[News] The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged Into the Light by the Horrors of Ferguson

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 14 14:32:37 EDT 2014


      The Militarization of U.S. Police: Finally Dragged Into the Light
      by the Horrors of Ferguson

By Glenn Greenwald 
<https://firstlook.org/theintercept/staff/glenn-greenwald/> 14 Aug 2014, 
8:40 AM EDT 147 

The intensive militarization of America’s police forces is a serious 
menace about which a small number of people have been loudly warning for 
years, with little attention or traction. In a 2007 paper 
on “the blurring distinctions between the police and military 
institutions and between war and law enforcement,” the criminal justice 
professor Peter Kraska defined “police militarization” as “the process 
whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern 
themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.”

The harrowing events of the last week in Ferguson, Missouri – the fatal 
police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager, Mike Brown, and 
the blatantly excessive and thuggish response to ensuing community 
protests from a police force that resembles an occupying army – have 
shocked the U.S. media class and millions of Americans. But none of this 
is aberrational.

It is the destructive by-product of several decades of deliberate 
militarization of American policing, a trend that received a sustained 
(and ongoing) steroid injection in the form of a still-flowing, 
post-9/11 federal funding bonanza 
<http://www.salon.com/2011/08/29/terrorism_39/>, all justified in the 
name of “homeland security.” This has resulted in a domestic police 
force that looks, thinks, and acts more like an invading and occupying 
military than a community-based force to protect the public.

As is true for most issues of excessive and abusive policing, police 
militarization is overwhelmingly and disproportionately directed at 
minorities and poor communities, ensuring that the problem largely 
festers in the dark. Americans are now so accustomed to seeing police 
officers decked in camouflage and Robocop-style costumes, riding in 
armored vehicles and carrying automatic weapons first introduced during 
the U.S. occupation of Baghdad, that it has become normalized. But those 
who bear the brunt of this transformation are those who lack loud 
megaphones; their complaints of the inevitable and severe abuse that 
results have largely been met with indifference.

If anything positive can come from the Ferguson travesties, it is that 
the completely out-of-control orgy of domestic police militarization 
receives long-overdue attention and reining in.

Last night, two reporters, /The Washington Post/‘s Wesley Lowery and 
/The Huffington Post/‘s Ryan Reilly, were arrested and assaulted while 
working from a McDonald’s in Ferguson 
The arrests were arbitrary and abusive, and received substantial 
attention — only because of their prominent platforms, not, as they both 
quickly pointed out upon being released, because there was anything 
unusual about this police behavior.

Reilly, on Facebook 
recounted how he was arrested by “a Saint Louis County police officer in 
full riot gear, who refused to identify himself despite my repeated 
requests, purposefully banged my head against the window on the way out 
and sarcastically apologized.” He wrote: ”I’m fine. But if this is the 
way these officers treat a white reporter working on a laptop who moved 
a little too slowly for their liking, I can’t imagine how horribly they 
treat others.” He added: “And if anyone thinks that the militarization 
of our police force isn’t a huge issue in this country, I’ve got a story 
to tell you.”

Lowery, who is African-American, tweeted a summary of an interview 
<https://twitter.com/graceishuman/status/499764717083426816> he gave on 
MSNBC: “If I didn’t work for the Washington Post and were just another 
Black man in Ferguson, I’d still be in a cell now.” He added: “I knew I 
was going to be fine. But the thing is, so many people here in Ferguson 
don’t have as many Twitter followers as I have and don’t have Jeff Bezos 
or whoever to call and bail them out of jail.”

The best and most comprehensive account of the dangers of police 
militarization is the 2013 book by the libertarian /Washington Post 
/journalist Radley Balko, entitled “Rise of the Warrior Cops: The 
Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” 
Balko, who has devoted his career to documenting and battling the worst 
abuses of the U.S. criminal justice system 
traces the history and underlying mentality that has given rise to all 
of this: the “law-and-order” obsessions that grew out of the social 
instability of the 1960s, the War on Drugs that has made law enforcement 
agencies view Americans as an enemy population, the Reagan-era “War on 
Poverty” (which was more aptly described as a war on America’s poor), 
the aggressive Clinton-era expansions of domestic policing, all topped 
off by the massively funded, rights-destroying, post-9/11 security state 
of the Bush and Obama years. All of this, he documents, has infused 
America’s police forces with “a creeping battlefield mentality.”

I read Balko’s book prior to publication in order to blurb it, and after 
I was done, immediately wrote what struck me most about it: “There is no 
vital trend in American society /more overlooked/ than the 
militarization of our domestic police forces.” /The Huffington Post’/s 
Ryan Grim, in the outlet’s official statement about Reilly’s arrest 
made the same point: /“Police militarization has been among the most 
consequential and unnoticed developments of our time.”/

In June, the ACLU published a crucial 96-page report 
on this problem, entitled “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization 
of American Policing.” Its central point: “the United States today has 
become excessively militarized, mainly through federal programs that 
create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily 
aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield.”

The report documents how the Drug War and (Clinton/Biden 
1990s crime bills laid the groundwork for police militarization, but the 
virtually unlimited flow of “homeland security” money after 9/11 all but 
forced police departments to purchase battlefield equipment and other 
military paraphernalia whether they wanted them or not.  Unsurprisingly, 
like the War on Drugs and police abuse generally, “the use of 
paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color.”

Some police departments eagerly militarize, but many recognize the 
dangers. Salt Lake City police chief Chris Burbank is quoted in the ACLU 
report: “We’re not the military. Nor should we look like an invading 
force coming in.” A 2011 /Los Angeles Times/ article 
noting that “federal and state governments are spending about $75 
billion a year on domestic security,” described how local police 
departments receive so much homeland security money from the U.S. 
government that they end up forced to buy battlefield equipment they 
know they do not need: from armored vehicles to Zodiac boats with 
side-scan sonar.

The trend long pre-dates 9/11, as this 1997 /Christian Science Monitor/ 
article by Jonathan Landay 
<http://www.csmonitor.com/1997/0402/040297.us.us.2.html> about growing 
police militarization and its resulting abuses (“Police Tap High-Tech 
Tools of Military to Fight Crime”) makes clear. Landay, in that 
17-year-old article, described “an infrared scanner mounted on [a police 
officer's] car [that] is the same one used by US troops to hunt Iraqi 
forces in the Gulf war,” and wrote: “it is symbolic of an increasing use 
by police of some of the advanced technologies that make the US military 
the world’s mightiest.”

But the /security-ü//ber-alles/ fixation of the 9/11 era is now the 
driving force. A June article in 
New York Times 
/by Matt Apuzzo (“War Gear Flows to Police Departments”) reported that 
“during the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police 
departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 
200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and 
night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and 
aircraft.” He added: “The equipment has been added to the armories of 
police departments that /already look and act like military units/.”

All of this has become such big business, and is grounded in such 
politically entrenched bureaucratic power, that it is difficult to 
imagine how it can be uprooted. As the /LA Times/ explained:

    An entire industry has sprung up to sell an array of products,
    including high-tech motion sensors and fully outfitted emergency
    operations trailers. The market is expected to grow to $31 billion
    by 2014.

    Like the military-industrial complex that became a permanent and
    powerful part of the American landscape during the Cold War, the
    vast network of Homeland Security spyware, concrete barricades and
    high-tech identity screening is here to stay. The Department of
    Homeland Security, a collection of agencies ranging from border
    control to airport security sewn quickly together after Sept. 11, is
    the third-largest Cabinet department and — with almost no lawmaker
    willing to render the U.S. less prepared for a terrorist attack —
    one of those least to fall victim to budget cuts.

The dangers of domestic militarization are both numerous and manifest. 
To begin with, as the nation is seeing in Ferguson, it degrades the 
mentality of police forces in virtually every negative way and subjects 
their targeted communities to rampant brutality and unaccountable abuse. 
The ACLU report summarized: “excessive militarism in policing, 
particularly through the use of paramilitary policing teams, escalates 
the risk of violence, threatens individual liberties, and unfairly 
impacts people of color.”

Police militarization also poses grave and direct dangers to basic 
political liberties, including rights of free speech, press and 
assembly. The first time I wrote about this issue was back in 2008 when 
I covered the protests outside the GOP national convention 
<http://boingboing.net/2008/08/30/report-massive-warra.html> in St. Paul 
for /Salon/, and was truly amazed by the war-zone atmosphere 
deliberately created by the police 

    St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city
    be, even more so than Manhattan in the week of 9/11 — with troops of
    federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with
    riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas cannisters, shouting military
    chants and marching in military formations. Humvees and law
    enforcement officers with rifles were posted on various buildings
    and balconies. Numerous protesters and observers were tear gassed
    and injured.

The same thing happened during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011: 
the police response was so excessive, and so clearly modeled after 
battlefield tactics, that there was no doubt that deterring domestic 
dissent is one of the primary aims of police militarization. About that 
police response, I wrote at the time 

    Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full
    well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the
    economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three
    years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). . . .

    The reason the U.S. has para-militarized its police forces is
    precisely to control this type of domestic unrest, and it’s simply
    impossible to imagine its not being deployed in full against a
    growing protest movement aimed at grossly and corruptly unequal
    resource distribution. As Madeleine Albright said
    <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/govt/admin/stories/albright120896.htm> when
    arguing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans: “What’s the
    point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if
    we can’t use it?” That’s obviously how governors, big-city Mayors
    and Police Chiefs feel about the stockpiles of assault rifles, SWAT
    gear, hi-tech helicopters, and the coming-soon
    drone technology
    <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2011/08/rick-perry-predator-drones-obama-mexico.html> lavished
    on them in the wake of the post/9-11 Security State explosion
    <http://www.salon.com/2011/08/29/terrorism_39/singleton/>, to say
    nothing of the enormous federal law enforcement apparatus that, more
    than anything else, resembles a standing army which is increasingly
    directed inward <http://www.salon.com/2009/07/22/eavesdropping_2/>.

    Most of this militarization has been justified by invoking Scary
    Foreign Threats — primarily the Terrorist — but its prime purpose is

Police militarization is increasingly aimed at stifling journalism as 
well. Like the arrests of Lowery and Reilly last night, /Democracy 
Now/‘s Amy Goodman and two of her colleagues were arrested 
<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-dantoni/amy-goodman-violently-arr_b_123062.html> while 
covering the 2008 St. Paul protests. As Trevor Timm of the Freedom of 
the Press Foundation (on whose board I sit) explained yesterday 
militarization tactics “don’t just affect protesters, but also affect 
those who cover the protest. It creates an environment where police 
think they can disregard the law and tell reporters to stop filming, 
despite their legal right to do so, or fire tear gas directly at them to 
prevent them from doing their job. And if the rights of journalists are 
being trampled on, you can almost guarantee it’s even worse for those 
who don’t have such a platform to protect themselves.”

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