The United Police States of America

David S. D’Amato

Ferguson, Missouri’s police department has released its report on the August 9th shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, a redacted document that ACLU attorney Tony Rothert says violates Missouri’s Sunshine Law by omitting key information.

Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer provoked impassioned demonstrations and debates on police brutality and the very nature of policing in the United States, leading many observers to wonder if Americans are now living in a full-fledged police state.

But what is a “police state?” The phrase has become an almost commonplace feature of our conversation on police violence and militarization, a convenient way to give voice to growing fears about deteriorating civil liberties. The history of the phrase offers insight into its contemporary usage, a way to analyze the current situation in the United States and decide whether indeed we Americans now live under a police state.

Historian and political scientist Mark Neocleous explains that the “term Polizeistaat, usually translated as ‘police state,’ came into general English usage in the 1930s,” increasingly used at that time to describe totalitarian governments such as those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

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