Pro­tect­ing Your Rights

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At­tor­ney John White­head talks about democ­racy and our rights.

An In­ter­view with John White­head, Founder and cur­rent head of the Ruther­ford In­sti­tute (Ruther­ford. org).

John W. White­head is an at­tor­ney with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in con­sti­tu­tional law and hu­man rights. At one time he con­sid­ered a ca­reer in more con­ven­tional law prac­tices, but early on re­al­ized his con­cerns for the per­se­cuted and op­pressed sug­gested a very dif­fer­ent path. Those con­cerns were the rea­son he came to found The Ruther­ford In­sti­tute, a non­profit civil lib­er­ties and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, where he cur­rently serves as its Pres­i­dent and guid­ing force. The web­site for the in­sti­tute is worth­while read­ing for all: http://www.ruther­ford.org.

The Ruther­ford In­sti­tute it­self acts as one of the United States’ lead­ing ad­vo­cates of civil lib­er­ties and hu­man rights, lit­i­gat­ing in the courts and ed­u­cat­ing the public on a wide spec­trum of is­sues af­fect­ing in­di­vid­ual free­dom in the United States and around the world.

He has writ­ten and spo­ken on con­sti­tu­tional is­sues through­out his ca­reer. His pub­li­ca­tions in­clude ar­ti­cles in the Emory Law Jour­nal, Har­vard Jour­nal on Leg­is­la­tion, Pep­per­dine Law Re­view, Washington and Lee Law Re­view and the Tem­ple Uni­ver­sity Civil Rights Law Re­view. His most re­cent book is Battlefield Amer­ica: The War on the Amer­i­can Peo­ple (2015).

He was born in 1946 in Ten­nessee, earned a Bach­e­lor of Arts De­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas in 1969, and a Juris Doc­tor­ate de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas School of Law in 1974. He served briefly in the United States Army from 1969 to 1971.

Tril­lions in­ter­viewed Mr. White­head at the Ruther­ford In­sti­tute’s head­quar­ters in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, on June 7, 2016.

Tril­lions: Al­though some of our read­ers may al­ready know your story, can you start by telling us about how you found your way to your mis­sion of pro­tect­ing Con­sti­tu­tional Rights and found­ing the Ruther­ford In­sti­tute?

John White­head: When I first came out of col­lege, I went straight into the Army. That was in Fort Hood, Texas, from 1969 to 1971. I was an In­fantry Of­fi­cer then. Like many, I saw a lot of things that trou­bled me in the mil­i­tary at that par­tic­u­lar time, es­pe­cially with re­turn­ing veterans that I talked to and who had prob­lems – af­ter hav­ing been to Viet­nam.

I started see­ing that I needed to do more in terms of what I could do to help so­ci­ety, and maybe move in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. Less vi­o­lence, more democ­racy and more free­dom.

I had a good friend who was in law school who I was talk­ing with about that. I asked him, “What would be a good av­enue for me?” And he said, “Go to law school. As a lawyer you can change things.”

I’d [al­ready] been a big fan of Martin Luther King and other peo­ple out there who had been rab­ble rousers. And so I went to law school with that idea that I was go­ing to help peo­ple, that I was go­ing to make this a bet­ter place to live.

Af­ter I got out of law school, I [did what others did and] I was re­cruited by a firm for a while but I ended up not lik­ing that. I then de­cided I’d just strike out [on my own] and start a group that would help peo­ple, be­cause I was hav­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple com­ing to me who had all

kinds of is­sues with the gov­ern­ment or what­ever, who couldn’t get any help, even from groups like the ACLU. I floated ideas [about what I was think­ing] and fi­nally found a few peo­ple who said they’d help me do it.

I was in­cor­po­rated in 1982. It took about 6 to 7 years to raise enough funds to ac­tu­ally start do­ing more cases like I wanted to do. Cases with mainly peo­ple who couldn’t af­ford a lawyer and who couldn’t get into the court­room [to de­fend them­selves]. And we’re still do­ing that to­day. With peo­ple that find them­selves on the wrong end of a po­lice ac­tion, or sur­veil­lance, trou­bling sur­veil­lance, and those kind of things. We help them and we don’t charge them. I find vol­un­teer lawyers who do the work. We pro­vide the fi­nances and le­gal back­ground and move the case for­ward.

We also do a lot of pol­icy pa­pers on a lot of is­sues, from sur­veil­lance to leg­is­la­tion Congress is try­ing to pass which I think would vi­o­late our rights. I work with many dif­fer­ent groups across the coun­try [in­clud­ing] the ACLU, the Con­sti­tu­tion Pro­ject, and others. I work with both right and left wing groups also. I have no po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies so I work with any­one who’s fight­ing for what I think is a good so­cial con­cern is­sue at the time.

Tril­lions: That is­sue about po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies is an im­por­tant one. Be­cause some­times groups like the ACLU end up de­fend­ing peo­ple that sur­prise us. But be­hind those sur­prises is usu­ally an is­sue of fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights.

John White­head: Yes. I have sum­mer in­terns ev­ery sum­mer. And I tell them, the be­tween 12 and 20 that come and study with us, that free­dom is a hu­man rights is­sue, it’s not a po­lit­i­cal is­sue. You may not agree with the per­son that you’re de­fend­ing po­lit­i­cally but that doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. The is­sue is whether or not they have a right to free speech, or have a right to be free from un­rea­son­able search and seizure un­der the Fourth Amend­ment. That’s the is­sue. It’s not their pol­i­tics.

Tril­lions: What do you see as some of the big­ger rights is­sues to­day? One cer­tainly that seems to come to mind has to do with the way our con­cerns about ter­ror­ism’s world­wide ac­tiv­i­ties have some­how meta­mor­phosed into an ex­cuse for chang­ing how we surveil peo­ple, how we mon­i­tor their ac­tions. All with the idea that it’s okay to give up a lit­tle bit of free­dom, so that things will be bet­ter.

John White­head: Well, it isn’t just that. It’s also that the large cor­po­rate in­ter­ests on the in­ter­net such as Google and Face­book make money by do­ing sur­veil­lance.

Face­book now is ba­si­cally build­ing a large repos­i­tory of fa­cial im­ages for fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware. Google gets mil­lion dol­lar con­tracts from the NSA to con­duct var­i­ous ex­er­cises. And Ama­zon, most peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, about a year and a half ago built a $600 mil­lion in­tel­li­gence cloud for all the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies of the U.S. gov­ern­ment – the NSA, CIA, all down the line.

We live in, es­sen­tially, a to­tal sur­veil­lance state lead­ing to­ward a ‘more to­tal’ sur­veil­lance state, in my opin­ion. Take the U.S. Post Of­fice. The Post Of­fice han­dles 160 bil­lion pieces of mail an­nu­ally. They record, pho­to­graph, and open some pack­ages. So [this sur­veil­lance we talk about] is not just done on the in­ter­net.

We also have a gov­ern­ment that, in my opin­ion, bor­ders on para­noid in some ways. I mean, oth­er­wise why would you have the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity pur­chas­ing 1.6 bil­lion hol­low-point bul­lets? They ac­tu­ally have a con­tract to have them made es­pe­cially for them, which they pass out to groups like the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, the IRS, and the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

[We later] found out what the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity was do­ing. They’re work­ing with 60 some pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions and do­ing ‘threat as­sess­ments’ on aver­age Amer­i­cans which range from ‘red’ to ‘green’. They’re some five dif­fer­ent steps you can go through so that, when a po­lice­man ar­rives at your door, they’ll have an idea if you’re a real threat.

Just to show you how dan­ger­ous this can be, we had a case with a marine who was do­ing anti-obama Face­book posts, cit­ing hip-hop lyrics and stuff against the gov­ern­ment. And he was ar­rested and put in a men­tal hospi­tal here in Vir­ginia for that. He had no weapon or any­thing, was no dan­ger to so­ci­ety. We filed a law­suit and got him out in a week. A judge ruled that he shouldn’t have been there. So I tell peo­ple, and I work with my stu­dents in the sum­mer to en­sure that they un­der­stand we’re be­ing watched. If you say the wrong thing, watch out! You can get ar­rested for it these days.

Tril­lions: And there seems to be a con­di­tion­ing that’s hap­pen­ing, to make that more palat­able. You men­tion the is­sues of Face­book, Google and others. In each case there is a free ser­vice we are us­ing which is sys­tem­at­i­cally har­vest­ing ev­ery­thing it knows about you. We thought it was mostly for ad­ver­tis­ing but you’re also show­ing us how they also are, far from push­ing back from the Gov­ern­ment when they ask for data, they are ac­tu­ally part­ner­ing with them for

profit to pack­age it up and turn it over. Mean­while, we are be­ing con­di­tioned to give up a ma­jor part of our pri­vacy in re­turn for ac­cess­ing these so-called free ser­vices. When things ap­pear to be free, they re­ally aren’t free. I guess that’s part of the mes­sage here.

John White­head: Yes. I also get the ar­gu­ment all the time that, “Well, if I’m not do­ing any­thing wrong, what’s wrong with it?” What I tell peo­ple when they say that is, do you want the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tect­ing your rights? The Fourth Amend­ment says very clearly there in the Con­sti­tu­tion that, be­fore the Gov­ern­ment does any sur­veil­lance, they have to have prob­a­ble cause. In other words, some ev­i­dence of wrong-do­ing, il­le­gal­ity. And if it’s not an emer­gency, they have to go to a judge and get a war­rant. Yet with what the NSA is do­ing, the FBI, and all these groups and this in­tel­li­gence cloud, they’ve just by­passed the Con­sti­tu­tion. The Con­sti­tu­tion means noth­ing to them.

Again, most Amer­i­cans don’t know [their rights] either. And that’s one rea­son, when peo­ple ask how do you keep free­dom alive, or democ­racy, or what­ever you want to call it, you have to learn your rights, folks, and you have to as­sert them. You have to say, “I’m not go­ing to go along with this any­more”, and start get­ting peo­ple to­gether to protest when Face­book or what­ever hands in­for­ma­tion over willy-nilly.

Or Google, which does it too. Google is an amaz­ing cor­po­ra­tion. They’re mov­ing into ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence now. And they claim by 2040 the world’s go­ing to be run by ma­chines. At that point, I won­der, if that’s true, if that’s go­ing to hap­pen, how we’re go­ing to re­main free. Be­cause does a ma­chine think about free­dom or does a ma­chine just think me­chan­i­cally? Be­cause ma­chines think me­chan­i­cally un­less some­how they make them hu­man, but I’m not sure they can do that.

Tril­lions: The counter ar­gu­ment the de­vel­op­ers of­ten use is that a com­puter only does what you tell it to do. Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, that’s only par­tially true. Es­pe­cially with Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence (AI) in place, the soft­ware and ma­chines learn on their own. So you may think you’ve con­strained it but you haven’t. Now mix in all the in­for­ma­tion the NSA and other agen­cies are gath­ered and semi-au­to­matic de­ci­sions be­ing made on that data, and there’s a whole new prob­lem emerg­ing there as well.

John White­head: Typ­i­cally ev­ery­one has an al­go­rithm now, and ev­ery­body’s go­ing to have a threat as­sess­ment made.

In Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, six to seven months ago, ten FBI agents moved into the lo­cal po­lice de­part­ment, with their main job be­ing to look at so­cial me­dia posts us­ing al­go­rithms. And again that goes to your threat as­sess­ment, which is green, blue, yel­low, orange, or red. And if you’re a red level, you’re go­ing to have the po­lice watch­ing you more in­tently. And the po­lice with Stingray de­vices in their cars driv­ing by peo­ple’s homes, down­load­ing your cell­phone in­for­ma­tion and your lap­top in­for­ma­tion.

Peo­ple are also get­ting more alarmed by the lit­tle Cessna air­planes fly­ing over their com­mu­ni­ties now. That’s the FBI [do­ing its form of sur­veil­lance]. They have ‘dirt boxes’, or what­ever they call ‘dirt boxes’ in there that do the same thing. You have li­cense plate read­ers now. And the li­cense plate read­ers can also read your face and can get fa­cial recog­ni­tion im­ages off of it.

The po­lice have ac­tu­ally been caught, track­ing peo­ple to protest ral­lies and such, and watch­ing more of the so-called pro­tes­tors. I go back and tell peo­ple, that vi­o­lates the Fourth Amend­ment. They shouldn’t be track­ing me or do­ing a threat as­sess­ment on me, un­less there’s some [ev­i­dence] that I was do­ing some­thing il­le­gal. But if I was [re­ally] do­ing some­thing il­le­gal, they would ar­rest me. So ob­vi­ously, I’m just do­ing some­thing they dis­agree with.

Tril­lions: I re­mem­ber when the whole is­sue blew up in Los An­ge­les about the li­cense plate track­ing some years ago. There was talk­ing about the po­lice gath­er­ing all this in­for­ma­tion with­out there be­ing any

spe­cific rea­son to gather it. And yet from it they could and did de­velop a pat­tern of where you go and what you do. It re­minded me of, post 9/11, hear­ing about things like mon­i­tor­ing what books you bought, what videos you rented, and what you checked out of the li­brary.

John White­head: Ac­tu­ally they DO do that. You know, when you buy [or rent] any­thing on­line, from Ama­zon or Net­flix. And Net­flix sup­pos­edly and some others of these cor­po­ra­tions have ac­cess to [the Gov­ern­ment] in­tel­li­gence files. So some of the cor­po­ra­tions are sup­pos­edly in ca­hoots with some of the in­for­ma­tion that’s be­ing gath­ered, in clouds about in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens.

It is ‘he who has the in­for­ma­tion’ who can call the shots. [Add all that sur­veil­lance and new laws that have been com­ing about], and we get a pro­lif­er­a­tion of cases at the In­sti­tute. [There are] peo­ple who have chick­ens in their back­yards get­ting ar­rested, and [charges filed against peo­ple for] lemon­ade stands, potluck din­ners at church, and grow­ing veg­eta­bles in your front yard. With crimes pro­lif­er­at­ing [on the statute books], ev­ery­body in some way can be found guilty of some­thing to­day, es­pe­cially with all this col­lec­tion of in­for­ma­tion and the al­go­rithms [we talked about].

I’m also wor­ried too, be­cause of the in­crease in SWAT team raids. There were sev­eral thou­sand in the mid1980s and over 80,000 an­nu­ally now.

Tril­lions: Wow.

John White­head: 80% of those SWAT team raids are for mere war­rant ser­vice. Where po­lice used to just show up at peo­ple’s doors to serve war­rants, if a po­lice­man can see your ‘threat as­sess­ment’ on his phone or other de­vices he has in his car, and you’ve got a “yel­low”, well then he is go­ing to be a lit­tle more height­ened [as he comes to your door]. Plus, he’s al­ready got all that ar­mor on [any­way] and he’s ready to go. That’s why we’re see­ing all these SWAT team raids.

But why do we need SWAT team raids in Amer­ica when the FBI ad­mits that crime is at a 40-year low, and get­ting shot in the line of duty is at a 50year low. And in 2013, be­lieve it or not, the mur­der rate in Amer­ica was the low­est in a cen­tury.

So are Amer­i­cans vi­o­lent? Ob­vi­ously not. So why all the armed po­lice­men, why all the armed Fed­eral agen­cies? And yet ev­ery Fed­eral agency now has an army, ba­si­cally. Grenade launch­ers, ar­mored ve­hi­cles, and SWAT teams. Are these for those ter­ror­ists that are in­vad­ing the coun­try? (Laughs) I don’t see a lot of ter­ror­ists in­vad­ing the coun­try.

Tril­lions: That kind of po­lice ac­tion and in­creased crim­i­nal­iza­tion cre­ates other as­so­ci­ated prob­lems also. Like an in­crease in un­nec­es­sary in­car­cer­a­tion, which is al­ready a prob­lem.

John White­head: Yes, well, you know there’s a huge pri­vate prison in­dus­try, which I have writ­ten a lot about. Cor­po­ra­tions make a lot of money off of pri­vate prisons.

We have the largest prison pop­u­la­tion in the world, but one of the low­est crime rates. That should say some­thing to peo­ple. Some­thing’s go­ing on. And this is the key, if we talk about democ­racy and free­dom. If I’m go­ing to be a free cit­i­zen, I need to know what the gov­ern­ment’s do­ing, the gov­ern­ment needs to be trans­par­ent. They need to tell me what they’re do­ing, they need to tell me they are watch­ing me, and there should be alerts from the guy who’s watch­ing you.

I should know why they are in­car­cer­at­ing peo­ple, why the Chicago po­lice had a build­ing they called ‘Ho­man Square’ where they took peo­ple, and while no one knew they were do­ing this, they were tor­tur­ing them and beat­ing them up. I mean, those are ac­tual facts. All that’s been re­vealed.

We should be given the in­for­ma­tion, and there [were hints of it] but … well… the aver­age Amer­i­can atches 150 hours of tele­vi­sion a month, and that’s grow­ing with other screen de­vices ev­ery­where.

And what I say is, once you’re do­ing that, you’re not in­volved.

What democ­racy takes is an in­volved cit­i­zenry. One that says, “Hey! You’re not go­ing to be do­ing this much longer. I’m go­ing to get my picket sign and get out there on the street.” I guar­an­tee you, if you do that, your threat as­sess­ment’s go­ing to go up.

Tril­lions: So what IS the re­course for a cit­i­zen who wants to do some­thing about this? You’re de­fend­ing the cases in­volved, but what would you say to the in­di­vid­u­als out there who are con­cerned about this? Is it a lost cause? You can’t ex­actly call your Con­gress­man and ask them to help.

John White­head: Well, the fact that we’re talk­ing about this means that it’s not a lost cause. The first thing I tell peo­ple is, re­duce your num­ber of hours watch­ing [tele­vi­sion and other things]. I ask peo­ple to give us one-third of those hours for free­dom.

I’m also urg­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to start lo­cal over­sight com­mit­tees. That’s cit­i­zens get­ting to­gether and watch­ing [over] their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Sup­pose they have an egre­gious SWAT Team rate [in their area]. Now, [these over­sight com­mit­tees can] de­mand guide­lines for those SWAT teams to stop do­ing this stuff, and go by the Con­sti­tu­tion. Some peo­ple are [even] de­mil­i­ta­riz­ing and get­ting rid of all the [polic­ing] equip­ment.

Re­cently, there was a big vic­tory out in Los An­ge­les. The Los An­ge­les Public Schools with­drew all their mil­i­tary equip­ment. Why? Be­cause the stu­dents started protest­ing and other groups joined them. It took about two years and they did it.

Some peo­ple are do­ing it with phone calls, be­cause they live too far away, but [good re­sults come when] they go down to their lo­cal city coun­cil [and get in­volved]. What I say is act lo­cally, think na­tion­ally. The prob­lem with af­fect­ing na­tional pol­i­tics [was il­lus­trated in a] 2014 Prince­ton Study, [which said] that af­ter two decades study­ing ef­fects on na­tional pol­i­tics in Washington, D.C., the pro­fes­sors along with North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity came to the con­clu­sion that we live in an oli­garchy. And at the na­tional level, Amer­i­cans have very lit­tle in­put at all. Vot­ing does not mean hardly any­thing at all.

But I do know, and I’ve seen this hap­pen, that lo­cally like in the L.A. School Dis­trict here re­cently, you can make a dif­fer­ence. You just have to get to­gether in groups.

Peo­ple like Martin Luther King and others in the past showed us that there’s power in num­bers – and de­ter­mined num­bers, act­ing non-vi­o­lently, get­ting out there and get­ting ac­tive. I know gov­ern­ment politi­cians. Lis­ten, I’ve been su­ing the gov­ern­ment for forty years. They don’t like num­bers of peo­ple get­ting to­gether. That’s why they’re watch­ing peo­ple pro­test­ers, fol­low­ing their li­cense plates, read­ing them, the FBI watch­ing so­cial me­dia posts of peo­ple do­ing First Amend­ment protests. These are all acts that I out­line in my book, Battlefield Amer­ica. They don’t like it, be­cause – why? – it lim­its their power. Their power def­i­nitely needs to be lim­ited. But it can be.

So what I’m say­ing is, it’s a lot more fun caus­ing a ruckus in a City Coun­cil meet­ing over a free­dom is­sue than watch­ing a re­al­ity TV show. Lots more fun.

Tril­lions: I very much agree. I do find that es­pe­cially on the lo­cal level there’s a lot more lis­ten­ing than at the state or na­tional lev­els. Though the lo­cal po­lice do get to be a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing.

John White­head: But you know, you can af­fect po­lice. I’ve done it with po­lice. Some have read my books; I’ve had them con­tact me and visit me and say, “Hey, I’ve done some of the things you’ve talked about in your books and I’m ashamed of them.” Start and [you’ll find] they have a con­science as well. It’s just how they’re trained these days.

But don’t fall in [a com­mon] trap. I mean, a lot of peo­ple say, “I’m go­ing to get my gun, I’m go­ing to get armed,” and what I tell them – and this is a fact and you have to re­al­ize this – your lo­cal po­lice in most com­mu­ni­ties to­day, even in small towns, have enough ar­ma­ment to put down a large scale re­volt. It will not work.

But non-vi­o­lence, pick­et­ing, stuff like that, so­cial me­dia posts, get­ting ac­tive, chal­lenge your lo­cal gov­ern­ment, it drives them crazy. They don’t like it. And some­times they throw peo­ple out of City Coun­cil meet­ings, and we sue over that. You start your cases, you file law­suits, and that way we can change the face of the coun­try. But we need more peo­ple to get in­volved and less peo­ple watch­ing some­thing. So stop watch­ing so much and start do­ing. Be­cause if you’re watch­ing, you’re not do­ing.

Tril­lions: It’s funny. It al­most re­verts back to the old days of Mar­shall Mcluhan, where he talked about hot me­dia and cold me­dia. And tele­vi­sion was one of the ‘cold me­dia’ that – and they’ve demon­strated now sci­en­tif­i­cally – re­ally does put you to sleep.

John White­head: Yes it does. And his books, by the way, should be re­quired read­ing. I love his Un­der­stand­ing Me­dia, The Me­dia is the Mes­sage, those are great books, yes.

Tril­lions: As we’re talk­ing about that, one of the other dilem­mas – you’re ap­proach­ing from a slightly dif­fer­ent side of it – I re­mem­ber back in the mid-70s I was con­sid­er­ing hir­ing some­body at a com­pany I worked at who was a Soviet cit­i­zen. Very bright and the work that I was in­volved with wasn’t mil­i­tary or se­cret or any­thing, and I – fool­ishly at the time – de­cided to meet with him. I was in so much trou­ble. And yet he was not in a se­cret fa­cil­ity. But I was warned after­wards that just the idea of ‘think­ing about it’ and the idea that I might want to talk to him was con­sid­ered to be a bad thing. So one of the things that I ob­served in my­self af­ter that after­wards that I started to worry about what I sub­scribed to, who I talked to, and from my stand­point, when they got you cen­sor­ing your­self by your own mind and your own reg­u­la­tion, you are re­ally in trou­ble.

John White­head: Yes. I say that hav­ing to look over your shoul­der, to see who’s watch­ing you, that’s not a free coun­try. More and more peo­ple are ner­vous about that.

In fact, a re­cent poll shows that some­thing like 40-some­thing per­cent of Amer­i­cans are ner­vous now about what they’re post­ing on Face­book or Twit­ter and things like that. They know they’re be­ing watched. They’re get­ting the idea that get­ting ner­vous about it and if that’s true, we’re in a sad state of af­fairs. But I see that. Peo­ple are also ner­vous about as­so­ci­at­ing.

Some peo­ple say [about me], well, you’re a rebel or a rad­i­cal, and that’s true – but I go back to the books some of the great writ­ers wrote. Erich Fromm, by the way, wrote some very good books on civil dis­obe­di­ence. He was a psy­chol­o­gist. He says, “If a man can only obey and not dis­obey, he’s a slave.” And Ge­orge Or­well says, “Un­til they be­come con­scious, they will never rebel. And un­til af­ter they have re­belled, they will not be­come con­scious.” So by re­belling against il­le­git­i­mate author­ity and non-vi­o­lently, think­ing about it and speak­ing out against it, you’ve be­come con­scious. Then once you’ve be­come con­scious, you can ac­tu­ally move others and start move­ments.

So I think that’s the be­gin­ning. Free­dom starts with one in­di­vid­ual say­ing, “Enough’s enough”, and starts, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, back in the 1960s. They said, “Enough’s enough.”

Tril­lions: So that’s one part. And it sounds like an­other part is crit­i­cal think­ing, that it’s okay to chal­lenge and it’s okay to ques­tion, don’t take things au­to­matic and for granted. Com­pla­cency is a very dan­ger­ous stand.

John White­head: As I ex­plain to peo­ple, our whole re­al­ity is so­cially con­structed from the time we’re born by some­body else, whether it’s our par­ents or schools or things like that.

We even al­low things in schools to­day – and I’m re­ally wor­ried about the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem – where you can’t say words, you can’t do things I used to do all the time as a kid.

Let me give you an ex­am­ple. We had a case where a tenyear-old kid in Ohio went to the desk to get a piece of pa­per, from a teacher. It had his grades on it. On his way back to his seat, they’re fourth graders, his best friend in class made an imag­i­nary weapon with his fin­ger. Our kid made an imag­i­nary bow and ar­row and sat down. No noise was made, noth­ing. The teacher saw him do the bow and ar­row. He was pulled out­side in class and charged with a weapons vi­o­la­tion.

We’re see­ing this all of the coun­try now. We had a kid in Louisiana, who drew his un­cle who is in Afghanistan, he was a fourth grader. It was a stick fig­ure with a weapon. He took it to class and was show­ing it to a friend, and then he was taken to the Prin­ci­pal.

They talked to him about hav­ing a weapon in school. And I’m think­ing, “What kind of mind thinks like that?” A stick fig­ure a kid draws, of his un­cle. But they’re talk­ing about the weapon he had.

We had an­other case where a young grade schooler threat­ened to shoot a girl across the class­room with a spit wad, and he was jok­ing. The teacher heard it [and re­ported it]. That night at about ten o’clock, the par­ents were asleep, they had a knock on the door and the par­ents open the door. And there’s two po­lice­man stand­ing there, and the par­ents ask, “What are you do­ing here?” And the po­lice an­swer, “We’re in­ves­ti­gat­ing the shoot­ing in­ci­dent.” This is for a spit wad the kid never shot.

What we’re do­ing is you’re con­di­tion­ing peo­ple, in the schools to­day. And if that’s hap­pen­ing in your schools, I tell peo­ple, you can change that too. You can go down to the school board, say “Let’s stop this in­san­ity. Let’s stop this in­san­ity.” Sure, if some­one brings a gun into school or some­thing that can be used as a weapon, take it se­ri­ously. But don’t start pun­ish­ing these kids for thought. Be­cause that’s ex­actly what you’re do­ing. Once you pun­ish peo­ple for thoughts, they stop think­ing, as Ge­orge Or­well proph­e­sized in his book “1984”.

Tril­lions: Or they stop talk­ing about things. They won’t ques­tion and they won’t say any­thing.

John White­head: No, they clam up. But liv­ing in a free so­ci­ety, you shouldn’t be told [not to speak up].

Tril­lions: That’s a good place to move into an­other sub­ject, which is about the poor state of ed­u­ca­tion about the Con­sti­tu­tion it­self in our schools – and our civic fo­rums. The First Amend­ment and the Fourth Amend­ment aren’t even that hard to un­der­stand. Yet al­most no one I talk to ever seems to have stud­ied it, let alone un­der­stands it.

John White­head: It’s ter­ri­ble. Let me give an ex­am­ple. I have in­terns com­ing in ev­ery sum­mer. For twenty years, I’ve asked each one of them, give me the five free­doms of the first amend­ment. In 20 years I haven’t found one who can.

I also spoke to a group of lawyers a cou­ple of years ago, and in the mid­dle of my speech, I was talk­ing about the cases I han­dle. There were 150 lawyers, your Har­vard, your Berke­ley types there. I asked them, “Can any lawyer in this room give me the five free­doms of the First Amend­ment? And be care­ful, be­cause if you raise your hand, I’ll call on you.”

One guy started to raise his hand and he put it down re­ally quick. My wife was in the back of the room and she said, these lawyers were look­ing down and de­bat­ing, “What’s in the first amend­ment?” These are lawyers. So what’s hap­pened? They don’t teach it any­more. At all.

Tril­lions: And we won­der why peo­ple give up their rights so eas­ily.

John White­head: If you don’t know your rights you can’t ex­er­cise them. And you know, the First Amend­ment guar­an­tees the Right to As­sem­ble and sue the Gov­ern­ment for re­dress of griev­ances. I’m not sure Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials want that [any­way].

Tril­lions: You wrote about, in some­thing you pub­lished re­cently, about the Supreme Court push­ing back about that Right of As­sem­bly and Free Speech, by rul­ing against the right of even stand­ing out there in front of it with a sign. Which sounds like it is in di­rect vi­o­la­tion of the First Amend­ment.

John White­head: It’s the Harold Hodge case. A sin­gle pro­tes­tor on a 20,000 foot square, just to the left of the Supreme Court build­ing, on a snowy day when no one was on that square. It’s against the law to do that in front of the Supreme Court, protest with a mes­sage. It makes ab­so­lutely no sense, log­i­cally, no.

Tril­lions: So, at the risk of ask­ing other dan­ger­ous ques­tions, any thoughts about the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the United States? It’s an in­ter­est­ing year, as some­one once said. It’s one of the most in­ter­est­ing years in a long time. But in­ter­est­ing not nec­es­sar­ily in a good way.

John White­head: Well, peo­ple have a right to vote. But I would say that the Prince­ton study, which came out in 2014, is [a good ref­er­ence here too]. It showed that on a na­tional level you have vir­tu­ally no im­pact as an in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zen. So while you can vote for a Pres­i­dent, don’t ex­pect change. That’s the key. Vot­ing is [ac­tu­ally] the least thing you can do. As I say in my book, vot­ing presents the il­lu­sion of par­tic­i­pa­tion, but it’s not par­tic­i­pat­ing. And you’re vot­ing for a bil­lion­aire ev­ery time you vote, which would be part of that oli­garchy that we’ve been talk­ing about.

So if you re­ally want change, it isn’t go­ing to be that, folks. It’s go­ing to be at your lo­cal level where you can make your big­gest im­pact. Yes, you can get all ex­cited about [the na­tional elec­tions] and all that, but I have never seen a Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion which, well… Re­mem­ber Obama? Anti-war, he was go­ing to change all that? Well, last year he dropped over 20,000 bombs in the Mid­dle East.

Tril­lions: When in doubt, “get en­gaged lo­cally” is a very strong mes­sage. You have the op­por­tu­nity to speak one-on-one, and those that have the bless­ing of be­ing in a small state. When I lived in Ore­gon I ac­tu­ally got to know the gov­er­nor and could meet with the Sen­a­tors. You could ac­tu­ally talk to peo­ple, be­cause it was a small enough state. But that was al­most twenty years ago so I’m sure things have changed.

John White­head: You can’t do that to­day. I mean, even our U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives ob­scure their email ad­dresses now. They block it. They also don’t hold Town Hall meet­ings any­more. They’re not ac­ces­si­ble. But your lo­cal city coun­cil per­sons, they’re very ac­ces­si­ble.

Tril­lions: And while go­ing lo­cal the other very im­por­tant mes­sage I know you want to leave with our read­er­ship is to read, study, and know the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion.

John White­head: And the most im­por­tant part of that doc­u­ment are those first ten Amend­ments, the Bill of Rights. It’s ac­tu­ally only 462 words. If you can’t read 462 words, come on folks. It’s avail­able ev­ery­where. It’s on­line. In fact, if peo­ple go to our web­site at Ruther­ford.org, we have a Con­sti­tu­tion sec­tion and you can go in there are read your Bill of Rights.

Chicago cop ready for ac­tion - CC Photo by View­min­der / Flikr

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