Ferguson's weaponized cops and America's long, ugly history of police violence

Two dark forces collided in Ferguson: The militarization of America's cops and a long tradition of racist violence

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 16, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)


What we have witnessed over the past week in Ferguson, Missouri, represents the collision of two sinister forces in American society: the widespread militarization of police forces from coast to coast, and the long and sordid history of police violence against African-Americans in particular, and any and all threats to the dominant social and economic order in general. These things are connected, to be sure. Both can be described as reflecting a paranoid and profoundly racist worldview that has long been endemic within American nationalism, the worldview that connects the Know-Nothings and slavery defenders of the 19th century to J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Strom Thurmond and the Tea Party.

But these two phenomena have separate histories and distinctive points of origin. If one side of the equation is “Red Dawn” paranoia, in which we imagine small-town cops prepared to do battle with heavily armed alien invaders at any moment, the other side is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” paranoia, in which the enemy is right here at home, cleverly concealed as our neighbors and fellow citizens. As Glenn Greenwald, Heather Digby Parton and other commentators have explained this week (their pieces in particular are must-reads), the provision of military-style gear to local and state police at outlandish taxpayer expense began in earnest with the Reagan administration’s “war on drugs,” a disastrous policy failure whose consequences are just as far-reaching as the equally inept “war on terror” or the doomed invasion of Iraq.

But I’m sorry, liberals – you don’t get to blame the Republicans exclusively, or even primarily, for this one. It's been a truly bipartisan effort. Militarizing the cops goes along with the larger package of "security" issues that Democrats in Congress have largely embraced for fear of appearing soft on crime and terrorism, from NSA surveillance to the drone wars to the prison-building boom. There are some noteworthy exceptions, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who have spoken out forcefully on this complex of issues. But the loudest objections to the national-security state, and to the specific combination of ingredients we saw on the streets of Ferguson, have come from Rand Paul, which is exactly why Hillary Clinton fears him so much. She represents the Democratic Party’s fundamental confusion about the nature and limits of state power, along with its innate tendency to abandon principle in search of perceived political advantage, which have led it to drink deeply from the cup of evil.

Reagan and his neocon brain trust – including a two-time secretary of defense and future Sith Lord named Dick Cheney – began the process that turned every small-town, donut-engorged police department and Podunk County band of sheriff’s deputies into a heavily armed but poorly trained military unit. But succeeding administrations of both parties, Obama's very much included, have enthusiastically continued the buildup. From the beginning, there were powerful elements of xenophobia and racism at work. If the imagined threat that required the distribution of high-tech military gear to every cop in the nation was an invasion by Colombian drug lords or Mexican gangs, its actual effect was the imprisonment of African-American men, by the hundreds of thousands, for nonviolent drug offenses.

But for my money the strongest driving force was, well, money. This buildup began during the great privatization drive of the neoliberal economic order, and it created a new market and a massive new industry -- which then was injected with Incredible Hulk juice in the fall of 2001. I don’t actually believe that Cheney was the secret mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, but I sure hope he sent Osama bin Laden flowers the next morning, because those two guys were made for each other. There’s no need to list here all the ways that 9/11 was like an answered prayer for “the most consequential vice president in American history” (in Cheney’s words) and his band of Leo Strauss disciples, who seized on the threat of terrorism as an all-purpose excuse for transforming America’s global posture and the nature of executive power.

Our topic today is the Department of Homeland Security, which became an unstoppable money-sucking juggernaut that no right-thinking legislator was allowed to question, still less oppose. (I still sometimes can't hear that name, apparently pilfered from a bad '70s science-fiction film, without snickering. But the joke has faded.) As Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times reported in 2011, federal and state governments spend around $75 billion a year on domestic security, and much of that money gets funneled to local jurisdictions in the form of high-tech military hardware they don’t need and are not trained to use. One can only hope that Barack Obama and Eric Holder, who both appear genuinely anguished about what has happened in St. Louis County, have experienced some private anguish about the blowback of all that stupid, wasteful and destructive spending.

If many ordinary TV viewers and news consumers were startled by the heavily armed paramilitary force they saw on the streets of suburban St. Louis, they really shouldn’t have been. As Greenwald notes, the ACLU published a critical report on the “excessive militarization of American policing” just a few weeks ago, and a handful of mainstream reporters, including Murphy and the New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo, have been paying attention all along. Apuzzo’s crucial investigative report, published on June 8, painstakingly documents the military gear acquired by local police since 2006: at least 860 armored vehicles, more than 500 aircraft and close to 94,000 automatic weapons. Some of the anecdotes he uncovers would be humorous, if we weren’t facing the less amusing consequences up close right now: an armored combat vehicle acquired by the police department in Neenah, Wisconsin, a city that has not had a murder for five years; a sheriff in rural western Maine requesting a mine-resistant vehicle to fend off the “previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities.” It’s true: More than anything else, al-Qaida covets those Down East taters.

Greenwald has argued on several occasions that the ostensible focus on terrorism is a smokescreen, and that the primary purpose of this newly militarized policing is the suppression of internal dissent. That’s a charge worth taking seriously, although I suspect the true historical picture is more complicated, and less driven by a clear-cut agenda. In considering the myriad sins of those who hold power over others, one should never discount the forces of inertia, greed and sheer stupidity. There is no question that big-city police departments have developed new resources and ever more sophisticated strategies aimed at managing and restricting public protest. But a lot of this stuff is just military waste product being handed out at random: There’s not much internal dissent to be quelled in Neenah or Oxford County, Maine. If cops in those places ever try to use their high-tech military equipment the results are likely to be embarrassing, as with the notorious SWAT-team raids on unlicensed Orlando barbershops in 2010.

But Greenwald is absolutely right to observe that people who were shocked by what they saw in Ferguson evidently didn’t notice or didn’t care about the military-style police response to Occupy Wall Street in 2011, or to the protests he covered (for Salon) at the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Indeed, you can keep on pushing backward well before that, to the 2004 Republican convention in New York, the 2003 FTAA protests in Miami (a landmark event in law-enforcement theory and practice), the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” and so on. Those, of course, were all confrontations between the appointed defenders of law and order and largely white groups of radical or anarchist protesters who to some extent had marginalized themselves from mainstream society, or who could be spun as having done so. There was no evident dynamic of racism in play, and it was easy for onlookers to surrender to a narrative of false equivalency: Someone, somewhere broke a Starbucks window, so the tear gas and rubber bullets and pepper spray and mass arrests used against those who dared to express public dissent were understandable.

Events like Ferguson access a much older and uglier narrative within American society. I feel confident that a lot of white people, and not just the talking heads on Fox News, felt uncomfortable to hear Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a genuine hero of the Civil Rights movement, say that the images from Ferguson brought him back to Deep South clashes between white cops and black protesters in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Surely that’s an unfair comparison, one could argue: Look how far we have come! A black man sits in the Oval Office, and another one heads the Department of Justice. Racial discrimination is illegal in all public and commercial contexts, and even casual racist language, uttered in private, can render a comedian, an NBA team owner or a celebrity chef into an instant pariah.

One testimonial to the progress that has been made, I suppose, is that we have a number of prominent African-American voices in the media, from Pulitzer-winning reporter Trymaine Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic to Salon columnist Brittney Cooper, who can illustrate the contradictory character of black life in the 21st century in ways no white observer ever could. While the larger social and political climate has changed immensely since the days when Bull Connor set his attack dogs and fire hoses on the protesters in Birmingham – and African-Americans unquestionably have legal rights and career opportunities their grandparents could only dream about – relations between white-dominated police forces and black communities remain poisoned by that legacy in many ways and many places.

It’s almost misleading to bring up a cartoon villain and arch-segregationist like Connor, who was entirely forthright about what he stood for. It’s not as if the history of police violence against citizens of color was limited to the Deep South in the Jim Crow era. Discrimination and segregation were always questions of entrenched custom rather than law in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, for example – and the nation’s three largest cities all have long and painful records of egregious police misconduct and racial animosity. Have conditions in those cities improved since the police murder of Fred Hampton in 1969, the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the more recent killings of Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury and Sean Bell, all of them unarmed black men shot dead by police as a result of “misunderstandings”? Maybe so, but I’m really not the right person to ask.

Social circumstances and social rhetoric may have shifted, but there’s a deeply entrenched psychic script driving the relationship between police and communities of color that seems to play out over and over again. We saw that in Ferguson, and we’ll see it somewhere else later this year and next year and the year after that. Bill de Blasio, a white liberal with a black wife and black kids, won a surprise victory in New York’s mayoral election specifically by promising to help heal this divide, and to end the stop-and-frisk practice that was almost exclusively directed at black and brown teenagers. His young administration now faces its first major crisis after the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes, who was apparently placed in a chokehold by a white officer, in defiance of NYPD rules.

I’m inclined to think we focus too much on the misdeeds of individual police officers in these cases, in exactly the same way we focused on individual soldiers who tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib or murdered civilians in Afghanistan. It can be a way of ducking the question of who or what is really responsible. Cops who commit crimes should face the consequences, of course. I’m not suggesting you should feel any particular compassion for Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who apparently shot Michael Brown, or Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD cop who put the chokehold on Eric Garner, or the many other cops who have wound up as flashpoints and celebrity defendants in these cases. But the sheer prevalence of these episodes suggests that it’s not a “bad apple” problem but something larger and more systemic.

Police officers in many cities and towns are indoctrinated in a longstanding institutional culture of racial animosity and stereotyping (at the very least) and then are asked to enter stressful and potentially life-threatening situations. Fairly or not, they often view the African-American community as a uniquely dangerous environment where they are hated and feared. As police departments in major cities have become more diverse and sought out minority candidates, this dynamic has no doubt faded somewhat. But sociologists have identified police culture as a powerful force that shapes ideology, and of course it’s possible for an individual to buy into negative stereotypes about his or her own community. In any case, Ferguson represents a different but very common phenomenon: A majority-minority community with an overwhelmingly white police force whose members mostly do not live there.

There are many ways to slice the connections between race, poverty and crime in America, but I think we can say this: Poor people are more likely to commit the most visible kinds of petty street crime (almost always against other poor people) than rich people are, and black neighborhoods are more likely to be poor than white ones. So the apprehension felt by many white cops may be constricted or bigoted, but it’s not entirely irrational -- and the part about being hated and feared has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Darren Wilson may have believed, based on his subjective experience, that he was in danger when he shot Michael Brown. It is the formation of that subjective experience that’s the problem, and that goes well beyond the question of whether one officer followed established procedure or not.

For generations, cops were instructed (either explicitly or implicitly) to keep blacks and Latinos in their place, to crush Commies and dissidents whenever and wherever they appeared, and to defend the property and interests of the wealthy and powerful. That agenda was clear enough, and we know where it led: to the violent “police riot” of Chicago in 1968, the cold-blooded killing of Hampton and other black activists, to the police corruption scandals of the 1970s, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, the arrest and conviction of five innocent teenagers in the "Central Park jogger" case and much more. While the public has demanded reforms in recent decades, the record in most cities is mixed at best. Ingrained attitudes within police culture are partly to blame -- almost everywhere in the country, cops remain an overwhelmingly Republican and Tea Party-friendly demographic. But cops have good reason to feel confused. They find themselves pinioned between politicians and the public, and have become the vessels or instruments for all sorts of competing and contradictory agendas.

Sometimes we – if “we” are good urban liberals, that is -- want the police to serve as community outreach officials who abjure the racism of the past, like an updated, multicultural version of the kindly Irish cop in an old movie. But that's just ideology, and the money points in a different direction, toward police as the shock troops of the prison-industrial complex, enforcers of a “new Jim Crow” regime that professes race-neutrality but has led in practice to the mass incarceration of African-American men. And the most fundamental function of the police in any society remains the same as ever: the defense of power and property -- the protection of the 1 percent -- through a legal monopoly on lethal violence. Now we have elevated the power of police violence to new heights, providing cops with all kinds of fabulously expensive high-tech hardware to wage war against an enemy who does not exist or isn't coming. (It really is "we," since you and I are paying handsomely for it.) Is it any wonder if they turn those weapons on the enemy they already know?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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