The FBI is helping police nation-wide get into the Halloween spirit by concocting a scary story that is every bit as implausible as the seasonal fare offered on television and movie screens. The Bureau claims that an obscure, previously unknown “anarchist” group supposedly called the National Liberation Militia is planning to use Halloween festivities to ambush police officers.
According to the New York Post, the “extremist group … has proposed a `Halloween Revolt’ that encourages supporters to cause a disturbance to attract police and then viciously attack them… The group has recommended that members wear typical Halloween masks and use weapons such as bricks, bottles, and firearms, according to the release. No details are offered to corroborate the alleged plot or even the existence of the group that is supposedly behind it. As it stands, the FBI’s advisory merely provides police nation-wide with a ready-made “officer safety” rationale for treating ”typical Halloween masks” as an indicator of “suspicious activity.”
The FBI’s tale of the “Halloween Revolt” is a seasonally-adapted version of the apparently deathless “war on police” myth, which is incessantly flogged by police unions and retailed by media outlets like the New York Post and Fox News. In his recent address to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, FBI Director James Comey peddled a related idea – namely, that violent crime is escalating because of police timidity induced by the “Ferguson Effect” (also known as the “YouTube Effect”). Expanding distrust of police has led to “a crisis of violent crime in some of our major cities in this country, and in those cities in some of our more vulnerable neighborhoods.”
“In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?” asked Comey. “Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?”
Comey’s facile rhetoric didn’t sit well with some members of the Justice Department, who, according to the New York Times, “do not believe that scrutiny of police officers has led to an increase in crime.” Even Comey has grudgingly admitted that the idea of a “Ferguson Effect” isn’t sustained by substantial evidence. The rate of violent crime has been trending downward for decades – as has the rate of on-duty deaths by police officers. But people enjoy a good scary story – especially those whose career prospects benefit from them.
For more than a year, law and order conservatives have been in full-throated, theatrical panic over the purported war on police and widespread defiance and disrespect toward “authority.”
“If you were around in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you know that history is repeating itself,” groused Bill O’Reilly in a representative jeremiad last June. Young people in America “now have a defiance toward authority not seen since the Vietnam days…. The collapse of authority in America will lead to very bad consequences. We are just seeing the beginning of it.”
There is a sense in which O’Reilly is correct that Vietnam-era history is repeating itself: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, police unions, their media courtesans, and authoritarian conservatives in Congress plied the public with terrifying tales about a “War on Police.” No such war occurred then, nor is one underway now. The rhetorical barrage by the “law and order” lobby was an overture to Nixon’s decision to declare “war” on crime – which led to the first wave of outright police militarization.
“Is there a national conspiracy to kill policemen?” asked the October 19, 1970 issue of U.S. News and World Report. “Congress dug into this question in early October. One witness after another told the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee that a pattern of attacks on police indicates a plot.”
Among those who offered testimony was Captain Joel Honey of the Santa Barbara, California Sheriff’s Office. As summarized by U.S. News, Honey “told of confiscating pamphlets giving detailed instructions on manufacture and use of weapons to kill police. He said wires have been strung across California highways to decapitate motorcycle policemen.”
“Police officials keep saying it’s just the hazards of the job, but we should face it for what it is: a conspiracy to kill policemen,” insisted Carl Parsell, director of the Detroit Police Officers Association. Police union commissar Edward Kiernan insisted that shootings of police officers were “part of a cold, logical, hard-eyed revolutionary strategy.”
Fellow police union kingpin John J. Harrington agreed that nothing less than a revolution was underway.
“The thin line between civilization and the jungle – which is us [sic] policemen – is being shot to hell and something has to be done about it,” Harrington harangued the crowd at a Washington police rally. “It’s time the people of this country face up to it – there is a revolution taking place.”
A significant part of that “revolution,” Harrington advised, was rock music, which he characterized as “a Communist plot to destroy our youth.”
By the time Harrington addressed that October 1970 rally, he had been an ex-cop for four years. In 1966, Harrington “marked his 26th anniversary on the force by announcing his retirement to protest U.S. Supreme Court decisions ensuring the rights of individuals suspected of committing crimes,” observed his 1989 obituary in the Philadelphia Daily News.
“I’m fed up – I am disgusted,” exclaimed Harrington. “You can’t do police work anymore.”
Rather than operating within the restraints imposed by the Bill of Rights, Harrington suggested during the FOP’s 1971 national convention, police should be emancipated to act as death squads. “Unless the courts stop this permissiveness … then the feeling of policemen is, maybe we better resort to the old Mexican deguello – a shootout in which we take no prisoners,” Harrington told his exuberantly approving audience.
Significantly, the Spanish verb from which that word is derived – degollar – refers to throat-slitting. Viewed from a contemporary perspective, Mr. Harrington – one of the most prominent and widely respected police union officials of his era – was saying that his troops were ready to behave much the same way that ISIS does today.
The previously mentioned Captain Honey was likewise obsessed with fantasies of decapitation, albeit in his case carried out against the police. Like Harrington, Honey – whose sober testimony before the Senate Subcommittee was dutifully reported in the press and remains part of the official record – yearned for a restoration of pre-modern means of asserting “authority.” This explains why he was photographed brandishing a Spanish-style broadsword and a spiked medieval mace as he commanded riot police and SWAT operators who dealt with a campus upheaval at the University of California-Santa Barbara a few months before his testimony in Washington.
Honey’s lurid claims of a conspiracy to murder police made national headlines. His subsequent firing for official misconduct didn’t receive as much attention.
Sgt. Edward Piceno, who along with his partner was suspended for 10 days for seizing and destroying a reporter’s camera during the riot, later testified that Honey had ordered deputies to “go out there and beat the living hell out of anybody that was away from the crowd, get in our cars and leave.”
Other officers testified that Honey’s unlawful orders included exhortations to commit arson and murder, and instructions on how to cover up those crimes.
“Honey was accused of telling an officer at the riot that `if your people go into a building and kill all of them, have them set fire to the building, because that’s what they did in Watts,’” summarized the January 21, 1972 San Francisco Chronicle. Another officer recalled Honey’s suggestion that he “get some throwaway guns for your people so when you kill one of [the rioters] you can leave a throwaway gun” as evidence to “justify” the killing. He also told the officer to deploy his men “in teams of at least two, to corroborate an alibi if they killed anyone.” (That accusation, interestingly, was itself corroborated by multiple officers.)
Honey was fired in November 1971 for “illegally dropping tear gas on rioters from a helicopter … striking handcuffed prisoners … and telling a subordinate to frame a suspect.” It is possible that the deranged officer would have kept his job had his psychotic demeanor and palpable sadism not made him an operational liability. Police officers from other jurisdictions who had responded to a call for assistance made it clear they wouldn’t do so again if Honey were given on-scene command during future disturbances.
Whether in the early 1970s or today, the actions carried out in the name of “authority” are far scarier than any of the stories used to justify its exercise.