This article was originally published by John W. Whitehead at The Rutherford Institution It has been republished with permission from the author. Please contact the author directly for republishing information.
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” — President Harry S. Truman
Militarized police. Riot squads. Camouflage gear. Black uniforms. Armored vehicles. Mass arrests. Pepper spray. Tear gas. Batons. Strip searches. Surveillance cameras. Kevlar vests. Drones. Lethal weapons. Less-than-lethal weapons unleashed with deadly force. Rubber bullets. Water cannons. Stun grenades. Arrests of journalists. Crowd control tactics. Intimidation tactics. Brutality. Lockdowns.
This is not the language of freedom. This is not even the language of law and order.
This is the language of force.
This is how the government at all levels—federal, state and local—now responds to those who speak out against government corruption, misconduct and abuse.
These overreaching, heavy-handed lessons in how to rule by force have become standard operating procedure for a government that communicates with its citizenry primarily through the language of brutality, intimidation and fear.
We didn’t know it then, but what happened five years ago in Charlottesville, Va., was a foretaste of what was to come.
At the time, Charlottesville was at the center of a growing struggle over how to reconcile the right to think and speak freely, especially about controversial ideas, with the push to sanitize the environment of anything—words and images—that might cause offense. That fear of offense prompted the Charlottesville City Council to get rid of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had graced one of its public parks for 82 years.
In attempting to err on the side of political correctness by placating one group while muzzling critics of the city’s actions, Charlottesville attracted the unwanted attention of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and the alt-Right, all of whom descended on the little college town with the intention of exercising their First Amendment right to be disagreeable, to assemble, and to protest.
That’s when everything went haywire.
When put to the test, Charlottesville did not handle things well at all.
On August 12, 2017, government officials took what should have been a legitimate exercise in constitutional principles (free speech, assembly and protest) and turned it into a lesson in authoritarianism by manipulating warring factions and engineering events in such a way as to foment unrest, lockdown the city, and justify further power grabs.
On the day of scheduled protests, police deliberately engineered a situation in which two opposing camps of protesters would confront each other, tensions would bubble over, and things would turn just violent enough to justify allowing the government to shut everything down.
Despite the fact that 1,000 first responders (including 300 state police troopers and members of the National Guard)—many of whom had been preparing for the downtown rally for months—had been called on to work the event, and police in riot gear surrounded Emancipation Park on three sides, police failed to do their jobs.
In fact, as the Washington Post reports, police “seemed to watch as groups beat each other with sticks and bludgeoned one another with shields… At one point, police appeared to retreat and then watch the beatings before eventually moving in to end the free-for-all, make arrests and tend to the injured.”
“Police Stood By As Mayhem Mounted in Charlottesville,” reported ProPublica.
Incredibly, when the first signs of open violence broke out, the police chief allegedly instructed his staff to “let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.”
In this way, police who were supposed to uphold the law and prevent violence failed to do either.
Indeed, a 220-page post-mortem of the protests and the Charlottesville government’s response by former U.S. attorney Timothy J. Heaphy concluded that “the City of Charlottesville protected neither free expression nor public safety.”
In other words, the government failed to uphold its constitutional mandates.
The police failed to carry out their duties as peace officers.
And the citizens found themselves unable to trust either the police or the government to do its job in respecting their rights and ensuring their safety.
This is not much different from what is happening on the present-day national scene.
Indeed, there’s a pattern emerging if you pay close enough attention.
Civil discontent leads to civil unrest, which leads to protests and counterprotests. Tensions rise, violence escalates, police stand down, and federal armies move in. Meanwhile, despite the protests and the outrage, the government’s abuses continue unabated.
It’s all part of an elaborate setup by the architects of the police state. The government wants a reason to crack down and lock down and bring in its biggest guns.
They want us divided. They want us to turn on one another.
They want us powerless in the face of their artillery and armed forces.
They want us silent, servile and compliant.
They certainly do not want us to remember that we have rights, let alone attempting to exercise those rights peaceably and lawfully, whether it’s protesting politically correct efforts to whitewash the past, challenging COVID-19 mandates, questioning election outcomes, or listening to alternate viewpoints—even conspiratorial ones—in order to form our own opinions about the true nature of government.
And they definitely do not want us to engage in First Amendment activities that challenge the government’s power, reveal the government’s corruption, expose the government’s lies, and encourage the citizenry to push back against the government’s many injustices.
Why else do you think Wikileaks founder Julian Assange continues to molder in jail for daring to blow the whistle about the U.S. government’s war crimes, while government officials who rape, plunder and kill walk away with little more than a slap on the wrist?
This is how it begins.
We are moving fast down that slippery slope to an authoritarian society in which the only opinions, ideas and speech expressed are the ones permitted by the government and its corporate cohorts.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, “domestic terrorism” has become the new poster child for expanding the government’s powers at the expense of civil liberties.
Of course, “domestic terrorist” is just the latest bull’s eye phrase, to be used interchangeably with “anti-government,” “extremist” and “terrorist,” to describe anyone who might fall somewhere on a very broad spectrum of viewpoints that could be considered “dangerous.”
This unilateral power to muzzle free speech represents a far greater danger than any so-called right- or left-wing extremist might pose. The ramifications are so far-reaching as to render almost every American an extremist in word, deed, thought or by association.
Watch and see: we are all about to become enemies of the state.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People and in its fictional counterpart The Erik Blair Diaries, anytime you have a government that operates in the shadows, speaks in a language of force, and rules by fiat, you’d better beware.
So what’s the answer?
For starters, we need to remember that we’ve all got rights, and we need to exercise them.
Most of all, we need to protect the rights of the people to speak truth to power, whatever that truth might be. Either “we the people” believe in free speech or we don’t.
Fifty years ago, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas asked:
“Since when have we Americans been expected to bow submissively to authority and speak with awe and reverence to those who represent us? The constitutional theory is that we the people are the sovereigns, the state and federal officials only our agents. We who have the final word can speak softly or angrily. We can seek to challenge and annoy, as we need not stay docile and quiet… [A]t the constitutional level, speech need not be a sedative; it can be disruptive… [A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
In other words, the Constitution does not require Americans to be servile or even civil to government officials. Neither does the Constitution require obedience (although it does insist on nonviolence).
Somehow, the government keeps overlooking this important element in the equation.