Contempt of cop, America's defiance revolution

Whether it's Edward Snowden's example, or a resurgent faith in the rule of law, ordinary Americans are standing up to authority, police especially, like seldom before and videotaping their triumphs, Neil Macdonald reports. The proof is all over YouTube.

Like NSA leaker Edward Snowden, ordinary Americans pushing back against authority

A 21-year-old motorist, knowing his legal rights, refuses to get out of his car or follow a policeman's orders unless he is told he is being formally detained. (YouTube)

Increasingly, and openly, ordinary Americans are committing a legal act that some police nonetheless regard as among the most heinous of all offences: it's called contempt of cop.

It's otherwise known as asserting your constitutional rights.

Citizens, feeling empowered, are pointing smartphones, rather than just an accusing finger, at abusive authorities.

Civil libertarians with hidden cameras are challenging the so-called "suspicion-less" roadblocks that police set up to catch lawbreakers. Motorists and others are fighting back in the courts and online against police shakedown rackets on U.S. highways and elsewhere.

Everywhere, it seems, Americans are openly challenging arbitrary behaviour by those in authority.

Furthermore, they are winning. Not since the late 1960s have those in authority, from heavy-handed cops to the federal operatives sifting metadata in super-secret intelligence installations, been exposed to so much disinfecting sunlight.

It's marvelous to see such courage, and further proof that whatever the world might say about America, no other democracy takes the rule of law more seriously.

And while it is difficult to tell what's driving this new assertiveness, you have to feel it's part of a recovery from the almost supine attitude that most people here adopted in the years after 9/11.

During those years, in response to demands for security from a terrified public, the American "deep state" grew almost exponentially, at a cost so staggering no one seems able to produce a reliable estimate, the Washington Post reported following a two-year investigation.

Checkpoint refusals

Today, though, Americans seem to be rediscovering their sense of independence, and technology is the heavy weapon in their push-back.

Just as their government has used it to obliterate the notion of privacy, resourceful citizens have turned the electronic eye back on agents of the state.

President Barack Obama is expected to outline new rules this week for the National Security Agency, rules that are a direct result of the leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden of massive spying by the NSA.

The biggest and most successful crusader of all, of course, is Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose unprecedented revelations forced a White House-ordered review of intelligence gathering.

On Friday, President Barack Obama is expected to announce changes at the NSA, the largest, most powerful and most intrusive secret agency in history.

These changes clearly would not be happening were it not for Snowden, who said he acted to protect the U.S. Constitution.

He's a fugitive now, in Moscow, but back here in America, other Americans are acting, too, and citing the same motive.

These activists range from hard-conservative gun rights types, who carry copies of the Constitution in their pockets, to left-leaning civil liberties advocates.

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In both cases, they triumphantly upload video trophies of their confrontations to the internet.

You could spend an entire day just watching all this recorded disobedience on YouTube, and only view a fraction of it.

Quite a few show "checkpoint refusals" at roadblocks erected by police looking for drunken drivers, or by federal agents hunting illegal aliens.

Courts here have held that police have the right to operate such stops.

But the courts have also ruled that citizens are free to remain silent, and can refuse to allow searches and ignore orders to submit to "secondary inspections" unless police detain them — which requires the higher hurdle of reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe an offence has been committed.

Police not happy

In these videos, it's clear that what is really at issue for police is the challenge to their authority.

Contempt of cop, as the practice is known in libertarian circles, provokes the same rage at checkpoints that Snowden's media interviews arouse in national security officials.

And the reason for it is clearly the same: defiance, to authorities, sets an intolerable precedent.

In several of these videos, some of which have made television newscasts, police can barely contain their anger, voices rising as they yell orders at stubborn motorists who exercise their right to remain silent.

"It's a right to privacy, it's a right to simply refuse to co-operate and answer questions," explained David Loy of the San Diego branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to a television interviewer there.

"We think that checkpoints, suspicion-less checkpoints, are the hallmark of a police state, not a free society."

Massachusetts motel owners Russell and Patricia Caswell won a huge legal victory last year when a judge dismissed a contentious civil forfeiture action by federal authorities that would have stripped them of their motel because drug dealers may have stayed there at one point. They themselves had never been convicted or even charged with a crime. (Russell Caswell / YouTube)

Much worse are the "forfeiture" rackets that have been used by some police here to separate people from their money and property, even if no offence is charged.

It's called civil forfeiture, a federal law from the mid-1980s, and in some states police salaries have been directly tied to how much loot they can grab, according to investigations by such diverse groups as the New Yorker magazine and the libertarian Institute for Justice (founded by a former Ronald Reagan administration official).

Citizen complaints and media exposure, however, are spoiling the fun, and federal authorities have begun crackdowns.

Canadian visitors take note

Public rebelliousness has surged here in the past, of course.

Police overreach and abuse has been an issue in American life going back to the Vietnam War demonstrations and beyond.

In New York City, for example, the municipal government is still paying out tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of people who were unjustly arrested for demonstrating during the Republican National Convention in 2004.

In that case, too, private citizens recorded the action. In fact, evidence is emerging that undercover agents actually provoked some of the violence that served as a pretext for arrests.

The ACLU says police are increasingly aware, and angry, about people attempting to capture abuse on video. (In Nebraska, only a third party's pictures from a neighbour across the street helped convict police who seized and destroyed video taken of their warrantless actions at a private residence.)

However, for all its encouragement of citizens to assert their rights, the ACLU warns that it can come with a price.

While disrespect for law enforcement is no crime here (that was settled by the courts decades ago), challenges to authority are still often answered with a disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice citation.

And while the U.S. Constitution applies to everyone on U.S. soil, Canadian visitors might want to take a more defensive approach (like don't drive your own car in certain southern states, don't carry a lot of valuables, and if you run into a checkpoint, be nice and obedient).

Unlike U.S. citizens, visitors are here by permission, and that can be revoked for any reason, or none at all.

Also, carrying a smartphone can't hurt.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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