By Joe Bageant
The story of convicted sex offender Stokes (Old Dogs and Hard Time) caused a landslide of poignant, and often terrifying emails describing other victims of our system. Some are as young as ten years old, others are working single moms or retired people whose lives were ruined by our increasingly punitive state. A state that increasingly derives profit by inflicting misery upon its citizens through an ever growing number of laws and regulations.
The majority of Americans do not feel a thing about these state orchestrated persecutions of their fellow citizens. They do not feel anything because they are afraid to allow themselves to feel outrage. And because their government has conditioned them not to feel public anger. There are social consequences (being an outcast) for speaking such things aloud. There are even more consequences for acting upon those feelings. The citizenry is deeply afraid of those consequences. The bottom line is that they are afraid of their government.
But as long as these citizens pretend nothing is happening, they believe they are safe. Safety, they believe, is being below the radar of officialdom, whether it be that of the IRS, immigration, or the cop in the rear view mirror. Unfortunately, both the radar and the officialdom are those of an expanding punitive surveillance state. So staying below the radar means increased cringing all your life.
Then one day it becomes impossible to cringe any lower. The boot comes down as far as possible upon the unforgiving earth. The boot begins to grind upon the people for the simple sake of grinding despotism. Much as people tend to give despotism a face and a name, despotism is not a man, not a woman, not a government. It is an atmosphere, an environment, a world granted permission to exist by people whose culture and spirit has become necrotic through fear. One whose capability for compassion, respect, reverence even, for the freedom of others, and therefore liberty, has been extinguished.
The totalitarian night does not fall all at once on a people. First comes the ambivalance, then the numbness, then the boot. Call this our deepening twilight. When the twilight ends, there are only the anonymous groans amid the darkness. In fact, one can hear them even in this twilight. Here are excerpts from a few more letters Ken and I received regarding the use of laws against the citizenry. To my mind they constitute such groans.
- A boy who at age 10 was turned over to Child Protective Services for getting naked with his 6-year-old brother to compare penises (a one-time incident that happened when he was visiting his Dad -- the stepmother called CPS). He ended up being charged with sexual assault, had to complete crisis counseling, was put on probation, and had to register as a sex offender until he was 23. Because of his status as a sex offender, he and his mother have been evicted from apartments. He quit school in tenth grade because he couldn't take the taunting from classmates. Even though a minor, his photo and personal info were put up on the public sex offender web site, as are the photos of all minor-aged sex offenders. He was never able to fulfill his dream of joining the Navy, and he often loses jobs when his employers find out about his ex-offender status. As a sex offender he is required to re-register anytime he moves. One time his father moved, and he didn't notify the courts, so during a visit with his father he was arrested for failing to register and ended up spending 46 days in jail alongside hard-core rapists and murderers. All supposedly because he engaged in normal show me yours and I'll show you mine childhood behavior WHEN HE WAS A CHILD. And this was a boy who, according to his mother, had been a very bright, high-potential little guy who had never been in trouble beforehand. Let's face it, when a kid who is innocently wanting to compare his penis with his brother's is treated the same as some monster who raped and sodomized his victim at knife-point, we may be just a tad over-reactive when it comes to children's sexuality in our society.
- I live in the Florida panhandle. We just had a case where a 17-year-old woman/child had a baby. Alone and with no help from anyone. The baby was born with a birth defect that, to put it mildly, caused it to be born dying. When she finally scraped enough money together to take the child to a doctor, the state took the baby and charged the young mother with child abuse. Every doctor swore that the child's problem was the birth defect. After three weeks and a trial in which she was acquitted, the state in its mercy handed the dying baby back to the woman/child and said sorry about that. The baby died two days later.
- Robert was threatened by the juvenile justice worker that if he didn't hurry up and finish treatment he would be sent to juvenile detention. She then felt the need to share with Robert that she used to be employed by Wackenhut and while working there, a group of boys dragged another boy into a room and sodomized him until his rectum fell out and he bled to death. Treatment at that detention center involves torture and experimental behavior modification techniques. And covert taping. Robert was made to write a "healthy script" and a "deviant script." These he read aloud into a tape recorder. When he became aroused, he had to break open an ammonia capsule and inhale deeply. Staff members listened to these tapes to make sure that he choked. That meant that he was doing it properly. Robert suffered horrible nosebleeds for months after he came home. Then there are the plethysmographs. This is a test where the older boys were taken out of the facility. A ring with sensors is placed over the boy's penis and they are shown sexually graphic material. Robert was too young to do this, but went out of the facility with two other boys and a staff member to act as chaperone. This was necessary because the staff member named was accused by a gay black boy of engaging in oral and anal sex with him in the bathroom of the facility where they do the plethysmographs.
- About a year and a half ago my sister and her husband had been fighting. She ended up getting her own apartment. It got to the point where she drove by their house once and threw a rock through the porch window, out of spite. He called the police out of spite. The rock didn't even break the whole thing, just punched about a two-inch hole in it. The police issued a warrant for her arrest. My sister turned herself in, and faced multiple charges including disorderly conduct, vandalism, and domestic violence. Prosecutors like to make numerous charges in the hope one of a few will stick, or in the hope that the defendant will be more likely to plea bargain and the more severe ones will be dropped. My sister did the plea bargain so as to avoid a jail sentence. She didn't fight the charges. She had to go to expensive domestic violence classes for six months, which cost her a couple thousand dollars altogether. She had to meet with a probation officer and submit urine tests. She was not allowed to use any drugs or even alcohol. She had to submit to random drug tests, where police would show up at her place and demand she go submit a urine sample. She had to forfeit her right to own a firearm for the rest of her life. And of course, she now has a criminal record that includes domestic violence, so half of her job options are gone. All this happened because her marriage turned bitter, she threw a rock at a small window on the porch of her own house because she was angry and hurt, and her husband wanted her to have a criminal record in case they ended up divorcing. The justice system in this country is a joke. It has no moral legitimacy, only the threat of force (imprisonment, a criminal record etc.) to back it up.
- A situation was investigated regarding a fort my son and his friends had a couple blocks from home. A social worker asked me if I was aware of this fort. I was not aware. She said that it was perfectly normal to have a fort at that age and she didn't see a problem. I later requested and received a copy of the file from the Child Protective Services in 2005. It is several inches thick. The summary of the fort incident states it was alleged that Robert was caught laying on top of a girl with his pants down; also the allegations stated that Robert was trying to coax young girls into his fort for inappropriate sexual activities. Robert was nine-and-a-half years old in October, 2002.
- I had noticed on the Child Guidance Center stationary that there was a list of names for the Board of Directors. The court referee and my court appointed attorney were both on the Board of Directors. Child Guidance Center had the largest foster care contract in the county. This was a major conflict of interest.
- The county probate court judge who adopted out my two oldest children years earlier was under investigation by the State Court Administrative Office for misappropriating more than $876,000 from the Child Care fund. The judge has since retired with full pension and the taxpayers were made to pay back the money owed to the state. This was all documented in the local newspapers.
- On September 27, 2007, my son went to prison. He was convicted of five felony counts of "Computer Aided Solicitation of a Minor." The girl was 15. My son was 22 at the time. They chatted for 18 months, CHAT only! Not predatory chat at all, he wasn't looking for any "victims" and he never knew where she lived, never met her in person, he never touched her; but for saying the wrong thing online, he was sentenced to three years hard labor and then must register as a sex offender for 25 years. The question is, does the punishment fit the crime? He had NO clue that chat was illegal, neither did anyone else I've talked to about it. Louisiana is desperate to fill those jails and get that government funding for SURE. My son pleaded guilty because he could have been given up to 50 years in prison for his "crime." It was his first offense, he'd never been in trouble before and always followed the letter of the law. So far Eric is doing okay in prison. He calls as often as he can. Prisoners can only buy certain calling cards from a certain company -- the jail makes a profit from these. He buys Ramen noodles for almost $1 each because sometimes he's still hungry after meal time and he can put them with warm water in a cup and eat them to fill up.
(Eric's mother has taken the campaign public in an effort to get justice for her son. She has launched a web site that gives the details and progress of Eric's case. Go to: http://www.changingthelaw.com/ -- and be sure to click on the update link at the top page to read about the impossible conditions placed on Eric when he is eventually released. He can't drive by or be within 500 feet of a school or church, which is nearly impossible in East Texas.)
And on and on.
The letters keep coming, mostly from mothers, frantic, pain-filled pleading letters from fellow Americans hoping on a long shot that someone will hear. Hoping that the hand of assistance will extend from some unknown citizen. Grim as our nation and society are becoming, this is not impossible. A kind attorney in New York City has offered to pay for the legal defense in the animal abuse case of my friend and neighbor Stokes.
In art and labor,
As the web grunt posting the above heart wrenching stories of injustice, I'm going to add one more example, but it's a story that has a positive ending.
Several years ago, I was visiting a friend in Denmark. We went to dinner and then to a pub. At the crowded pub, I heard from the next table a distinctive American accent from a young man, let's call him Carsten, in his early thirties, who had earlier been speaking Danish. I was curious, introduced myself, and asked how he happened to be native-speaker fluent in both Danish and American English.
Carsten told me that he had been born and raised in California. His mother was born in Denmark and had emigrated to America as a young girl with her parents. As a young boy and as a teen-ager, Carsten had spent many summers visiting cousins and other relatives in Denmark, and it was during these visits as a youngster that he picked up Danish.
Jump forward a dozen years. With a bunch of his college fraternity brothers from his California university, he was at a public park for a Fourth of July picnic and fireworks. It should surprise nobody that young men at a picnic are going to drink a lot of beer. After dark, rather than walking the distance to the portable toilets, Carsten decided to urinate in some bushes. Carsten said he was down to the dribble and shake phase when a half-dozen deputy sheriffs from the narc division came out of nowhere and tackled him. Apparently, the officers were there hoping to catch somebody smoking marijuana.
When the officers discovered no illegal drugs on Carsten, he was instead arrested and charged with indecent exposure in front of a minor. The justification for this charge was that on the other side of the bushes there were some Girl Scouts. Carsten said he didn't know that the young girls were on the other side of the bushes and that even in broad daylight it would not have been possible to see anything or anybody through the thick foliage. But, that was the criminal charge -- indecent exposure in front of a minor.
Carsten's parents bailed him out of jail. He was facing a trial and almost certain conviction, which would include a requirement that he register as a sex offender. The remainder of his life was on the road to ruin. Instead, he jumped bail. Within 48 hours, his parents had bought a one-way ticket to Denmark for Carsten. That was a dozen years ago, and when I last talked to him, Carsten had no plans ever to try to return to the United States.
Jumping bail and moving to another country is a drastic and illegal response, but in Carsten's case it seems to have been the best decision. He is now married, has two daughters, and has a career position as a computer programmer -- for a Danish law enforcement agency, certainly a job that he would never have had if he had remained in the United States.
A final comment: in Denmark at celebrations in public parks, people often do drink too much. Both men and women will zip their flies or squat and pee, maybe but only maybe trying to find a bush and not really caring whether there are spectators. A key difference between Denmark and the United States is that in Denmark there will be no arrests for indecent exposure in front of a minor, nor any requirement for life-long and life-destroying registration as a sex offender.
-- Ken Smith