Last week, after days of violent police rampages in Ferguson, Missouri, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) said the Senate will “review” the Defense Department program that gives military weapons and equipment to civilian police departments for free.
It took five apocalyptic nights in Ferguson for Levin to make that statement, but the national dialogue on the militarization of police has begun.
Only it didn’t just take Ferguson. It took years of violent arrests. Exposés that revealed small towns being patrolled by tanks and big cities controlled by force. Rampant and institutionalized violations of citizens’ human and constitutional rights. Protests and demonstrations around the country suffocated by intimidation, brutality, and weapons only ever seen in warfare.
The most recent crackdown came in response to a march that grew out of a vigil for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. The community of 20,000 wanted justice for another young black man killed with impunity; the police did not want to answer for their actions.
“There’s a real problem in this country in thinking systematically about power,” Chauncey DeVega, founder and editor of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes, told Common Dreams. “We need to emphasize that racism and police brutality are not separate things.”
Harrowing images and videos from Ferguson’s ongoing protests showed tense days turning into chaotic nights as police forces descended on the demonstrations, dressed in army camouflage and black helmets, wielding attack dogs and assault rifles, straddling armored tanks. They arrested reporters, refused to answer questions, and confiscated and dismantled news cameras. They fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at groups of protesters, eerily backlit by sporadic street-lamps and tank headlights. The smoke grenades sent heavy, billowing clouds through crowds of people who recoiled from the gas and held their empty arms in the air with the simple, pleading message, “Don’t shoot.”
On Thursday, after almost a week of nightmarish standoffs documented with equal reverence by reporters and social media users, Attorney General Eric Holder made a statement on the excessive and violent police response to the protests.
“[It] is clear that the scenes playing out in the streets of Ferguson over the last several nights cannot continue,” Holder said. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
How did we come to this? The reasons are complex and deeply ingrained in America’s troubling racial history, but the source of the problem is simple: widespread partnerships between law enforcement and government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.
The quiet militarization of police departments began in 1990, when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, a provision of which — known as the 1033 program — allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition.”
In 1996, during the peak of the War on Drugs, Congress expanded the program and incentivized active use of the equipment, making it free for recipient agencies and simultaneously requiring them to use it within a year. The expansion of the 1033 program also required agencies to give preference to transferring equipment for “counterdrug and counterterrorism activities.” And it hasn’t stopped there.
But equally concerning as the 1033 program itself is the recent opportunity Congress had to end it — which it didn’t take.
On June 19th, almost two months before the death of Michael Brown, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida), introduced an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have prohibited federal funds from being used to “transfer aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents (including chemical agents, biological agents, and associated equipment), launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines, or nuclear weapons (as identified for demilitarization purposes outlined in Department of Defense Manual 4160.28) through the Department of Defense Excess Personal Property Program.”
The amendment failed in a House vote 355-62. One of the votes against the amendment came from Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents Ferguson, Missouri.
As political finance research organization MapLight points out, Clay is one of the many members of Congress who receives a large chunk of campaign donations from the defense industry — $25,000 in Clay’s case. The representatives who voted against the amendment receive, on average, 73 percent more money from defense contractors than those who voted to de-fund the militarization program.
The Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2011 that more than $34 billion in federal grants have gone to stocking police forces with tanks, riot gear, and assault weapons. The relationship between government and the defense industry is unmistakable. The Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2011 that more than $34 billion in federal grants have gone to stocking police forces with tanks, riot gear, and assault weapons. The number could well be higher, but neither the federal government nor the state and local governments keep close track of what they sell or obtain, the Center said.
In 2011 alone, approximately 12,000 police organizations procured $500 million in firearms, helicopters, and other equipment. A highly publicized moratorium imposed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in 2012 to prevent inappropriate weapons transfers was lifted — this time without fanfare — in 2013 with no new safeguards.
As the ACLU reported (PDF) in June, the DLA, which is responsible for transferring the equipment to civilian police forces, “can simply purchase property from an equipment or weapons manufacturer and transfer it to a local law enforcement agency free of charge.”
The phenomenon of surplus of military weapons making their way into the supplies of city police forces is not always visible to the public, as it has been in Ferguson. The turmoil is all too often private, witnessed only by people inside their homes and the SWAT teams that kick down their doors in the middle of the night to serve a warrant. Michael Brown’s tragic death is part of a much more pervasive trend of police brutality on large and small scales that is strengthened and perpetuated by militarization — one that encourages the police to see the people as an enemy, and vice versa.
Michael Brown’s death — and Eric Garner’s, John Crawford’s, Ezell Ford’s, and Dante Parker’s — are the most recent examples of a historic trend with deep, troubling roots.
“There is a historical precedent” to racism in policing, DeVega told Common Dreams. “Modern police can trace their origins back to slave patrols.”
As Eastern Kentucky University professor Victor E. Kappeler writes, “The institution of slavery and the control of minorities… were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing.”
“[T]he St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols,” writes Kappeler, who is Associate Dean of the School of Justice Studies at EKU. “Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.”
Institutional racism in policing is not a new development, but militarization is. During the 1980s and 90s, the government took advantage of the public fear of drugs to gain support for ramped up military-grade policing programs. Apart from 1033, federal support also came in a variety of DOJ and DHS grants that bolstered state and local law enforcement agencies, which used them to purchase lethal weapons, body armor, and vehicles built to withstand roadside bombs in war zones. Joint operations between police departments and the federal agencies like the FBI became common.
But the changes caused by militarization were not equal among all communities. Racial disparities were rampant. Black communities were disproportionately targeted for policing and arrests — and the increasingly militarized equipment and conduct that went with it — despite evidence pointing to higher levels of drug crimes among whites.
“Police are now being trained by military,” DeVega told Common Dreams. “They try out their programs on poor black communities.”
Militarization gave police forces a “warrior” mentality that gradually normalized the use of assault weapons on routine patrols, ACLU found. Legalized racial profiling programs, like the SB1070 bill in Arizona and the Stop and Frisk policy in New York City, quickly followed.
To see the warrior mentality in one single, heartbreaking example, look no further than Michael Brown’s recently released autopsy report. The bullet path indicates that he was in a position of surrender when he was shot. Brown might even have survived the first five hits, forensic expert Dr. Michael Baden said — it was the final shot to his head that killed him.
EKU criminal justice professor Pete Kraska, who has studied the rise of paramilitary policing for decades, wrote in a report (PDF) that the mentality is also fueled by “[t]he allure of police paramilitary subculture… the enjoyment, excitement, high status, and male camaraderie that accompany the heavy weaponry, new technologies, dangerous assignments, and heightened anticipation of using force in most PPU [Police Paramilitary Unit] work.”
Harsh sentencing policies, such as the three-strikes law in California, have led to a 40 percent black prison population, compared to a 12 percent black U.S. population — an example of the kind of institutional racism that feeds into the “cycle of cruelty,” as DeVega puts it.
“Most people likely assume this must be due to rising crime rates, but the explosion in the prison population, as well as its changing complexion, are better explained by harsh criminal justice policies,” said Rebecca Hetey, a Stanford University psychology researcher. Joshua Correll and Tracie Keesee, psychology researchers at the University of Chicago, likewise discovered that police officers are more likely to shoot black targets, whether they are armed or unarmed.
Outside of prison, many poor black communities found themselves subject to a different kind institutionalized control, which Yale University assistant professor Vesla Weaver called “custodial citizenship.”
“Criminal justice interventions transform how people understand their government… their citizenship,” Weaver wrote for the Boston Review. “[T]hose who have been exposed to criminal justice tend to have low levels of trust in politicians and public institutions and a diminished sense of standing. They don’t believe the state will respond to their needs.”
“Their relationship to the state looks more like that of an undocumented person than that of a citizen,” Weaver wrote.
A study (PDF) by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement published in April 2013 discovered that police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes “extrajudicially” killed at least 313 black men in 2012. That means a black person was killed by an officer, without trial, every 28 hours in one year. However, as these statistics come only from reported deaths, the real number could be much higher, MXGM said.
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