More Fergusons are coming: Why paramilitary hysteria is dooming America

It's time for officials to stop feigning surprise at what's happening in Missouri. They've created a total monster

Topics: Sen. Claire McCaskill, Ferguson police shooting, ferguson police department, Ron Johnson, Editor's Picks, Police, Militarized Police State, NYPD, ACLU, RNC, DNC, Newark, Race, Protests, Barack Obama,

More Fergusons are coming: Why paramilitary hysteria is dooming AmericaPolice advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel)

Over the weekend, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson and imposed a curfew. Once again tear gas filled the night air. Now the National Guard has been called out.

We will never know how differently things would have played out if the official reaction from the start of the unrest had been the more community-engaged response led by Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol (Plan B) and not the authoritarian doubling down of the locals. All too often an initial oppressive response by authority to long-simmering resentments and alienation sets in motion a cycle of violence that develops its own momentum. (See Newark, June 1967.) At that point you’re on your way to alienated narratives that are much harder to reconcile.

Local officials were just oblivious to the level of mistrust present in Ferguson when their first response was paramilitary, as depicted in the front page New York Times photo of police looking more like U.S. Marines protecting the Green Zone in Baghdad, than a civilian police force.

What is still hard to reconcile is the strong disdain expressed by high-ranking federal officials for the military response by the local authorities to quell protests over the police shooting of  yet another unarmed black man. President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Sens. Rand Paul and Claire McCaskill expressed alarm over how the Ferguson police, in full battle regalia, made the city appear like a war zone, implying genuine surprise over the degree to which America’s local policing had become militarized.

What is truly disassociative about their response is that the federal government has been driving this trend for decades.

Long before the Sept. 11 attack, the federal government was funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into local and state law enforcement for them to outfit themselves with military hardware and battlefield gear. These days there is no more vivid display of this troubling trend than when the host cities to the Democratic and Republican conventions race out to spend the $50 million they all get from Uncle Sam so they can get the latest in crowd suppression gear, even their own armored personnel carriers.

The concept of the local police SWAT teams (special weapons and tactics) with their military-style uniforms and equipment can be traced back to law enforcement’s response to the civil unrest of the late 1960s and the emergence of armed fringe groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.

With the federal declaration of the so-called war on drugs that followed, local SWAT teams proliferated. In 1997 in the first national survey of the trend professors Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler from Eastern Kentucky University looked at close to 700 local police departments for towns with at least 50,000 residents. In the 1980s they found that just 60 percent of these communities had the paramilitary SWAT units. By the 1990s it was closer to 90 percent. It’s probably a lot closer to 100 percent now.

Over time, the use of these units went from the rare hostage or mass shooter events to their regular deployment to execute “no knock” warrants on suspected drug dealers, with flash grenades and battering rams. Washington’s  “war on drugs” rhetoric provided a ready rationale for a growing army of these specially trained boots on the ground who were now regularly training with combat weapons and honing their military  tactics. For places where this happens regularly, the neighborhoods take on the vibe of an occupied territory.

“The ideological filter  encased within the war metaphor is “militarism” defined as a set of beliefs and values that stress the use of force and domination as appropriate means to solve problems and gain political power, while glorifying the tools to accomplish this — military power hardware and technology,” wrote Kraska and Kappeler.

As documented in a recently released research report by the American Civil Liberties Union, this increased militarism of the local police departments across our nation has had tragic consequences for innocent civilians killed and wounded in the wake of “no knock” raids that go bad.

Throughout the ACLU’s “War Comes Home — The Excessive Militarization of American Policing” are accounts of SWAT team fiascoes like the death of 68-year-old Eurie Stamps. Back in January of 2011, Stamps, a grandfather of 12, was sitting at home one night in his pajamas watching a ballgame. When a Framingham, Massachusetts, SWAT team burst into his home he complied with police instructions and dropped to the floor facedown when an officer’s gun accidentally discharged, killing Stamp on the spot.

Local police had been looking for Stamps’ 20-year-old step son, who did not live at the address of the raid. The ACLU reports his stepson had actually been apprehended minutes before the raid.

The ACLU survey looks at the SWAT team activities in 260 law enforcement agencies located in 26 states and the District of Columbia.  What the civil liberties group found was that 61 percent of the people caught up in these paramilitary raids were people of color. Seventy-nine percent of the SWAT team deployments were not for the mass shooter or hostage event type of scenario they were originally created to deal with but for executing search warrants related to the war on drugs. In the majority of deployments they surveyed “the police did not face genuine threats to their safety and security,” the ACLU concluded.

“There is no need for police officers to be in combat gear because it puts them in a combat state of mind,” says Nick Casale, former NYPD gold shield detective and former director of counterterrorism for New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Agency. “The police department’s mission is to police their fellow citizens. The public should never be considered enemy combatants and when police put on military uniforms they begin to see them that way.”

Casale says the wearing of camouflage and other military-issue-style dress by local police, as well as the municipal deployment of military-style armored rolling stock,  should be prohibited. “If you are going to have a vehicle with those all terrain capabilities it must be painted the same color as the rest of the marked municipal first responder fleet.”

Casale traces the origins of the SWAT team paramilitary concept to the FBI SWAT teams, which he says were emulated by state, county and local police agencies. “Mr. Holder has it all wrong. The originators of this quasi-combat style for civilian law enforcement missions started with the FBI,” Casale says. “Little brother always follows what big brother does.”

This militarization of the police and domestic security function is not just evident on the mean streets where the war on drugs is waged every day. The public is subjected to the same  military force projection at so-called National Special Security Events like the inauguration of our president and the nominating conventions held by the Democratic and the Republican Parties.

Back in May of 1998, then-President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 62 – Protection Against Unconventional Threats to the Homeland and Americans Overseas. According to a historical analysis done by the Congressional Research Service, PDD 62 established that it would be up to the president to decide which events should be declared as National Special Security Events. Such a declaration would ensure that the U.S. Secret Service would see to it that event planners “addressed terrorist apprehension, prosecution, increased transportation security, enhanced emergency response and enhanced cyber security.”

As a reporter covering the conventions since, I have watched the paramilitary presence grow exponentially even as the volume of protests and protesters has dropped off. The convention security perimeters are gauntlets that make it impossible to move freely between the protest activity and the main official events. Reporters have to make a decision at the start of each day’s proceedings which location they want to report from.

At the 2004 Republican convention in New York City, hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters staged one of the largest demonstrations in American history. But during the convention week, hundreds were subjected to mass arrest, fingerprinting and prolonged detention. Subsequently, a federal judge found that the NYPD’s tactics were unconstitutional. Earlier this year the City of New York paid $18 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union for the 2004 arrest, detention and fingerprinting of hundreds of protesters, journalists and bystanders.

Just as we have seen law-abiding Americans caught up in no-knock drug raids, we have seen people who were merely exercising their First Amendment rights at our political conventions viewed by police as potential terrorism suspects. “We saw the city in court try to justify  these mass arrests with a terrorist threat,” recalls Chris Dunn, senior counsel with the NYCLU.  “Equating protest with terrorism feeds into talking about a justification that has nothing to do with protest. That’s wrong and dangerous. As soon as you invoke terrorism the rules change.”

By the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, the ratio of law enforcement paramilitary forces to actual protesters, whose numbers had dropped off to dozens in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, was 10 or 20 to 1, with ever-present police helicopters hovering overhead.

I can’t wait to see just what the powers that be have in mind for 2016.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...