surveillance.  While we have become accustomed to defending our rights mainly through legal or legislative strategies, the noose which tightens daily around our necks should convince us to think outside those boxes. To regain and expand our liberty, we have to face the reality that massive poverty and freedom cannot co-exist.

 

Lee Ballinger: rockrap@aol.com