How Wisconsin Democrats are like Stalin’s secret police

How Wisconsin Democrats are like Stalin’s secret police

David French has a searing, painful article at NRO about the tactics wielded by Democratic prosecutors and a compliant state judge against conservative activists in Wisconsin over the last few years.

It’s must-reading.  State Democrats, who are trying to intimidate and harass Scott Walker’s supporters into silence, are using the means afforded by Wisconsin’s so-called “John Doe” investigation procedure.  French describes what’s different about a John Doe investigation:

John Doe investigations alter typical criminal procedure in two important ways: First, they remove grand juries from the investigative process, replacing the ordinary citizens of a grand jury with a supervising judge. Second, they can include strict secrecy requirements not just on the prosecution but also on the targets of the investigation.

In practice, this has resulted in prosecutors sending SWAT teams to the homes and offices of targeted persons; the police terrifying families and employees, creating huge messes and even damage, and making off with computers and phones; and then telling the targets that they can’t talk to anyone about what happened to them – with no guarantee of any kind that there will ever be outside accountability for what has been done to the citizens and families.


French describes one of the home raids:

It was early in the morning — very early — and it was the kind of heavy pounding that meant someone was either fleeing from — or bringing — trouble.

“It was so hard. I’d never heard anything like it. I thought someone was dying outside.”

[“Anne” – not her real name] ran to the door, opened it, and then chaos. “People came pouring in. For a second I thought it was a home invasion. It was terrifying. They were yelling and running, into every room in the house. One of the men was in my face, yelling at me over and over and over.”

It was indeed a home invasion, but the people who were pouring in were Wisconsin law-enforcement officers. Armed, uniformed police swarmed into the house. Plainclothes investigators cornered her and her newly awakened family. Soon, state officials were seizing the family’s personal property, including each person’s computer and smartphone, filled with the most intimate family information.

“Anne’s” family was warned to keep silent.

As if the home invasion, the appropriation of private property, and the verbal abuse weren’t enough, next came ominous warnings.

Don’t call your lawyer.

Don’t tell anyone about this raid. Not even your mother, your father, or your closest friends.

The entire neighborhood could see the police around their house, but they had to remain silent. This was not the “right to remain silent” as uttered by every cop on every legal drama on television — the right against self-incrimination. They couldn’t mount a public defense if they wanted — or even offer an explanation to family and friends.

As French explains, this has had a serious dampening effect on conservative activism and fundraising.

The investigation not only damaged families, it also shut down their free speech. In many cases, the investigations halted conservative groups in their tracks. [Eric] O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth described the effect in court filings:

O’Keefe’s associates began cancelling meetings with him and declining to take his calls, reasonably fearful that merely associating with him could make them targets of the investigation. O’Keefe was forced to abandon fundraising for the Club because he could no longer guarantee to donors that their identities would remain confidential, could not…explain to potential donors the nature of the investigation, could not assuage donors’ fears that they might become targets themselves, and could not assure donors that their money would go to fund advocacy rather than legal expenses.

So: police power used arbitrarily, for secret, undisclosed reasons to invade citizens’ homes, terrify their families, seize their records and electronic media.  The targeted citizens warned not to tell anyone what was going on.  The targeted citizens’ associates afraid to associate with them, because of the intimidation.

Stalin’s Soviet empire

Now compare these features with the practices of Stalin’s NKVD – secret police – in the 1930s and 1940s.  There is a variety of accounts of NKVD home raids online, told by the people who endured them.  Some of these accounts, especially from Soviet Russia in the 1930s, involved searches for diaries, other documents, and prohibited items like typesetting and mimeograph machines – i.e., the computers and cell phones of the day.

In the Eastern Europe of the war years, most accounts ended the same way: with the arrest and deportation of the household to the brutal labor camps of the Central and Eastern USSR.

Here is one typical narrative:

During the night of 14 March 1940 the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) banged on the door of Richard Lysakowski’s family home in Poland. They demanded that the door be opened! Richard’s aunt opened the door and three soldiers with bayonet tipped rifles entered the house. They searched the house thoroughly.

Richard slowly realised they must be looking for the printing type he had taken from a Soviet print shop. It was hidden under the sauerkraut barrel. He was able to give quick instructions to his aunt who lifted the heavy object and threw it into the snow. The soldiers did not find what they were looking for. They arrested the teenage Richard and took him to the prison in Lutsk.

And another (recorded verbatim from an oral account; some punctuation corrected for legibility):

Now is two o’clock at night. They knocked in the door, I open and two NKVD “wertuchaj” [original text: this is the surname for NKVD soldiers] with the janitor came in.  They even didn’t show the order for arrest but right away started the search.  Really the demolition of the room. I didn’t have the right to talk, to move only to sit on my chair.  They, the jackals are throwing all my books, notes, papers photos into a big sack. When my husband was arrested they did the same.  Now they finishing the robbery. They found photos of my family, my brothers in France together with me and my husband. -Look- said one “wertuchaj” to the other – this is a picture of real burjua spy,s [J.E.: meaning unclear] and throwing it into the bag. … The demolition ended and the janitor took my key to lock the door. He squeezed my hand very hard, looked me in my eyes with tears in his.

This account is from a woman who immigrated to America after the war:

While [Martha] was teaching at Halbstadt in 1937, the Russian secret police (NKVD) knocked on the door of her parents’ home at New Danzig in the middle of the night.

When the father opened the door, the police said they were looking for a diary which Mattheis had kept for many years. Mattheis, who refused to tell, had hidden his diary under the mattress where his sons were sleeping.

Without being permitted to say goodbye to his children, Ida, 13; Daniel, 10, and Ernest, 7, Mattheis was forcibly taken from his home and was never seen again by his family.

Ida awoke and was crying when police took her father. One of the secret service men yelled, “What are you bawling about?”

These things happened to literally millions of people who fell under Stalin’s span of control.  The fear of neighbors and associates, when a friend or neighbor was attacked by the NKVD, is expressed poignantly by celebrated violinist David Oistrakh in a book written by Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya in the 1980s.  Oistrakh was reacting to the fact that associates of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union had been courageous enough to give him sanctuary.

I won’t play the hypocrite with you: I would never have taken him in. To tell the truth, I’m afraid. My wife and I lived through ’37, when night after night every person in Moscow feared his arrest. In our building, only our apartment and the one facing it on the same floor survived the arrests. All the other tenants had been taken off to God knows where. Every night I expected the worst, and I set aside some warm underwear and a bit of food for the inevitable moment. You can’t imagine what we went through, listening for the fatal knock on the door or the sound of a car pulling up. One night a Black Maria stopped out in front. Who were they coming for? Us or the neighbours? The downstairs door slammed and the elevator began its ascent. Finally it stopped on our floor. We listened to the footsteps, and went numb. Whose door would they come to? An eternity passed. Then we heard them ring at the apartment across from us. Since that moment, I have known I’m not a fighter…

Officers of the NKVD - pioneers in militarized policing - photographed in the early 1940s.
Officers of the NKVD – pioneers in militarized policing – photographed in the early 1940s.

Elita Koch Witt, a Ukrainian woman born in 1923, writes also of the fear struck in others by secret police attacks on friends and neighbors.  This passage from her 2006 memoir The Midnight Knock on the Door, describing events in 1936 at the height of Stalin’s Terror, is worth quoting at some length:

When I came back to school in the fall I found that a classmate’s parents had been arrested.  Lida’s parents were arrested, sentenced to death and shot after only a few days.  Lida’s father and mother were both engineers and both were members of the Communist Party. …

Imagine how much of a shock it was to discover that her parents had been arrested. …

When Lida came back to school she was avoided by everyone.  It was as if she had a contagious disease.  Students were afraid to talk to her or to be seen with her.  They were afraid to look into her eyes so as not to see her despair. …

One day we were summoned for a meeting by the Komsomol leader in our school. … [H]e said that we all knew that Lida was an exemplary, model student with the greatest potential of becoming a real Bolshevik but that she was betrayed by her parents who were exposed as “enemies” of the Soviet State and therefore were Lida’s enemies as well.  But, he continued, being a true Bolshevik, Lida had overcome her family ties and was ready to declare her parents as traitors deserving of their sentence.

Lida, fifteen years old and white as a ghost, stood up in front of the class and in a hardly audible voice agreed with the Party’s decision on her parents’ sentence.  We sat through it all in a stony silence.  When it was over none of us moved for quite a while.  When we came out of the classroom Lida slipped me a little note… [S]he would like to meet me in a certain place in the Shevchenko Park.

When we met…we looked around carefully to make sure no one was watching us.  Then she told me that it was extremely important to her that I should know that her parents were innocent of any wrong-doings.  She had been pressured into saying what she did because she wanted to go live with her grandmother in Cherson.  Otherwise she would become a ward of the State in a children’s home.  She said her parents were already dead so it did not make much more of a difference to her as to what she had to say in front of the classroom, but because I was her best friend she wanted me to know what the real situation was.


We both knew we would not see each other again.  I wanted to put my arms around her and cry with her and comfort her, but we were afraid to stay a minute longer, so we walked away from each other bewildered and sad.

Witt goes on to make a profound point about the effects of the silence imposed on a whole population by the fear of an unaccountable government wielding police power (emphasis added):

These were dangerous times where friendships were concerned.  One could not help friends or speak out on their behalf no matter how faultless one knew them to be. …

The arrests caused a most incredible phenomenon.  Even though they were happening all around us, no one really believed that it could happen to them or to any member of their family.  Each person thought that those arrested had to be guilty of something.  It was obviously a defense reaction of denial.

Those who had family or close friends arrested knew that they were innocent of the charges brought against them.  But there were those people who had not yet been hurt personally by suffering such a loss.  Influenced by the propaganda, some of these people believed that the country was penetrated with spies and saboteurs.  They defended the regime’s actions.

(Excerpts from pp. 67-69)

Consider, in light of these reminiscences, the lingering effects David French reports on Wisconsin families:

For some of the families, the trauma of the raids, combined with the stress and anxiety of lengthy criminal investigations, has led to serious emotional repercussions. “Devastating” is how Anne describes the impact on her family. “Life-changing,” she says. “All in terrible ways.”

O’Keefe, who has been in contact with multiple targeted families, says, “Every family I know of that endured a home raid has been shaken to its core, and the fate of marriages and families still hangs in the balance in some cases.” …

Cindy says, “I lock my doors and I close my shades. I don’t answer the door unless I am expecting someone. My heart races when I see a police car sitting in front of my house or following me in the car. The raid was so public. I’ve been harassed. My house has been vandalized. [She did not identify suspects.] I no longer feel safe, and I don’t think I ever will.”

Rachel talks about the effect on her children. “I tried to create a home where the kids always feel safe. Now they know they’re not. They know men with guns can come in their house, and there’s nothing we can do.” Every knock on the door brings anxiety. Every call to the house is screened. In the back of her mind is a single, unsettling thought: These people will never stop.

Set this trauma beside the inevitable defense some leftists will make of the tactics used by the Democratic prosecutors in Wisconsin.  Set everything in this post beside the point some leftists will make that no one has been deported to Siberia out of these secretive home raids, or been charged by a kangaroo court and summarily shot.  As if that makes it a non-emergency, that innocent people’s lives are being brutally disrupted by the misuse of police power for political purposes.

Politics as usual versus American liberty

Here’s what matters.  If the prosecutors in Wisconsin can do what they’re already doing, without being exposed, stopped cold, and punished, there is nothing to stop them from going further.  The line of effective unaccountability in the use of police power has already been crossed.

That’s in large part because it’s fine with the typical progressive that citizens may find themselves harassed and frightened, and their lives made intolerable – not incarcerated, perhaps, but still intolerable – because they oppose the progressive agenda on whatever progressives declare to be a public issue.

In this regard, Wisconsin is now closer to the police-state conditions of Stalin’s Terror than to the American idea of citizens being protected from government by a Bill of Rights.  That these unaccountable police raids are happening at all shows that to be the case.  The important line has been crossed.

There’s one acceptable end-state for addressing this with reform. The raids must stop happening, and never be possible again.

But politics as usual is actively keeping us stuck where we are, with “law-abiding” now being assumed to mean “sitting duck for unaccountable home raids by the police.”

Democrats are the party embedded with unions, and with the particular corrupt judge and prosecutors in Wisconsin.  It’s to the Democratic Party that activists flock who are determined to inflict mental torture, financial ruin, and professional ostracism on average citizens who oppose their policy agenda.  Those Democrats, unfortunately, show little prospect of functioning in the America we were meant to have.

But there are also too many Republicans who go along with abuses of government power, and fail to stand up for the citizens’ rightful liberties.  Too often, their respect for the authority and freedoms the people should have is nearly as selective as progressive Democrats’.

Giving these politicians and activists access to political power is signing the death warrant for our liberties.  They can’t be denied the opportunity to participate — if we are to be equal before the law – but power still has to be kept away from them.

That’s why we need to limit the reach of government so that IT doesn’t have the power they want to use.

That was the original American project.  It’s the one we need to renew.

It seems to be no accident that just last week, a former Soviet dissident of courage and noble character, Natan Sharansky, who himself experienced the “knock on the door” and was imprisoned for years in the Soviet Gulag, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled “When did America forget that it’s America?

It’s the most important question we face today, and it is very real.  We can no longer let ourselves be daunted by pundits who call it intemperate to compare the pattern of the NKVD with that of SWAT teams deployed against our citizens by progressive-government bureaucrats.  The two patterns are merging before our eyes.  Wake up, America.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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