Monday, September 16, 2013

The New Privateers:
Civil Forfeiture, Police Piracy, and the Third-Worldization of America

I know you're already mad about various injustices, but when you read Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker article, “Taken,” your blood will boil. It’s about the laws and practices – developed over the last 15-20 years as part of the "war on drugs" and the general encroachment of police-state tactics – regarding what is called “civil forfeiture.” And it’s about a lot more than that.

Forfeiture laws are touted as effective tools for destroying the empires of crime lords by seizing all the ill-gotten gains of their criminal activity. Criminal forfeiture laws – which are applied following conviction of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, before a judge, with legal representation and such – can, used reasonably (the problems here are another issue), provide for just that.  Civil forfeiture, on the other hand, is based on the legal theory that property does not have the rights of a person, and that therefore actions against property can be taken on the basis of mere suspicion or “probable cause,” with no need to prove a crime. So the cases will have goofy names like, “United States v. One Pearl Necklace.” Another feature of the pre-crime police-state paradigm, civil forfeiture laws make suspicious (property) presumptively criminal (activity), without having to prove any actual, you know, crime. They authorize the police to steal your cash, car, jewelry, home, whatever, without even asserting that a crime has been committed.

[Do you hear the echoes in how suspicion of terrorism becomes terrorism itself? In how I don’t have to prove American citizens Awlaki, father and son, are “terrorists” (whatever that is) before drone-killing them, because my suspicion that they might be is good enough? (We won’t even get into how suspicion=guilt regarding other little stuff, like, oh, chemical weapons.) Do you see how years of putting up with pre-crime tactics for the “war on drugs” has been training in compliance for the more radical presumptive-guilt tactics of the “war on terror”? Constantly selling “war”-inflected frameworks of legal exceptionalism, the state has used various opportunistic bogeymen – “communists,” “drug dealers,” “pedophiles,” terrorists” (Who cares about them?) – to lure citizens into accepting a creeping radical authoritarianism.  Preemptive forfeiture today, preemptive detention tomorrow too.]

The insidious wrinkle in all this, which makes civil forfeiture not only creepily authoritarian but also painfully, infuriatingly, predatory, is that state and federal civil-forfeiture laws have allowed the police forces and prosecutors who seize “suspicious” property to keep all of it, and, in many cases, to use it any way they see fit, including personal perks and bonuses. As Stillman points out, we’re talking everything from “Halloween costumes, Doo Dah Parade decorations,…credit-card late fees, [and] poultry-festival supplies,” to “a thousand-dollar donation to a Baptist congregation…. important to [the District Attorney’s] reelection,“ to “a twenty-one-thousand-dollar drug-prevention beach party,” to “a city marshal’s ten-thousand-dollar personal bonus” and another officer’s “total of forty thousand dollars in bonuses.”  Stillman reports: “In Hunt County, Texas, I found officers scoring personal bonuses of up to twenty-six thousand dollars a year, straight from the forfeiture fund. In Titus County, forfeiture pays the assistant district attorney’s entire salary.” In other words, the real practice of civil forfeiture has become a lucrative system of “policing for profit,” a system that has literally legalized highway robbery and turned police into pirates.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Syria: No Better Angels

In my last post on Syria, I commented that “Short of widespread popular unrest, on issues like this, the will of the people counts for nothing against the exigencies of imperialism and Zionism, as understood by the American political elite,” that “there would be no challenging debate in the US Congress like that in the British Parliament,” and that “a combination of domestic political pressure that, along with international reluctance, [which would] create an effective pushback against Obama’s momentum towards war” was “not likely.” I was 100% certain of, and would have bet heavily on, a strike on Syria within a few days.

I am surprised and happy to see that I would have lost that bet. Indeed, there is substantially more than a glimmer of pushback on a number of fronts.  The British parliament’s rejection of a military attack on Syria turned out to be a wedge blow that opened crucial cracks in the hitherto seemingly-impervious American imperial edifice. It pushed Obama into going to Congress for a vote, which bought time in which the American people could think about the case and not just follow the leader, and in which the media would have to open the window of information and analysis at least a bit more than usual.

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