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Precursor to Dystopia #5: The Police State

Image via Lionsgate

Happy New Year! It’s been a nice increment up in the calendar, right? Deadly blizzards, a volcano suddenly becoming active (and another showing scary signs of becoming so here in the United States), mudslides in California killing hundreds, fires burning out of control, tech companies brazenly using your information without your consent, a known liar and proven racist in the White House… Happy 2018, everyone.

There’s so many topics I could have chosen for the first Precursor to Dystopia of 2018. The one I settled on is one I actually intended as the very first.

I have a story to tell, but before I do, consider a few facts from the last few weeks of news:

  • The United States Department of Homeland Security just hired Northrop Grumman to create a database storing the biometrics of 500 million people, the majority of which are United States citizens.
  • The city of Detroit has started Project Green Light, which requires businesses to allow access for police whenever asked in exchange for “priority” protection.
  • Hundreds of protesters at Donald Trump’s inauguration were put on trial en masse, because some protesters caused damage to city property. The proscecution is arguing that anyone within the vicinity during a riot (for which the term is very loosely defined) is complicit in any destruction caused by that riot, regardless if they participated or not.
  • The vast majority of comments on the FCC’s website supporting the end of Net Neutrality were fake, posted by bots and attributed to customers of Comcast (some of whom were deceased at the time the comment was supposedly posted)
  • In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte used Facebook as a weapon as he used it to “crowdsource” softball questions before the election (using the numbers as proof of support), and then once elected, rounded up dissidents who posted to the social network, identified with opposing political parties, or otherwise seemed like troublemakers.
  • New York City has enacted the Right To Know Act, making it required to record explicit consent for search. This seems safer. But it is full-time, required surveillance by every cop on the force on any citizen they encounter.
  • In San Francisco, a “security bot” hired to keep homeless people away from corporate property was covered in feces and smashed.

Robot police, mandatory police access in exchange for protection, manipulation of social media for political gain (and arrest once that gain is achieved)… Sounds a little dystopian, right? How did we get here? It can’t be as simple as “well, police + computers = the future!” can it?

I don’t think so. I think it’s a little simpler than that, actually. It all comes down to humans being humans.

I used to work out with a bunch of cops. Not just cops, SWAT cops. Hardcore action junkies for whom CrossFit was the way they stayed in shape for the real workout: kicking down doors and taking out bad guys.

One of them was undeniably the alpha superior head honcho. But here’s what’s funny- what you’re imagining this guy is like right now couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you don’t know or hang out with cops, you prob imagine a chest thumper with a need to knock heads and kick down doors.

No. Those guys were mostly laughed at by my buddies. They were all pretty calm and level headed guys and gals. And the big alpha was the most level headed even keeled of them all. He was an adrenaline junkies of the highest order but when it came to most, of not all, matters of civil discourse and policing, he was straight down the middle of it all.

Bunny Colvin from The Wire had the right idea — police the people, not the streets / Image via HBO

These guys have seen shit we can’t imagine unless we’ve either been on the other end or overseas at war. Either way, experience you clearly do not want because you’re not doing it (and I don’t blame you, I don’t either).

He told me something that opened my eyes. we were talking about Baltimore riots and I was shocked. He said police today have no idea how to actually police.

They sit in their radio cars and surf Facebook and Twitter until a dark skinned kid looks at them queer, or signal 20 hits the radio, then they storm in and reenact movies they loved as a kid, thinking that’s how it is. Isolation has ruined policing.

When he was in a patrol car, he’d walk the beat, know the hood, meet everyone. Policing then was prevention, not beatings and door kicking.

A few weeks ago, a SWAT team was called to the home of Andrew Finch, a father of two in a suburban Kansas house. There was a report of domestic disturbance. The caller responsible for the SWAT call claimed that the man was holding his family hostage, had covered the premises in gasoline, and was threatening to set the place on fire.

When the SWAT team arrived, Andrew went to the door to see what was going on. The moment he answered the door, he was greeted by dozens of officers training dozens of automatic weapons on his head, chest, and body. He flinched. An officer opened fire.

An innocent man was killed on his doorstep because someone got mad during a game of Call of Duty, hired a “Swatter” to harass the guy, and sent them to a fake address. A guy died because some internet troll was internet-trolling and haha, laughs all around. Yay.

I argue that death never would have occurred if even one of those police officers patrolled that neighborhood. Had even one of those officers gotten out of their cars and greeted the people on their beat, they would have had a face to attach to that name… Or any one of the neighbors. They would have had a chance to dialog at the very least and see that Andrew Finch was not, in fact, holding his family hostage. The itchy trigger finger of one officer under pressure might not have been as itchy, because his life wouldn’t have been spent holed up in a training facility in the middle of Kansas, day after day, bored out of his mind, training with his body and his weapon every single day just waiting for the moment to be a hero SWAT cop.

I argue that the proliferation of infinite choice via easily accessible always connected technology that stimulates our dopamine sensors nonstop is the major reason for our path to Dystopia – and the police are not immune. In fact they are the biggest part. News story after news story — fake and real — go through his Facebook feed just like they do ours. His Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other feeds are tailored to his tastes. There is no doubt in my mind that years have gone by where the only news he’s gotten comes filtered through Blue Lives Matter groups and police-centric blogs, where every single protest over the death of an innocent black man is seen as a protest against the police at large.

I argue, the same as my old CrossFit workout buddy argued — the guy who literally trained every SWAT cop in the tri-county area outside Atlanta where I lived — that policing from inside the car and through the monitor of the department-issued laptop is what lead to Andrew Finch’s death. The asshole who called in the SWAT-ting, the dipshit who hired that asshole… Both at fault, yes. But the guy who pulled the trigger — the cop responsible for Andrew Finch’s fatal gunshot wound — is ultimately the guy who murdered Andrew Finch.

And the answer to this, according to police budgets, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and many, many other enforcement agencies across the country? More tech. More surveillance. More access and control over our daily lives. Because hey, if they know what’s going on in your home before they’re called, they can be sure (or at least, ‘more sure’) that a crime is actually being committed.

The police are using drones to catch drones. Even the robots are using robots

The police state isn’t riot cops on the corner while masked, sign-holding citizens yell about injustice. That’s simply protest in America, and has been since the 50’s (where wrongful deaths were even more plentiful). The police state is a clear and total separation of law enforcement from the citizens it is hired to protect, with all the power going toward them to decide what is going on, who it is going on with, and how to deal with it.

That’s where we are now. And whose to blame for that? We are, of course. By engaging in bullshit arguments daily for dopamine response, we are full-on living in the “golden age” of free speech. As argued by Zeynep Tufekci this morning on Wired, the vast openness of speech via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and so on has led to a two-pronged destruction of democracy: a rush to be the loudest and first on every microphone, and a silencing of any voice that disagrees with what the populace wants to hear.

This isn’t a precursor to dystopia. This is real, right now. It’s where we live and how we are living, day to day. What is the answer? Demanding accountability? More us-versus-them in a perpetual cycle of cops versus the citizens they are hired to protect? I’m not sure it’s an easy one to solve. But I am certain the very first step in the process starts with both sides getting to know more about each other some other way than behind their own personal screens.

Have a good week.


Joe Peacock is a writer and producer of the Screenland cyberculture documentary series on RedBull.TV,
and author of the Marlowe Kana cyberpunk novel series.


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