Introduction: John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization internationally headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute's president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute's website and distributed to several hundred newspapers. The author of numerous books on a variety of legal and social issues (his most recent is A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State) as well as pamphlets and brochures providing legal information to the general public, Whitehead has also written numerous magazine and journal articles.
Anthony Wile: Thank you for talking with us today. We know you're rushed so let's jump right in. Tell us about the Rutherford Institute, your nonprofit civil liberties organization. You describe your mission as twofold: "to provide legal services in the defense of religious and civil liberties and to educate the public on important issues affecting their constitutional freedoms." How has that expanded in practice since your founding, in 1982?
John Whitehead: The mission's expanded because the central problems with the government – surveillance, swat team raids, innocent citizens getting shot – all those things have expanded. Most of those issues, when the Rutherford Institute was founded some 30 years ago, didn't exist. Many of the cases we get involved in are school cases where, for instance, four-year-old kids are arrested and taken to a police station have leg shackles put on them. Naturally, because of the issues of people who come to us and ask for help, that's expanded our mission.
Basically, it's been expanded by the fact that these people have not found any help through other groups or whatever so they come to us and we help them. That educates us. I write a weekly commentary that's on almost all the big blogs where I talk about these issues, and some of them are related to the clients we handle. So our mission's expanded because the violations against civil liberties have expanded.
Anthony Wile: How are you able to provide your legal services at no charge?
John Whitehead: I raise money. It's very difficult. It's not easy. The kind of cases we handle are cases that, like I said, a lot of groups don't see as important. There was a case we had in Florida about six months ago where a single mom, on a sunny afternoon, was making dinner and her son wanted to go play at the playground about half a mile down the road. She told him he could and he road his bicycle – which he did every day to school, by the way – to the playground. Police saw him, grabbed the kid, threw him in the back of the car, went home and arrested the mother on the front porch, handcuffed behind her back, for child neglect. We got involved in the case and got the charges dismissed. She's extremely grateful still, six months later, for what we did for her. She was facing five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Those are the kind of cases we get involved in. They expand the mission. I would say that our basic focus is to make sure we provide the services that the little folks out there need, not just take on the big issues – NSA surveillance or Department of Homeland Security, all the things in this country like that. I want to make sure that, if we can do it, we provide those services. Again, we have to raise money to pay the legal expenses, and find lawyers that will donate their time.
Anthony Wile: While you originally intended to encourage Christians to "play a more active role in the courts and society" you have consistently stood up for religious rights irrespective of religion, haven't you?
John Whitehead: Oh, yes. We've defended everybody – Muslims, Jewish people, people I don't agree with, some very hateful people who do things on public sidewalks I wouldn't agree with. But we have a First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. Like I always say, if someone's on the street corner speaking and they have a right to be out there, I don't have to agree with their message; if they have the right to speak, surely I'll have the right to speak. So I support people. If they have a right to say it, I'll support them no matter what they believe.
Anthony Wile: Has that caused backlash?
John Whitehead: Yes. People assume if you're a lawyer you always identify with your client or you agree with them. I don't a lot of times. I've had clients that have told me they think I'm despicable for basically what I believe but I've defended them anyway. These are religious clients, by the way.
Anthony Wile: Do you find it's harder to raise money because you don't limit your clientele to a narrow ideological or religious bent?
John Whitehead: It makes it much more difficult, yeah. Again, I'll have people say, "How could you agree with something like that?" I have to write them back and say, "I don't agree with what they're saying or what they're doing, necessarily, but if they don't have a right to say it …" – and I always quote James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment. He said the First Amendment was written to protect the minority against the majority. He wasn't talking about racial minorities; he was talking about that person who was out there and offends everybody.
That's what the First Amendment in our country is designed to protect, that person who people think is a weirdo or whatever. But that person, he or she, should have a right to speak, in my opinion. We can be judgmental; we can want to put them down. I don't want to do any of that. I want to see freedom flourish and the only way it can flourish is if we are extra tolerant.
Anthony Wile: The schools are certainly less tolerant these days, and you've written a good deal on that as well as the more general authoritarian state. Why, in particular, does the school issue concern you so much?
John Whitehead: Schools issue is key because the schools form the next generation. In this country we have really strident zero-tolerance policies. We've had some very, very strange cases. I'll give you an example or two.
We had a fourth-grader in Louisiana who had an uncle who was fighting in Iraq. While he was home one night after dinner, he drew a stick figure of his uncle carrying a rifle. It was a very crude drawing; he was a fourth-grade kid. He tucked it into his lunchbox and took it to school and while he was showing kids at lunch, a teacher saw it. He was removed from school for violating a zero-tolerance policy against weapons. This is a piece of paper and a drawing. But we get those kinds of cases. Crazy. To me, again, that's freedom of expression. He wasn't bringing it to school to blow anybody up and everybody knew that but they cited him with a weapons violation anyway.
We had another case in Pennsylvania about a year and a half ago where a young man went up to the teacher's desk, another fourth-grader, to get a paper from the teacher. When he turned to walk back to his seat one of his best friends silently pointed his finger like a gun and silently went "Pow." Made no noise. The kid we were helping, Johnny Hill – and you can look up the case – did an imaginary bow and arrow back, just one arrow, and sat down. He was pulled from class and cited with violating a weapons policy. Now, of course, he didn't have a weapon; he was using his fingers. He had seen the movie "Brave." He was taken out and was going to be removed from school. We fought that and got his record cleaned up and got him put back in school.
The problem with a lot of these violations, too, is with the records now. If they keep it on the record, that's a weapons violation. That's going to pop in the future so we try to get their records cleaned.
I think what we're teaching kids today in the schools, in this country especially, is to put their heads down, don't debate, you can't be yourself, you have to fit in really well. To me, that's not education; that's indoctrination. I've studied history. I've written over 30 books, my last one being A Government of Wolves where I talk about this some. All of the regimes that have emerged, where they formed a compliant citizenry was in the public schools, where everybody was going. We have to be careful we don't repeat those mistakes.
Anthony Wile: Given that the United States is at war and has been throughout these kids' lives-
John Whitehead: The country has been at war since 1917, continual wars, but go ahead.
Anthony Wile: Well, yes. Where are kids able to process the emotional aspects of war that really hits home, like this kid whose uncle was fighting in Iraq? They're not allowed to do it in the schools, with their friends. What does that lead to, in a country that's so militarized?
John Whitehead: It's called a public school. It's a state-governed facility. Again, our Constitution should apply to basic freedoms. If a kid's merely expressing himself normally … Let me give you another case. We had one case where a kid put toy soldiers on his hat, the little plastic ones that lay down. He was cited for a weapons violation. Again, if you go to our website, our cases are legion of kids saying the wrong word or this or that.
What it leads to is what I've said before – it leads not to a system of education. Education should be debate. It should be where you're allowed to disagree, to read a controversial book if you want to read it in class. That's certainly not been the case for people who have worked for me.One young guy who came in, a top graduate at a major university. He said to me one day, "I feel cheated." I asked why. He said, "I was never able to read 1984 by George Orwell. It was banned in my school." I said, "You're kidding me." It is in this country. He said, "I never could read Mark Twain, either."
That type of system is one that is only going to breed one kind of person and that is basically people who are uninformed, not allowed to debate or read great literature because someone might find an offending word in it, those kinds of things. You can't dance around the truth. If you do allow state institutions to enforce that mentality then that becomes the new normal. That's what Hannah Arendt wrote, by the way, in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, a book I impress people to read. She wrote it right after the holocaust. She referred to the "banality of evil." The state makes the abnormal normal and then people go about doing abnormal things in their normal life, which in that case would be rounding people up for disagreeing. The Nazis did that, by the way. Those people were called asocial and were put in concentration camps because they did not agree with what was going on in the government.
I'm fearing … To be honest with you, and I'm not a conspiratorialist, but the way I see things moving in America, especially, we're on the verge of doing those kind of things. When you're pulling kids out of class and handcuffing them, like in some of the cases I've detailed, it makes absolutely no sense except you're rearing up some kind of regime facility that's going to try to produce a uniform citizenry.
To me, freedom is not uniformity. It's diversity. It's debate. It's getting out there and disagreeing with the government, the schoolteachers or whoever's doing something you don't like, and not getting punished for it and certainly not put in jail for it.
Anthony Wile: To what do you attribute this increased authoritarianism in the US?
John Whitehead: Princeton and Northwestern University did a study last year where they looked at all the policies for the last 20 years and came to the conclusion that, in America, we don't really live in a democracy anymore. We live in an oligarchy. Government is run by an oligarchical elite. This is a university study, as I said, by Princeton and Northwestern.
It confirms what a lot of the Occupy people have been saying, that there's this 1% that has a tremendous influence. They have a tremendous influence in the government and a lot of these policies are pushed in that direction. The corporate influence is very strong in schools. I don't know if you have it in Canada but in America you have kids going home with corporate products, in-class pizza parties funded by Pizza Hut, those kind of things. Again, I don't think private businesses should be in schools promoting their products or their uniformity. Again, you sell products not by having diversity or debate but by having everybody agreeing to buy products. I think a lot of this is pushed through the government by large business concerns and we're seeing what happens to anybody that upsets the apple cart.
We have cases where people just want to live off the grid. They don't want to take electricity or water from the government. They get arrested for it, or their homes are condemned as being unsafe. Now, do you live in a free country where you say, "I just want to collect rainwater," but that is against the law in many towns in America? "I want to have solar panels on my house." Well, you're fined extra if you do that.
Why is that happening? Because the electric companies, and water companies, etc. are so powerful in governmental circles. They're making money when you flush the toilet, drink water, use electricity. Some people don't want to do that anymore but they get punished for it. What I'm saying is that – and again, this is all confirmed by that Princeton study, not conspiracy stuff – what we're seeing is that there's a uniformity being pushed on this country by what I would call the corporate elite.
Everybody knows that you can't run for president in the United States unless you have corporate backing. When Romney and Obama ran for office I had a group of university students do a study of who was funding them. They came back and said, "You won't be surprised." They showed me the list of corporations and virtually the same corporations were funding both. When I looked at it I said, "Oh, we're electing a corporation." They agreed.
Anthony Wile: Here in Canada there's recently been a huge "anti-bullying" push in the schools that's reached a point where almost anything can be construed as bullying. The repercussions of kids' actions are most heavily borne by the parents, including loss of the opportunity to have Internet access in a family's home for a kid "cyber-bullying," even if it's happening while they're at school.
John Whitehead: The same thing's happening here and that's another thing I'm saying. When I was growing up in school, bullying was some guy waiting outside the room to beat you up. That's nuts and it should be controlled. But because students disagree now, that's called bullying. In schools here, for instance, if some kid doesn't like what another student's saying it's called bullying. That destroys free speech. You should put those two kids in a situation with a teacher in the middle and say, "Let's debate the issue."
Here, it's the same thing when they're at home. We've had a couple cases where kids have said something online about a teacher and the next day they're called in to the office. The NSA has actually called some schools and reported kids for Facebook posts. That's another issue. We live in a surveillance state. We've dealt with a number of people who have been arrested for Facebook posts. They're getting arrested for what I would call normal First Amendment rants.
Anthony Wile: Hasn't this become an endless catch-22? Authority has been taken out of parents' hands – which you wrote about in "The Tyranny of the Nanny State, Where the Government Knows What's Best for You." When children "act up" in school, the police are called rather than parents, yet authorities often then hold the parents accountable for the behavior of their kids, over whom thye have no authority. You wrote about a father being arrested for administering one spank to his misbehaving three-year-old. Is there any way for that cycle to be broken? Do you see this as a continuance of the State's effort to completely take over the raising of our children?
John Whitehead: There's no doubt about that. A child spends most of his or her waking hours in school. I talked to some young kids that I'm around, fourth- and fifth-graders, who said things to me that are so weird. They listed some words that are "bad words." One was stupid. They said these are words they can no longer say in school. I said, "Wait a second. You can't say, 'I did a stupid thing'?" They went, "No."
Obviously, they've been engrained with these ideas by our government officials, who are teachers or administrators or whatever. In this country the social workers are very, very strong. I talk with parents who get in a lot of trouble, just like the case I was telling you about where the young lady let her kid walk down to the playground and got arrested for it. In this country parents are no longer, in my opinion, the director of their children. That's obvious from the cases we see. It is a catch-22, yes.
What are people doing about it? Some are doing home educating. Others are sending kids to private schools, which are in my opinion better alternatives to public schools. People should think about that. If you're expecting your child to come out of school with what I would call a traditional education in the sense that I got, you're not going to get that now. When they don't even know when they graduate from high school what Martin Luther King wrote or don't know what Mark Twain wrote or don't know what George Orwell wrote or Aldous Huxley, we've got a problem.
Anthony Wile: As you said, most people seem to be aware that corporations are essentially running the elections but they don't seem to be aware of many of the abuses pointed out, for instance, in your horrifying recent column, "Handcuffs, Leg Shackles and Tasers: The New Face of Punishment in the Public Schools."
John Whitehead: They don't know it because the media doesn't report it. When I tell people there are 80,000 SWAT team raids occurring across America on a daily basis most people are shocked. The mainstream media doesn't report a lot of this stuff. All media that we see in this country is controlled by six corporate entities. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to get a point of view that what's on the air is controlled. Look at Fox, the ranting and raving, look at MSNBC, CNN. At the end of the day on most issues you're going to get the same point of view. There's not a lot of diversity. So a lot of this people don't know because the news is not reporting it, or you've got guys like Brian Williams who are not telling the truth.
But I do so many interviews and there are a lot of entities out there, like your site, some of the smaller TV studios, etc. The independent people out there are doing a good job of reporting this but they're not getting out there like Fox or CNN, which go into everybody's homes. I think there are a lot of especially young journalists, by the way, that are really, really good. They get it. But you're not going to get it on CNN.
Another problem is that many people rely on their local newspapers. You're not going to get it in local newspapers, either, because many of your local newspapers are owned by large corporate moguls. That's a danger, by the way, to not have local newspapers anymore in this country. You just don't get this information in the news.
What I tell people is, you're probably not going to get it on television so do your own research. Go to websites likes ours and others where we do reporting on what's going on. That's the only way you can get the news. Most people aren't going to do that. The average American watches 150 hours of television a month so they're going to be greatly influenced by what they see on the corporate media. It's a little scary.
Let me give you an idea of how bad it is. I do a summer intern program where law students come study with me. For 20-some years I've been asking the students the same questions in the initial interview. "Tell me about your father, your mother," etc. Then I ask them if they can give me the five freedoms in the First Amendment. I have yet to find one who can. They don't teach it in the schools in America anymore, so they're clueless. They're clueless as to what their freedoms are.
Anthony Wile: People who don't know what their constitutional freedoms are supposed to be are obviously not horrified about losing them. They don't even know what's happening, do they?
John Whitehead: That's true. People ask how, in the streets of Milwaukee or Oakland, for instance, can 50 people stand and watch a couple cops have a guy bend over and they stick their fingers in his anus. Now, they've been sued, but the point is, the people watch that and walk off. That violates the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. You're supposed to have probable cause before you touch an American citizen. They've been doing rectal searches in some of those cities while people watch it. In New York, where they do so many stop-and-frisks, people just stand and watch it. No one objects.
Now, that's emblematic of former bad countries where things went wrong. I'd like to paint you a pretty picture but on this one I can't. I do paint, by the way, but I couldn't paint a pretty picture of America today.
Anthony Wile: Given the increased authoritarianism of the police forces and the fact that people are watching things like this happen, apparently with no reaction, you're saying, what will it take to turn it around? Or can it even be done?
John Whitehead: I have a new book coming out in a couple months and in my research I continued my in-depth study of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. To be honest with you, I'm not sure people are going to wake up. I hope they do. Again, I go back to our educational system, and I'll give you another example of how bad it is. I've had African-American students who are studying African-American literature and culture in school. When they come in, we talk for a while and I say, "I bet you like Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail." They've never read it. They've never read his literature.
Let me go back and say why my reasoning is so. We've had some great leaders who made tremendous strides, like King and others, but they're not emphasized in education. When we talk about Martin Luther King now, he's a statute in Washington, DC. We don't talk about the guy that was radical. He wanted to shut down Washington, DC. Before he got shot, he wanted to build a shantytown and be there a month. He said we're basically going to shut down the town because Congress doesn't listen anymore. He called it militant non-violent resistance. If we got together in large groups in America, nonviolently – that's the key, very nonviolent – petition the government and do the things that King stressed, I think we could change the country.
But do I think we're going to get Americans up off of their big behinds to do that? Not unless we find a way to get them off the television sets. There have been a couple studies – for instance, Bruce Levine did a really good article in the New York Times – on how television makes everybody compliant. I've actually talked to some prison people by the way, assistant wardens, and they tell me if the prison starts getting a little tense what they do is show a move on the TV. One guy said, "Everybody goes into a big smile. It's over. That's how we get compliant citizens."
How we're going to break this cycle of bread and circuses entertainment in America, I don't know. Again, there's a strong, small, building group of young folks I'm meeting who are not happy. They want to change things and I hope that spirit lives on. The only way you can change the flow of history in a country like the United States is through nonviolent protests – but they have to be ongoing and they have to be planned. Martin Luther King is the model, by the way. I've studied him. He knew how to plan things and he knew how to move folks.
Anthony Wile: There are those who would, in response, point out the "non-lethal weaponry" the police departments have now …
John Whitehead: Oh, yeah, and drones, too. That's another thing. With drones flying over this country – 20,000 by 2020, and they're going to have lasers, tasers, rubber bullets, all the facial recognition software, be able to hack into Wi-Fi … When you have protests those things are going to be hovering and they're going to cause some problems. My feeling is by the time they start doing this stuff it will be too late, unfortunately.
What I'm saying in my books, my commentaries – and again, they're all footnoted – should bring people up out of their chairs and saying, "Let's get down to our local city councils. Let's get them to change some things." You can do it there. You can make a big impact locally. That's what I emphasize. I tell people to act locally, think nationally. You can change things in Selma and Birmingham and Peoria and Charlottesville, wherever you might be. You just have to focus on your local community and get those things under control and then think about Washington. In my opinion, they don't listen to us in Washington, though, because we, the average folk, don't have the money to influence them.
Anthony Wile: In spite of this, in your column the week of Valentine's Day you wrote you're not yet "breaking up with America."
John Whitehead: Yeah. I get these emails from people in foreign countries telling me to leave the country. I say, the NSA has bases all over the world. They have a big one in Canada, where you are. Canada's part of the Five Eyes program: New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and the US. There's not many places you can go. If they feel you're an irritating person and they want to come get you, they can come get you so I know that's not an alternative.
I'm committed enough to freedom here and have met enough people now that are starting to listen that I think there's some hope.
Anthony Wile: That was our next question: Are you pessimistic or optimistic, generally?
John Whitehead: I'm realistic. I'm not a pessimist or I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I would quit and go into retirement. I'm a realistic. I believe things look really, really bad but they have in the past. I'll go back and refer to King. His house was firebombed, they tried to kill him, yet he persevered and he changed the face of the United States. All it takes is a really strong movement that's consistent and moves forward. You can change things and there are some young people out there that I hope are going to do that.
My biggest fear is all the electronic devices. Everybody's got their heads down all the time looking at something. There's a good movie, by the way, that very few people have seen. You ought to see it. It's called "Zero Theorem" by Terry Gilliam who did "Brazil" and other big movies. It didn't get much play but his basic philosophy is that everybody's so mesmerized by their selfies and stuff that no one's going to do anything. He may be correct. Again, it's worth watching.
Anthony Wile: Tell us about your new book and where people should watch for it. And in the meantime, what should we be reading now?
John Whitehead: I'm just putting the new book together. It's supposed to be out in April and I'll have some more on that probably in about two to three weeks. The book people should look at now is A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.
As for my weekly commentary, that's a public service. I just want to get the word out and get people to think about freedom because the future looks very strange to me.
Anthony Wile: Thank you very much.
John Whitehead: Thank you for your good work.
We thank Mr Whitehead for this inspiring interview. His perspective on public schools is especially pertinent since nothing seems to be standing in the way of a trend toward even more academic authoritarianism.
I tell people to act locally, think nationally. You can change things in Selma and Birmingham and Peoria and Charlottesville, wherever you might be. You just have to focus on your local community and get those things under control and then think about Washington. In my opinion, they don't listen to us in Washington, though, because we, the average folk, don't have the money to influence them.
Certainly the idea of active, local involvement holds the promise of change in a way that large political and social movements do not.
Inevitably large movements are co-opted by society's power brokers but small local movements are often impervious to such manipulation. And such "movements" are mostly about self-education anyway – or people educating each other.
The Internet itself is quite useful in this regard because it has revealed so much that was unknown about history's patterns. Use the Internet to reveal how society was gradually centralized in the US and the West generally.
Use the Internet to cast light not only on the problems caused by such centralization but also potential solutions. Human action – independent approaches to nutrition, education, self-defense and employment can all be investigated on the 'Net along with commentary by those who are on similar journeys.
People like Mr. Whitehead are invaluable assets because their guidance provides us with appropriate models and appropriate direction.
Taking personal responsibility for one's own actions – while helping loved ones, friends and neighbors in their journey toward self-sufficiency – is surely the antidote to society's large manipulations.
And as he points out, from such local activism can grow a national movement, one individual at a time.