Police think we're the enemy: There will be more Fergusons if we keep militarizing local cops

The terrible miscarriage of justice in Ferguson must spur real change in the excessive force given to the police

Published December 3, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Mark Leffingwell)
(Reuters/Mark Leffingwell)

At a recent demonstration at City Hall in Palo Alto, California, a speaker made a point that was likely made at many of the 200 demonstrations that took place across the U.S., protesting the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown Jr..  He said that upon hearing the verdict, he was both deeply saddened and filled with rage. He said his presence at the demonstration was driven by both those intense feelings. But now he wondered, what should we do with this energy?

There are two remaining courses of action for the Justice Department to take.  One is to prosecute Wilson for depriving Brown of his civil rights.  By all accounts, this is not likely to be successful. The other is to act on the results of the investigation Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. launched in September. The investigation is to determine whether the Ferguson police department routinely employs racial profiling and excessive force.  As the Washington Post reports in a recent update, “The probe, which could take months to complete, follows a process that Civil Rights Division attorneys have used in investigations of 20 other police departments across the country.”

Twenty others?  It is not unreasonable to infer from the disproportionate rates of black and brown injury, death and incarceration (far more aggressively pursued by the state than in the cases of whites) that there are many more departments that should be investigated along with these 20.  But just 20 federal investigations should be enough to convince us that there is a broad and systemic problem we face with regard to race and police violence.

Anyone interested in channeling their energy into making positive change out of the terrible miscarriage of justice we find in the failure to indict Darren Wilson should understand both the specifics of the Ferguson case but also, and more important, learn about and act against one of the most aggressive instruments that facilitates the deprivation of civil rights and enforces structural racism brutally, in both physical and psychological terms: the increased militarization of the police. “Excessive force” must now be understood in a much broader and more deadly frame.

The ACLU has issued a 100-page document, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” that notes: “Across the country, heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are forcing their way into people’s homes in the middle of the night, often deploying explosive devices such as flashbang grenades to temporarily blind and deafen residents, simply to serve a search warrant on the suspicion that someone may be in possession of a small amount of drugs. Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies … American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”

These same data and sentiments are found in an article that ran in the New York Times: “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. The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs.”

There are two especially important points to pull out of these passages: first, that it is not just a matter of the arsenal of war being imported from Afghanistan and elsewhere and insinuated into and indeed changing the character of police actions and decisions.  It is also a matter of what this implies — that citizens are now potential enemy combatants, and that neighborhoods are war zones.

As Robin D.G. Kelley puts it, “The immediate and sustained resistance to the police following Mike Brown’s murder revealed the low intensity war between the state and Black people, and the disproportionate use of force against protesters following the grand jury’s decision escalated the conflict. To the world at large, Ferguson looked like a war zone because the police resembled the military with their helmets, flak jackets, armed personnel carriers, and M-16 rifles.”

If that is the case, then the constitutional rights of citizens and non-citizens alike are now able to be suspended in the firefights that ensue. This leads to my second point: A whole new mentality is being forced upon us, and in particular, upon those who fit the demographic profile of those most likely to be taken as enemies of the state.  We can no longer afford to act as if we had the assurance of rights.  We become dangerously close to what Hannah Arendt called those without the right to have rights; we have in effect become stateless, in the sense that we cannot rely on the protection of state laws.  And this “we” must of course be made specific: It is overwhelmingly brown and black males who are deprived of their civil rights.

Through what is known as the 1033 program, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided some $5 billion in surplus military-grade equipment – often from overseas battlefields – to local police since the late 1990s.  Shockingly, this militarization of the police has taken place without state oversight:

“Since the Ferguson protests, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, and other lawmakers have questioned how the federal government goes about distributing more than $1 billion a year to police departments across the country in equipment and grants.

Last week, during a hearing a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, federal officials who oversee the programs testified they had no way to track any military-grade equipment supplied by the government, or purchased with federal dollars.”

The likelihood of reform is close to nil, as reform measures have been effectively killed by police officers unions. As Bloomberg notes: “Even by Washington's amnesiac standards, the efforts to reform the 1033 program that makes military gear available to police departments faded absurdly fast. An Aug. 31 Politico story reported on lawmakers' optimism that Ferguson ‘actually will lead to some policy changes.’ One week later, Politico published a report about how ‘substantive action on the federal level is an uphill battle,’ and that lobbyists for the cops were likely to save the military gear program.” No doubt police officers have every reason to fear for their lives.  The question is whether this will help with that at all, or only increase the level of violence in a deadly domestic arms race.

No oversight, no reform.  The only robust effort we have in Congress so far is legislation (the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act) introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (Georgia) and Rep. Raul Labrador (Idah0). “Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” said Johnson. “Before another small town’s police force gets a $750,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America.”

At present the bill has 45 bipartisan supporters.  In an article in the Guardian Johnson brings out one of the program’s most bizarre and dangerous features: “This may shock your conscience, but the bill would end a statutory requirement that local law enforcement must use the military gear they receive under the 1033 program within a year – or forfeit it. You read that right: Right now, local cops are required to use that free MRAP or grenade launcher. Right now, Congress is producing a perfect storm for police violence, not ending it. We owe that much to the lessons of Ferguson: Stop forcing the use of military weaponry on Main Street!”

Besides the sheer, deadly danger of ramping up militarized violence in our most endangered communities, another concern is the way the militarization of police can tip the balance in what might be otherwise peaceful protests, and destroy one of our fundamental rights and means for achieving change: public protests.  As most know, organizers of protests have an impossible task keeping peace, with agitators (some even police provocateurs) turning the event violent. The fact that the Ferguson police had mobilized its armored force before the verdict was announced could be seen as prudent caution, but also as unnecessarily inflaming the situation by raising the level of the protest.

In a document titled “Take Back the Streets: Repression and Criminalization of Protest Around the World,” the ACLU noted “the tendency to transform individuals exercising their fundamental democratic right—the right to protest—into a perceived threat that requires a forceful government response.”  It cites events from around the world — in Israel, Canada, Argentina, Egypt, Hungary, Kenya, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. This global phenomenon has to be addressed, and it is difficult to do so with this exponential increase in arms.

Again, what is at stake is our very sense of being endowed with rights — to act, speak freely, move in our public spaces, assemble.  We should not forget how the terrible killing of Michael Brown Jr. started — with Wilson’s demand that he move off the street.  What could have been an ordinary request turned out to be framed and expressed within the context of harassment, resistance, fear and malice that the militarization of the police can only exacerbate, as anonymous snipers in full military gear perch on tanks, almost asking to be engaged.

Let’s hope that the Justice Department’s investigation gives the government the information it needs to act, and by that example set a precedent for meaningful reform nationally. We must not take our eyes off that pending case.  Another thing we must do is to help pass the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.  And finally, we should not lose sight of the fundamental issue: It’s not only about armaments, it is at base about the lasting legacy of racism, and its persistent and insidious effects on our lives and rights. We must continue to educate ourselves about this issue, in all its many manifestations.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Aclu Darren Wilson Editor's Picks Eric Holder Ferguson Michael Brown Militarized Police