Monday, August 18, 2014

Posse Comitatus and Crossing America's Rubicon

In 49 B.C., then general Julius Caesar staked his life on a huge gamble and led his legions across the Rubicon into Rome.  Caesar knew that any general bringing his army into Rome faced execution but he went on to seize control of the Roman republic. 

In 1879 the U.S. Congress enacted the Posse Comitatus Act, that prohibited the deployment of U.S. Army troops within America "for the purpose of executing laws."  The intent was to prohibit the use of American soldiers against American civilians.  Like the Romans, Americans felt the need to proscribe the use of military force within the homeland.

Lately there's been an end run around the Posse Comitatus Act.  If you can't deploy the armed forces against the public, you can achieve pretty much the same result by militarizing law enforcement and bringing them under the wing of Homeland Security.  Equip the cops with combat gear, outfit them with modern military weaponry and deploy them in armoured military vehicles, all supplied for next to nothing, and - voila - problem solved.

Dennis Kucinich sees recent events in Ferguson, Missouri arising out of the police execution of a young African-American and the police response to the subsequent protests as a threat to American democracy.

The Declaration of Independence condemned King George III for, "keeping among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature."  Out of the Revolution, Americans emerged with an abhorrence of any military presence in their daily lives.

Kucinich points out that, over time, the apparent prohibition against a direct military role in civilian affairs has been gradually and steadily watered down, sidestepped and ignored. 

In 2006, George w. Bush persuaded Congress to enact an express authority for the use of military force:   "The President may employ the armed forces... to... restore public order and enforce the laws of the United States when, as a result of a natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident, or other condition... the President determines that... domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the State or possession are incapable of maintaining public order... or [to] suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy..."

Now the former Democratic Congressman is calling for reforms:

1. Congress must firmly re-establish the firewall between civilian law enforcement and the military by reinstating the intent of the Posse Comitatus law. As member of Congress I warned in 2007 the dangers of a bill which permitted the government to put troops on the ground in the US.

2. The Department of Defense must stop providing war-fighting equipment to local law enforcement.

3. All equipment provided to local law enforcement by the Department of Defense, must be inventoried and stored, not used except under an executive order from the top civilian authority in a state, the Governor, or under orders of the President of the United States.

4. The General Accounting Office and the Inspector General of the Department of Defense must be asked by Congress to determine the extent to which the training and equipping of local police by the DOD has created a culture in local law enforcement which is adverse to democratic values.

5. The Justice Department needs to fund programs which will train or retrain local law enforcement in racial sensitivity, constitutional protections of suspects, including the right to freedom of speech and right to assemble.

6. The Justice Department must also fund, support and mandate that all local law enforcement receiving any federal funds whatsoever create community programs for dialogue between local police and people in the neighborhood. Local police become an occupying army through emotional distancing, fear and lack of contact with the community. That can change by having police and the community meet regularly to discuss mutual concerns.

Those who serve in local law enforcement are given special trust, special dispensation to serve and protect. Their work is essential. Local police would like to be supported. But we must demand strict adherence to the Constitution and protection of the freedoms given to us by the Bill of Rights.

The reforms Kucinich advocates are so logical, so sensible that, in today's America, they won't get the time of day from its dysfunctional Congress.  But, unless and until such reforms are enacted, America will remain beset by a thoroughly militarized Main Street.

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