Archive for November, 2014

If you dress police officers up as soldiers and you put them in military vehicles and you give them military weapons, they adopt a warrior mentality. We fight wars against enemies, and the enemies are the people who live in our cities—particularly in communities of color.—Thomas Nolan, criminology professor and former police officer

Should police officer Darren Wilson be held accountable for the shooting death of unarmed citizen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014?

That the police officer was white and his victim black should make no difference. In a perfect world, it would not matter. In an imperfect world such as ours, however, racism is an effective propaganda tool used by the government and the media to distract us from the real issues.

As a result, the national dialogue about the dangers of militarized, weaponized police officers being trained to act like soldiers on the battlefield, shooting first and asking questions later, has shifted into a largely unspoken debate over race wars, class perceptions and longstanding, deep-seated notions of who deserves our unquestioning loyalty and who does not.

Putting aside our prejudices, however, let’s not overlook the importance of Ferguson and this grand jury verdict. Tasked with determining whether Wilson should stand trial for Brown’s shooting, the grand jury ruled that the police officer will not face charges for the fatal shooting.

However, the greater question—whether anything will really change to rein in militarized police, police shootings, lack of accountability and oversight, and a military industrial complex with a vested interest in turning America into a war zone—remains unanswered.

Ferguson matters because it provides us with a foretaste of what is to come. It is the shot across the bow, so to speak, a warning that this is how we will all be treated if we do not tread cautiously in challenging the police state, and it won’t matter whether we’re black or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat. In the eyes of the corporate state, we are all the enemy.

This is the lesson of Ferguson.

Remember that in the wake of the shooting, Ferguson police officers clad in body armor, their faces covered with masks, equipped with assault rifles and snipers and riding armored vehicles, showed up in force to deal with protesters. Describing that show of force by police in Ferguson, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, stated, “This was a military force, and they were facing down an enemy.”

A Government of Wolves book coverYes, we are the enemy. As I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, since those first towers fell on 9/11, the American people have been treated like enemy combatants, to be spied on, tracked, scanned, frisked, searched, subjected to all manner of intrusions, intimidated, invaded, raided, manhandled, censored, silenced, shot at, locked up, and denied due process.

There was a moment of hope after Ferguson that perhaps things might change. Perhaps the balance would be restored between the citizenry and their supposed guardians, the police. Perhaps our elected officials would take our side for a change and oppose the militarization of the police. Perhaps warfare would take a backseat to more pressing national concerns.

That hope was short-lived.

It wasn’t long before the media moved on to other, more titillating stories. The disappearance of a University of Virginia college student and the search for her alleged abductor, the weeks-long man-hunt for an accused cop killer, the Republican electoral upset, a Rolling Stone expose on gang rapes at fraternity parties, Obama’s immigration amnesty plan, and the rape charges against Bill Cosby are just a few of the stories that have dominated the news cycle since the Ferguson standoff between police and protesters.

It wasn’t long before the American public, easily acclimated to news of government wrongdoing (case in point: the national yawn over the NSA’s ongoing domestic surveillance), ceased to be shocked, outraged or alarmed by reports of police shootings. In fact, the issue was nowhere to be found in this year’s run-up to Election Day, which was largely devoid of any pressing matters of national concern.

And with nary a hiccup, the police state marched steadily forth. In fact, aided and abetted by the citizenry’s short attention span, its easily distracted nature, and its desensitization to anything that occupies the news cycle for too long, it has been business as usual in terms of police shootings, the amassing of military weapons, and the government’s sanctioning of police misconduct. Most recently, Ohio police shot and killed a 12-year-old boy who was seen waving a toy gun at a playground.

Rubbing salt in our wounds, in the wake of Ferguson, police agencies not only continued to ramp up their military arsenals but have used them whenever possible. In fact, in anticipation of the grand jury’s ruling, St. Louis police actually purchased more equipment for its officers, including “civil disobedience equipment.”

Just a few weeks after the Ferguson showdown, law enforcement agencies took part in an $11 million manhunt in Pennsylvania for alleged cop killer Eric Frein. Without batting an eye, the news media switched from outraged “shock” over the military arsenal employed by police in Ferguson to respectful “awe” of the 48-day operation that cost taxpayers $1.4 million per week in order to carry out a round-the-clock dragnet search of an area with a 5-mile-radius.

The Frein operation brought together 1,000 officers from local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as SWAT teams and cutting edge military equipment (high-powered rifles, body armor, infrared sensors, armored trucks, helicopters and unmanned, silent surveillance blimps)—some of the very same weapons and tactics employed in Ferguson and, a year earlier, in Boston in the wake of the marathon bombing.

The manhunt was a well-timed, perfectly choreographed exercise in why Americans should welcome the police state: for our safety, of course, and to save the lives of police officers.

Opposed to any attempt to demilitarize America’s police forces, the Dept. of Homeland Security has been chanting this safety mantra in testimony before Congress: Remember 9/11. Remember Boston. Remember how unsafe the world was before police were equipped with automatic weapons, heavily armored trucks, night-vision goggles, and aircraft donated by the DHS.

Contrary to DHS rhetoric, however, militarized police—twitchy over perceived dangers, hyped up on their authority, and protected by their agencies, the legislatures and the courts—have actually made communities less safe at a time when violent crime is at an all-time low and lumberjacks, fishermen, airline pilots, roofers, construction workers, trash collectors, electricians and truck drivers all have a higher risk of on-the-job fatalities than police officers.

Moreover, as Senator Tom Coburn points out, the militarization of America’s police forces has actually “created some problems that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.” Among those problems: a rise in the use of SWAT team raids for routine law enforcement activities (averaging 80,000 a year), a rise in the use and abuse of asset forfeiture laws by police agencies, a profit-driven incentive to criminalize lawful activities and treat Americans as suspects, and a transformation of the nation’s citizenry into suspects.

Ferguson provided us with an opportunity to engage in a much-needed national dialogue over how police are trained, what authority they are given, what weaponry they are provided, and how they treat those whom they are entrusted with protecting.

Caught up in our personal politics, prejudices and class warfare, we have failed to answer that call. In so doing, we have played right into the hands of all those corporations who profit from turning America into a battlefield by selling the government mine-resistant vehicles, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and drones.

As long as we remain steeped in ignorance, there will be no reform.

As long as we remain divided by our irrational fear of each other, there will be no overhaul in the nation’s law enforcement system or institution of an oversight process whereby communities can ensure that local police departments are acting in accordance with their wishes and values.

And as long as we remain distracted by misguided loyalties to military operatives who are paid to play the part of the government’s henchmen, there will be no saving us when the events of Ferguson unfold in our own backyards.

When all is said and done, it doesn’t matter whose “side” you’re on as far as what transpired in Ferguson, whether you believe that Michael Brown was a victim or that Darren Wilson was justified in shooting first and asking questions later.

What matters is that we not allow politics and deep-rooted prejudices of any sort to divert our efforts to restore some level of safety, sanity and constitutional balance to the role that police officers play in our communities. If we fail to do so, we will have done a disservice to ourselves and every man, woman and child in this country who have become casualties of the American police state.

ATLANTA, Ga. — Atlanta International Airport has changed its Wi-Fi policy to address violations of the U.S. Constitution’s assurances of free speech and due process which were brought to light in a letter from The Rutherford Institute to the Airport’s general manager earlier this month. Responding to the letter from Institute attorneys warning that the prior policy jeopardizes the rights of all travelers who pass through its portal and opens the Airport to legal challenges, the general manager wrote that the Wi-Fi policy has been amended to address the First Amendment problems raised in the Institute’s letter and affirmed that the Airport will not attempt to limit or monitor the expression of patrons conducted using the Airport’s Wi-Fi network. The Institute’s letter specifically pointed out that the airport’s Wi-Fi policy barring users from transmitting “hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” speech was so vague as to prohibit any speech that the censor—in this case, government officials—deems objectionable.

“There is perhaps no right more sacred in our Constitution than the right of individuals to speak as they believe, even though we may not always agree with what they have to say,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While we all have an interest in discouraging behavior that demeans, harms or exposes another to abuse, we must balance that interest against the rights of society at large, remembering always that it is ‘we the people’ and not government censors who should be responsible for maintaining that vital balance between liberty and security.”

As reported by The Washington Post, the Atlanta International Airport required travelers to agree to abide by its “Wi-Fi System Acceptable Use Policy” in order to access its internet. According to the airport’s Wi-Fi policy, users may not: “Transmit any material (by uploading, posting, email or otherwise) that is unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, obscene, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” The Wi-Fi policy also required users to affirm that they will not: “Transmit any material (by uploading, posting, email or otherwise) any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, ‘junk mail,’ ‘spam,’ ‘chain letters,’ ‘pyramid schemes’ or any other form of solicitation.” In weighing in on the issue, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute pointed out that as a government-owned and operated entity under the jurisdiction of the City of Atlanta through the Department of Aviation, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is under an obligation to comply with the protections of the First Amendment in its activities. As such, although the government is not required to provide wireless Internet access to airport patrons, once it does so, the government-provided Internet becomes a public forum which must comply with the mandates of the First Amendment and which cannot discriminate on the content of speech. Additionally, Institute attorneys noted that the ban on transmitting solicitous materials is overbroad and would result in protected speech, including political speech, being targeted alongside that of chain mailers and spammers.

Back in the heyday of the old Soviet Union, a phrase evolved to describe gullible western intellectuals who came to visit Russia and failed to notice the human and other costs of building a communist utopia. The phrase was “useful idiots” and it applied to a good many people who should have known better. I now propose a new, analogous term more appropriate for the age in which we live: useful hypocrites. That’s you and me, folks, and it’s how the masters of the digital universe see us. And they have pretty good reasons for seeing us that way. They hear us whingeing about privacy, security, surveillance, etc., but notice that despite our complaints and suspicions, we appear to do nothing about it. In other words, we say one thing and do another, which is as good a working definition of hypocrisy as one could hope for.—John Naughton, The Guardian

“Who needs direct repression,” asked philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “when one can convince the chicken to walk freely into the slaughterhouse?”

In an Orwellian age where war equals peace, surveillance equals safety, and tolerance equals intolerance of uncomfortable truths and politically incorrect ideas, “we the people” have gotten very good at walking freely into the slaughterhouse, all the while convincing ourselves that the prison walls enclosing us within the American police state are there for our protection.

Call it doublespeak, call it hypocrisy, call it delusion, call it whatever you like, but the fact remains that while we claim to value freedom, privacy, individuality, equality, diversity, accountability, and government transparency, our actions and those of our government overseers contradict these much-vaunted principles at every turn.

For instance, we disdain the jaded mindset of the Washington elite, and yet we continue to re-elect politicians who lie, cheat and steal. We disapprove of the endless wars that drain our resources and spread thin our military, and yet we repeatedly buy into the idea that patriotism equals supporting the military. We chafe at taxpayer-funded pork barrel legislation for roads to nowhere, documentaries on food fights, and studies of mountain lions running on treadmills, and yet we pay our taxes meekly and without raising a fuss of any kind. We object to the militarization of our local police forces and their increasingly battlefield mindset, and yet we do little more than shrug our shoulders over SWAT team raids and police shootings of unarmed citizens.

And then there’s our love-hate affair with technology, which sees us bristling at the government’s efforts to monitor our internet activities, listen in on our phone calls, read our emails, track our every movement, and punish us for what we say on social media, and yet we keep using these very same technologies all the while doing nothing about the government’s encroachments on our rights. This contradiction is backed up by a recent Pew Research Center study, which finds that “Americans say they are deeply concerned about privacy on the web and their cellphones. They say they do not trust Internet companies or the government to protect it. Yet they keep using the services and handing over their personal information.”

Let me get this straight: the government continues to betray our trust, invade our privacy, and abuse our rights, and we keep going back for more?

A Government of Wolves book coverSure we do. After all, the alternative—taking a stand, raising a ruckus, demanding change, refusing to cooperate, engaging in civil disobedience—is a lot of work. What we fail to realize, however, is that by tacitly allowing these violations to continue, we not only empower the tyrant but we feed the monster. In this way, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, what starts off as small, occasional encroachments on our rights, justified in the name of greater safety, becomes routine, wide-ranging abuses so entrenched as to make reform all but impossible.

We saw this happen with the police and their build-up of military arsenal, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs. The result: a transformation of America’s law enforcement agencies into extensions of the military, populated with battle-hardened soldiers who view “we the people” as enemy combatants.

The same thing happened with the government’s so-called efforts to get tough on crime by passing endless laws outlawing all manner of activities. The result: an explosion of laws criminalizing everything from parenting decisions and fishing to gardening and living off the grid.

And then there were the private prisons, marketed as a way to lower the government’s cost of locking up criminals. Only it turns out that private prisons actually cost the taxpayer more money and place profit incentives on jailing more Americans.

Are you starting to notice a pattern yet? The government lures us in with a scheme to make our lives better, our families safer, and our communities more secure, and then once we buy into it, they slam the trap closed. Doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about red light cameras, DNA databases, surveillance cameras, or zero tolerance policies—they all result in “we the people” being turned into enemy #1.

In this way, the government campaign to spy on our phone calls, letters and emails was sold to the American people as a necessary tool in the war on terror. Instead of targeting terrorists, however, the government has turned us into potential terrorists, so that if we dare say the wrong thing in a phone call, letter, email or on the internet, especially social media, we end up investigated, charged and possibly jailed.

This criminalization of free speech, which is exactly what the government’s prosecution of those who say the “wrong” thing using an electronic medium amounts to, is at the heart of Elonis v. The United States, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

If you happen to be one of the 1.31 billion individuals who use Facebook or one of the 255 million who tweet their personal and political views on Twitter, you might want to pay close attention, because the case has broad First Amendment implications for where the government can draw the line when it comes to expressive speech that is protected and permissible versus speech that could be interpreted as connoting a criminal intent.

The case arose after Anthony Elonis, an aspiring rap artist, used personal material from his life as source material and inspiration for rap lyrics which he then shared on Facebook. For instance, shortly after Elonis’ wife left him and he was fired from his job, his lyrics included references to killing his ex-wife, shooting a classroom of kindergarten children, and blowing up an FBI agent who had opened an investigation into his postings.

Despite the fact that Elonis routinely accompanied his Facebook posts with disclaimers that his lyrics were fictitious, and that he was using such writings as an outlet for his frustrations, he was charged with making unlawful threats (although it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail.

Elonis is not the only Facebook user to be targeted for the content of his posts. In a similar case making its way through the courts, Marine veteran Brandon Raub was arrested by a swarm of FBI, Secret Service agents and local police and forcibly detained in a psychiatric ward because of controversial song lyrics and political views posted on his Facebook page. He was eventually released after a circuit court judge dismissed the charges against him as unfounded.

Earlier this year, rapper Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley were sentenced to jail terms of up to six years for a YouTube video calling on listeners to “kill these cops ‘cause they don’t do us no good.” Although the rapper contended that he had no intention of bringing harm to the police, he was convicted of making terroristic threats and intimidation of witnesses.

And then there was Franklin Delano Jeffries II, an Iraq war veteran, who, in the midst of a contentious custody battle for his daughter, shared a music video on YouTube and Facebook in which he sings about the judge in his case, “Take my child and I’ll take your life.” Despite his insistence that the lyrics were just a way for him to vent his frustrations with the legal battle, Jeffries was convicted of communicating threats and sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The common thread running through all of these cases is the use of social media to voice frustration, grievances, and anger, sometimes using language that is overtly violent. The question the U.S. Supreme Court must now decide in Elonis is whether this activity, in the absence of any overt intention of committing a crime, rises to the level of a “true threat” or whether it is, as I would contend, protected First Amendment activity. (The Supreme Court has defined a “true threat” as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”)

The internet and social media have taken the place of the historic public square, which has slowly been crowded out by shopping malls and parking lots. As such, these cyber “public squares” may be the only forum left for citizens to freely speak their minds and exercise their First Amendment rights, especially in the wake of legislation that limits access to our elected representatives. Unfortunately, the internet has become a tool for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.

Indeed, the government, a master in the art of violence, intrusion, surveillance and criminalizing harmless activities, has repeatedly attempted to clamp down on First Amendment activity on the web and in social media under the various guises of fighting terrorism, discouraging cyberbullying, and combatting violence. Police and prosecutors have also targeted “anonymous” postings and messages on forums and websites, arguing that such anonymity encourages everything from cyber-bullying to terrorism, and have attempted to prosecute those who use anonymity for commercial or personal purposes.

We would do well to tread cautiously in how much authority we give the government to criminalize free speech activities and chill what has become a vital free speech forum. Not only are social media and the Internet critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, but they also serve as release valves to those who may be angry, seething, alienated or otherwise discontented. Without an outlet for their pent-up anger and frustration, these thoughts and emotions fester in secret, which is where most violent acts are born.

In the same way, free speech in the public square—whether it’s the internet, the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court or a college campus—brings people together to express their grievances and challenge oppressive government regimes. Without it, democracy becomes stagnant and atrophied. Likewise, if free speech is not vigilantly protected, democracy is more likely to drift toward fear, repression, and violence. In such a scenario, we will find ourselves threatened with an even more pernicious injury than violence itself: the loss of liberty. In confronting these evils, more speech, not less, is the remedy.

RICHMOND, Va. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Virginia man who was arrested by City of Hopewell police officers as he was engaged in a First Amendment protest against President Obama while lawfully carrying a rifle. In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Rutherford Institute attorneys allege that the police violated Brandon Howard’s First Amendment right to free speech, Second Amendment right to bear arms, and Fourth Amendment right to be free from a groundless arrest when they confronted Howard with guns drawn and ordered him to the ground on the mistaken belief that Howard was violating the law by being in public with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Although Virginia law forbids carrying a concealed weapon and the public display of a rifle in certain cities and counties, Howard’s possession and display of the rifle was wholly legal and did not make him subject to an arrest. Moreover, the City of Hopewell Police Department has admitted in writing that the incident involved a violation of department policy.

“The U.S. government has unfortunately adopted a ‘do what I say, not what I do’ mindset when it comes to Americans’ rights overall. Nowhere is this double standard more evident than in the government’s attempts to arm itself to the teeth, all the while viewing as suspect anyone who dares to legally own a gun, let alone use one,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Indeed, as this case shows, while it still technically remains legal to own a firearm in America, possessing one can now get you pulled over, searched, arrested, subjected to all manner of surveillance, treated as a suspect without ever having committed a crime, shot at and killed. This same rule does not apply to law enforcement officials, however, who are armed to the hilt and rarely given more than a slap on the wrist for using their weapons against unarmed individuals.”

On Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, Brandon Howard arrived at an overpass above Interstate 295 in the City of Hopewell, Va., and displayed a 6 foot by 4 foot sign that read “Impeach Obama.” Howard was carrying a DMTS Panther Arms AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder on a strap, and a .380 caliber Bersa Thunder sidearm pistol in a belted holster on his waist. Howard lawfully owned each firearm and did not point or brandish them at any time while engaged in his First Amendment protest activity on the overpass. Howard displayed his protest sign for 30 minutes, but Howard did not directly engage with anyone. At about 5:30 p.m., a police officer pulled up to the area, remained in his car and observed Howard. Thereafter, three to five additional police cruisers arrived at the scene with emergency lights engaged. Approximately eight officers exited these vehicles with their guns drawn and ordered Howard to drop his sign and get on the ground with his hands spread above his head. Howard complied with the officers’ orders. Despite the fact that Howard at no time made any threatening action toward the officers or anyone else, one police officer allegedly asked Howard, “What do you think you are doing threatening people on my interstate?” Howard explained that he had not threatened anyone but was simply exercising his First and Second amendment rights. Howard was then handcuffed and transported to the police station, where he was left, handcuffed, in an interrogation room for 90 minutes, after which time he had his firearms returned and was released. A month later, the Deputy Chief of Police acknowledged in writing that an internal investigation had concluded that one of the officers violated department policy and would be disciplined and sent to remedial training. Attorney Raul Novo of Richmond, Va., is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.

GRESHAM, Oregon — The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of 27-year-old Fred Marlow, an Oregon resident who was arrested, jailed and charged with interfering and resisting arrest after he filmed a SWAT team raid that took place across the street from his apartment in Gresham, Oregon, and uploaded the footage to the internet. The footage shows police officers threatening Marlow, who was awoken by the sounds of “multiple bombs blasting and glass breaking” and ran outside to investigate only to be threatened with arrest if he didn’t follow orders and return inside.

Footage of the incident can be viewed at http://youtu.be/j-YwXgvtahM.

“Clearly, when police officers cease to look and act like civil servants or peace officers but instead look and act like soldiers occupying a hostile territory, it alters their perception of ‘we the people.’ However, those who founded this country believed that we were the masters and that those whose salaries we pay with our hard-earned tax dollars are our servants,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “If daring to question, challenge or even hesitate when a cop issues an order can get you charged with resisting arrest or disorderly conduct, you’re not the master in a master-servant relationship. In fact, you’re not even the servant—you’re the slave.”

According to Fred Marlow, he was awakened around 4 am on September 2, 2014, by the sounds of “multiple bombs blasting and glass breaking and my entire apartment shook repeatedly. I grabbed my iPad and ran outside as fast as I could to see what was going on. There were 5 or more Tank/military Trucks just cruising through my neighborhood.” Using his iPad, Marlow filmed a SWAT team raid of a neighbor’s home taking place across the street from his apartment, including police officers dressed in army green camouflage and standing beside an armored vehicle.

Warned by police to return inside or face arrest for interference, Marlow continued to film the exchange. “Go inside right now. You are interfering right now. You need to go inside right now. It’s a lawful order,” one police officer says. “You are going to go inside right now.” Insisting that it was not past curfew, he had no weapons, and he was on his own property, Marlow continued to assert his right to observe the goings on. After another office ordered all residents to stay inside while police serve their search warrant on the targeted home, Marlow informed the police that he was uploading the filmed footage to the internet, at which point he was arrested and charged with interference and resisting arrest and could face a fine of $5000.

In coming to Marlow’s assistance, The Rutherford Institute has arranged for attorneys to assist the Oregon resident in resolving the criminal charges against him.

Whether the mask is labeled fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat, our great adversary remains the apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across the frontier of the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this apparatus and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.—Simone Weil, French philosopher and political activist

It’s no coincidence that during the same week in which the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Yates v. United States, a case in which a Florida fisherman is being threatened with 20 years’ jail time for throwing fish that were too small back into the water, Florida police arrested a 90-year-old man twice for violating an ordinance that prohibits feeding the homeless in public.

A Government of Wolves book coverBoth cases fall under the umbrella of overcriminalization, that phenomenon in which everything is rendered illegal and everyone becomes a lawbreaker. As I make clear in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this is what happens when bureaucrats run the show, and the rule of law becomes little more than a cattle prod for forcing the citizenry to march in lockstep with the government.

John Yates, a commercial fisherman, was written up in 2007 by a state fish and wildlife officer who noticed that among Yates’ haul of red grouper, 72 were apparently under the 20-inch minimum legal minimum. Yates, ordered to bring the fish to shore as evidence of his violation of the federal statute on undersized catches, returned to shore with only 69 grouper in the crate designated for evidence. A crew member later confessed that, on orders from Yates, the crew had thrown the undersized grouper overboard and replaced them with larger fish. Unfortunately, they were three fish short. Sensing a bait-and-switch, prosecutors refused to let Yates off the hook quite so easily. Unfortunately, in prosecuting him for the undersized fish under a law aimed at financial crimes, government officials opened up a can of worms.

Arnold Abbott, 90 years old and the founder of a nonprofit that feeds the homeless, is facing a fine of $1000 and up to four months in jail for violating a city ordinance that makes it a crime to feed the homeless in public. Under the city’s ordinance, clearly aimed at discouraging the feeding of the homeless in public, organizations seeking to do so must provide portable toilets, be 500 feet away from each other, 500 feet from residential properties, and are limited to having only one group carry out such a function per city block. Abbott has been feeding the homeless on a public beach in Ft. Lauderdale every Wednesday evening for the past 23 years. On November 2, 2014, moments after handing out his third meal of the day, police reportedly approached the nonagenarian and ordered him to “‘drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” recalls Abbott. Abbott was arrested and fined. Three days later, Abbott was at it again, and arrested again.

That both of these incidents occurred in Florida is no coincidence. Remember, this is the state that arrested Nicole Gainey for letting her 7-year-old son walk to the park alone, even though it was just a few blocks from their house. If convicted, Gainey could have been made to serve up to five years in jail.

This is also the state that a few years back authorized police raids on barber shops in minority communities, resulting in barbers being handcuffed in front of customers, and their shops searched without warrants. All of this was purportedly done in an effort to make sure that the barbers’ licensing paperwork was up to snuff.

As if criminalizing fishing, charity, parenting decisions, and haircuts wasn’t bad enough, you could also find yourself passing time in a Florida slammer for such inane activities as singing in a public place while wearing a swimsuit, breaking more than three dishes per day, farting in a public place after 6 pm on a Thursday, and skateboarding without a license.

Despite its pristine beaches and balmy temperatures, Florida is no less immune to the problems plaguing the rest of the nation in terms of overcriminalization, incarceration rates, bureaucracy, corruption, and police misconduct. In fact, the Sunshine State has become a poster child for how a seemingly idyllic place can be transformed into a police state with very little effort. As such, it is representative of what is happening in every state across the nation, where a steady diet of bread and circuses has given rise to an oblivious, inactive citizenry content to be ruled over by an inflexible and highly bureaucratic regime.

This transformation of the United States from being a beacon of freedom to a locked down nation illustrates perfectly what songwriter Joni Mitchell was referring to when she wrote:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Only in our case, sold on the idea that safety, security and material comforts are preferable to freedom, we’ve allowed the government to pave over the Constitution in order to erect a concentration camp. The problem with these devil’s bargains, however, is that there is always a catch, always a price to pay for whatever it is we valued so highly as to barter away our most precious possessions.

We’ve bartered away our right to self-governance, self-defense, privacy, autonomy and that most important right of all—the right to tell the government to “leave me the hell alone.” In exchange for the promise of safe streets, safe schools, blight-free neighborhoods, lower taxes, lower crime rates, and readily accessible technology, health care, water, food and power, we’ve opened the door to militarized police, government surveillance, asset forfeiture, school zero tolerance policies, license plate readers, red light cameras, SWAT team raids, health care mandates, overcriminalization and government corruption.

In the end, such bargains always turn sour.

We asked our lawmakers to be tough on crime, and we’ve been saddled with an abundance of laws that criminalize almost every aspect of our lives. So far, we’re up to 4500 criminal laws and 300,000 criminal regulations that result in average Americans unknowingly engaging in criminal acts at least three times a day. For instance, the family of an 11-year-old girl was issued a $535 fine for violating the Federal Migratory Bird Act after the young girl rescued a baby woodpecker from predatory cats.

We wanted criminals taken off the streets, and we didn’t want to have to pay for their incarceration. What we’ve gotten is a nation that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million people locked up, many of them doing time for relatively minor, nonviolent crimes, and a private prison industry fueling the drive for more inmates, who are forced to provide corporations with cheap labor. A special report by CNBC breaks down the national numbers:

One out of 100 American adults is behind bars — while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government spend about $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.

We wanted law enforcement agencies to have the necessary resources to fight the nation’s wars on terror, crime and drugs. What we got instead were militarized police decked out with M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers, battle tanks and hollow point bullets—gear designed for the battlefield, more than 80,000 SWAT team raids carried out every year (many for routine police tasks, resulting in losses of life and property), and profit-driven schemes that add to the government’s largesse such as asset forfeiture, where police seize property from “suspected criminals.”

Justice Department figures indicate that as much as $4.3 billion was seized in asset forfeiture cases in 2012, with the profits split between federal agencies and local police. According to the Washington Post, these funds have been used to buy guns, armored cars, electronic surveillance gear, “luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.” Police seminars advise officers to use their “department wish list when deciding which assets to seize” and, in particular, go after flat screen TVs, cash and nice cars. In Florida, where police are no strangers to asset forfeiture, Florida police have been carrying out “reverse” sting operations, where they pose as drug dealers to lure buyers with promises of cheap cocaine, then bust them, and seize their cash and cars. Over the course of a year, police in one small Florida town seized close to $6 million using these entrapment schemes.

We fell for the government’s promise of safer roads, only to find ourselves caught in a tangle of profit-driven red light cameras, which ticket unsuspecting drivers in the so-called name of road safety while ostensibly fattening the coffers of local and state governments. Despite widespread public opposition, corruption and systemic malfunctions, these cameras—used in 24 states and Washington, DC—are particularly popular with municipalities, which look to them as an easy means of extra cash. One small Florida town, population 8,000, generates a million dollars a year in fines from these cameras. Building on the profit-incentive schemes, the cameras’ manufacturers are also pushing speed cameras and school bus cameras, both of which result in heft fines for violators who speed or try to go around school buses.

This is just a small sampling of the many ways in which the American people continue to get duped, deceived, double-crossed, cheated, lied to, swindled and conned into believing that the government and its army of bureaucrats—the people we appointed to safeguard our freedoms—actually have our best interests at heart.

Yet when all is said and done, who is really to blame when the wool gets pulled over your eyes: you, for believing the con man, or the con man for being true to his nature?

It’s time for a bracing dose of reality, America. Wake up and take a good, hard look around you, and ask yourself if the gussied-up version of America being sold to you—crime free, worry free and devoid of responsibility—is really worth the ticket price: nothing less than your freedoms.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Warning against establishing a precedent that would allow individual property rights to be sacrificed to target the politically weak for the benefit of the powerful, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure that Americans are not deprived of “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” In filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in Kentner v. City of Sanibel, Institute attorneys argue that the constitutional guarantee to due process requires state and local governments to demonstrate some substantial basis before they can attempt to restrict a homeowner’s property rights. The case revolves around a ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that upholds a Florida city’s ordinance preventing the owners of oceanfront property from constructing a boat dock on their property, purportedly in an effort to protecting seagrasses, although no evidence was presented to support such a claim.

“Once again, we find ourselves in the inexplicable position of having to contend that the Constitution provides real protections for the property rights of Americans from a governmental bureaucracy intent on asserting its authority,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Courts must stand up to those in power and the moneyed interests calling the shots by assuring the guarantee to due process of law is not an empty promise.”

In September 1993, the City of Sanibel, a coastal Florida city located on the Gulf of Mexico, adopted an ordinance forbidding the new construction of docks and piers fronting San Carlos Bay. The stated purpose of the ordinance was to protect seagrasses that grow on the submerged lands of the bay, although no evidence was presented that this purpose was furthered in any way by the prohibition on docks and piers. After the ordinance was adopted, David and Susan Kentner, as well as other individuals who challenged the ordinances, purchased real estate property on the bay. Although the plaintiffs’ rights as owners of seaside property normally would have included docking rights, the City’s ordinance prevented the homeowners from exercising this right and making reasonable use and enjoyment of their land. The homeowners sued the City alleging that the ordinance violated their rights under provisions of the United States and Florida Constitutions that forbid depriving any person “of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” However, the federal district court ruled that the plaintiffs’ property rights were not protected by the substantive provisions of the due process clause and dismissed their claims. The appeals court affirmed, holding that “there is generally no substantive due process protection for state-created property rights.”

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the lower courts’ decisions, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that excluding property rights from the substantive protections of the due process clause is not only contrary to the plain words of the Constitution, but to the history of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Protection of the right to own and use property was deemed an essential prerequisite to the realization of other basic civil rights and liberties the Amendment was meant to protect. Furthermore, history has shown that state and local government often benefit the politically powerful at the expense of minorities and other disenfranchised groups. The Institute’s brief asks the Court to restore the protection of property due process was meant to provide by requiring state and local governments to demonstrate a substantial basis for limiting the freedom of citizens to use and enjoy their property.

The Rutherford Institute was joined by the Cato Institute, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Owners Council of America in filing the amicus brief in Kentner v. City of Sanibel.