Bent-over & Spread in the U.S.A.

2012 April 8
by Ando Arike

For the past several years I’ve been teaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to my freshman classes, trying to point out the ways in which the novel’s political elite is increasingly imitated by our own political elite here in “the land of the free and home of the brave.” But, in general, my students haven’t bought the comparison; mostly upper middle-class kids from the sterile and quarantined suburbs, they have little experience with police; and with even less knowledge of history or real-world politics, they simply can’t imagine how a democratic nation might turn totalitarian. Orwell’s dystopian fiction is a far-off abstraction; the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the Department of Homeland Security, warrantless wiretapping — these, too, are similarly abstract and, moreover, intended for someone else. Muslims, for instance.

This incomprehension changed last week, when the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to grant police wide authority to strip-search anyone they intend to hold in jail, however minor the charge. The image of a cop poking around one’s private regions evokes a visceral reaction, and when I read the New York Times article on the decision in class, I could literally see my students squirming in their chairs. “How can they do that?” my students asked. “What about the Constitution?”

I told them that the U.S. Constitution was ancient history, a dead letter. “Haven’t you been listening to me—you have no rights,” I said. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. War is Peace.

It’s instructive to look at the particulars of the case that resulted in this ruling, because the frivolity and arbitrariness of the police seem to indicate how these expanded search powers will be used to intimidate and punish alleged “enemies of the state.”  The plaintiff who brought the case to the high court had been arrested (mistakenly) for an unpaid fine on a traffic violation (which had actually been paid), and strip-searched twice while he was held for six days in two New Jersey jails. Needless to say, he is black. From the New York Times:

The case decided Monday, Florence v. County of Burlington, No. 10-945, arose from the arrest of Albert W. Florence in New Jersey in 2005. Mr. Florence was in the passenger seat of his BMW when a state trooper pulled his wife, April, over for speeding. A records search revealed an outstanding warrant for Mr. Florence’s arrest based on an unpaid fine. (The information was wrong; the fine had been paid.)

Mr. Florence was held for a week in jails in Burlington and Essex Counties, and he was strip-searched in each. There is some dispute about the details, but general agreement that he was made to stand naked in front of a guard who required him to move intimate parts of his body. The guards did not touch him.

“Turn around,” Mr. Florence, in an interview last year, recalled being told by jail officials. “Squat and cough. Spread your cheeks.”

“I consider myself a man’s man,” said Mr. Florence, a finance executive for a car dealership. “Six-three. Big guy. It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man.”

The Supreme Court’s decision endorsed a trend in the lower courts that allowed strip-searches of everyone admitted to a jail’s general population, which, in effect, could be anyone the police wanted to hold for more than a couple of hours. Intentionally or not, the ruling gives carte blanche to police agencies nationwide to abuse and intimidate anyone unlucky enough to fall into their clutches. Again, the Times:

According to opinions in the lower courts, people may be strip-searched after arrests for violating a leash law, driving without a license and failing to pay child support. Citing examples from briefs submitted to the Supreme Court, Justice Breyer [one of four dissenting Justices] wrote that people have been subjected to “the humiliation of a visual strip-search” after being arrested for driving with a noisy muffler, failing to use a turn signal and riding a bicycle without an audible bell.

A nun was strip-searched, he wrote, after an arrest for trespassing during an antiwar demonstration.

A nun, even! Yes, we can! She was a “protester”, wasn’t she? What do these people expect? Consider that the Obama DOJ filed an amicus brief in favor of the expanded strip-search authority, and consider the scenario described below. According to Stephen Bergstein writing in Z Magazine,

At oral argument, a lawyer for the Obama Justice Department told the Supreme Court that “[p]rotesters…who decide deliberately to get arrested… might be stopped by the police, they see the squad car behind them. They might have a gun or contraband in their car and think hey, I’m going to put that on my person, I just need to get it somewhere that is not going to be found during a patdown search, and then potentially they have the contraband with them.”

I think it’s fair to say that the Occupy movement and any future mass civil disobedience are clear targets of this ruling.


Like the x-ray “pornoscanners” and “aggressive” pat-downs that airline passengers must now endure, the strip-search ruling seems designed to accustom Americans to the heavy-handed presence of the police, even in the most intimate areas of their lives. Each year, some 13 million Americans find themselves in the greasy clutches of the so-called “criminal justice system,” an experience which may soon include a strip-search at whatever level of invasiveness local jail officials, prosecutors, and politicians desire.  Indeed, it seems likely that the procedure will quickly become a routine ritual of humiliation bordering on torture, in the way that U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo routinely used forced nudity to reduce detainees to submission. (And it is interesting, as Naomi Wolf points out, that in his decision Justice Kennedy uses the military “War on Terror” term “detainee” rather than “inmate” or “arrestee”.)

Human rights lawyer Scott Horton writes in his Harper’s “No Comment” blog:

Just as the Florence decision was being prepared, the Department of Defense released a previously classified training manual used to prepare American pilots for resistance to foreign governments that might use illegal and immoral techniques to render them cooperative. Key in this manual are the precise practices highlighted in Florence. Body-cavity searches are performed, it explains, to make the prisoner “feel uncomfortable and degraded.” Forced nudity and invasion of the body make the prisoner feel helpless, by removing all items that provide the prisoner with psychological support. In other words, the strip search is an essential step in efforts to destroy an individual’s sense of self-confidence, well-being, and even his or her identity. The value of this tool has been recognized by authoritarian governments around the world, and now, thanks to the Roberts Court, it will belong to the standard jailhouse repertoire in the United States. Something to consider the next time you walk Fido without scooping up his droppings—a cop may well be watching, ready to seize the opportunity to invade your rectum. [Emphasis mine–AA.]

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