militarized policing in Ferguson and beyond

For the 18 August 2014 Old Mole Variety Hour.

There's been much attention of late to what's described as the militarization of the police. As Tamara K. Nopper & Mariame Kaba note in Jacobin, "discussions about America’s militarized police forces" seem to have suddenly become "semi-mainstream," appearing in media like The Economist and Business Insider . "In the wake of the police killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent riots and protests, social media is littered with images of tear gas, tanks, and police in military gear with automatic weapons — all aimed at black people in the city."

Earlier this summer, the ACLU released a report on the militarizing of US policing, confirming the increasing and increasingly indiscriminate use of Special Weapons and Tactics teams. Under a program started in 1990 and escalated after 2001, local law enforcement agencies have been getting surplus military equipment--everything from battering rams and flash-bang grenades to helicopters and mine-resistant armored personnel carriers--Tanks, basically--of which Clackamas County has two! (It turns out, actually, that much of that "surplus" is brand-new, which suggests either that the Pentagon doesn't know how to estimate its own equipment needs, or that this is another strategy for subsidizing defense contractors. It's also apparently an outlet for the tear gas that's been banned as a chemical weapon in war.)

Of course, once police forces have all this new equipment they are eager to use it, and, unsurprisingly, they tend to use it disproportionately on people of color.

The ACLU report is titled "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," but Nopper and Kaba are wary of the notion that "the war on terror has come home" and of the connections some have been making between Ferguson and Gaza. They stress that "For blacks, the “war on terror” hasn’t come home. It’s always been here."
A recently released report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by Police, Security Guards, and Vigilantes calculated that "Every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman, or child!"

Nopper and Kaba note that
"Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Radley Balko, and others have explained that the militarization of US police can be traced back to the mid-1960s. For example, in 1968, urban police forces were able to buy new equipment and technologies thanks to funding from the newly passed Safe Streets Act. The social anxiety and fear engendered by the Vietnam War and [by] domestic urban rebellions led by black people provided license for the police to turn these new products on the marginalized populations of inner-city America.
SWAT teams, batterrams, and no-knock warrants . . . all predate contemporary hyper-militarized police forces. Black people have been the overwhelming targets of these instruments of war."

Yasmin Nair is similarly skeptical of the hashtag equation between Gaza and Ferguson, noting that easy analogies erase specificities and thus can make us less able to engage with and eventually end state brutality. But Nair also recognizes that there are some real, material connections between the two. For instance, the Anti-Defamation League and related groups have sponsored trainings in Israel for US police, including for police in St Louis. The militarizing of policing is a global development.

Nair has important things to say about the complex and varied ways that racism and capitalism intertwine. Nopper and Kaba have important things to say about the difficulty American culture has in naming what black people experience in America, and in empathizing with it in ways that are not narcissistic or voyeuristic on the part of whites. Nopper and Kaba point out that
The problem with casting militarization as the problem is that the formulation suggests it is the excess against which we must rally. We must accept that the ordinary is fair, for an extreme to be the problem. The policing of black people — carried out through a variety of mechanisms and processes — is purportedly warranted, as long as it doesn’t get too militarized and excessive.
Attention is drawn to the “spectacular event” rather than to the point of origin or the mundane. Circulated are the spectacles — dead black bodies lying in the streets or a black teenager ambushed by several police officers in military gear, automatic weapons drawn.
As Nopper and Kaba stress, in focusing on the excess, the overkill, of state power, we miss the ordinary, as though without the overkill there could be . . . the right amount of kill? But insofar as the function of a police force is to enforce the interests of capital and white supremacist social order, so the possibility that police might do their job with more subtlety is no real solution for people oppressed by those interests.

At the same time, there really has been an increase in visible authoritarian force, and we can understand it as part of the current neoliberal response to the crisis of capitalism. Militarized policing means not only moneymaking opportunities for those who profit off weapons manufacture and private prisons, but also an escalating response to rising dissent.

The job of the old mole is to persist in that dissent despite its dangers; to make the difficult connections among the varied forms of capital and state power, and among the diversely positioned groups those powers oppress, to support and join with those who refuse servitude and resist injustice, to burrow on.


Ways to help the people of Ferguson


For links to campaigns for Michael Brown's family, bail &  legal support for those arrested, food & supplies for protesters, and petitions:


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