They turned U.S. streets into a war zone

August 9, 2016

Nicole Colson explains how the growing militarization of U.S. police forces took place.

DEMONSTRATORS TAKE to the streets to protest state repression and violence. They are met with an overwhelming display of force meant to intimidate: Cordons of security personnel armed with high-capacity assault weapons move in to disperse crowds, backed up by armored personnel vehicles and other heavy weaponry. Nonviolent protesters are threatened with machine guns, and arrested on the barest pretext.

If that sounds to you like a scene from the Egyptian military regime's crackdown on the Tahrir Square protests that eventually toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, or perhaps the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations against China's rulers a quarter century ago, you'd be right.

But this is also a description of the show of repressive force in the streets of Baton Rouge last month, deployed against people who raised their voices after the July 5 police killing of Alton Sterling, an unarmed Black man shot and killed by two white officers as they held him prone on the ground.

Baton Rouge is no exception, of course. Since coming into the national spotlight two years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, the eruption of protests to demand that Black lives matter has not only exposed the racist police violence that infects daily American life in Black and Brown urban communities.

U.S. Capitol Police in body armor in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Capitol Police in body armor in Washington, D.C. (Elvert Barnes)

It has also provided a glimpse into a frightening trend: In the "world's greatest democracy," police are increasingly indistinguishable from a heavily armed occupying army, equipped with deadly weapons and high-tech gear deployed by the Pentagon on battlefields around the world.

The purpose of this militarization of U.S. police is not only to give officers even more deadly weapons to use in the course of routine police work, but to intimidate and control dissent and social unrest.

THE IMAGES are familiar from photos and increasingly from personal experience in every city of the U.S.: Police using repurposed and surplus military equipment like armored personnel carriers and assault rifles to quell public protests, most commonly against racist police violence.

But less well-known is how such equipment--and the tactics that go along with its use--became a feature of policing in the U.S.

Under its Law Enforcement Support Office program, known as the "1033" program, the Defense Department is authorized to transfer surplus military equipment to police departments under a law signed in late 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton--that's right, the "Democrat."

From 1997 until 2014, more than $5 billion in surplus military equipment was distributed to law enforcement agencies, with purchases often subsidized by federal grants.

How easy is it to get such equipment? As Fox News reported:

Local enforcement agencies can look through an online catalog to purchase items like small arms and tents. Getting a tank or military aircraft requires a small amount of extra work--authorities need to fill out a one-page request form, specifying if they prefer the vehicle with wheels or tank tracks. Delivery can take up to 14 days.

In 2014, after people were shocked by the images of heavily militarized police cracking down on protests in Ferguson following the killing of Mike Brown, a report from NPR found that the Pentagon had sold some 600 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, through the program. Los Angeles police alone apparently had at least nine MRAPs as of 2014.

According to NPR, other equipment sold to law enforcement agencies included:

79,288 assault rifles
-- 205 grenade launchers
-- 11,959 bayonets
-- 3,972 combat knives
-- $124 million worth of night-vision equipment, including night-vision sniper scopes
-- 479 bomb detonator robots
-- 50 airplanes, including 27 cargo transport airplanes
-- 422 helicopters
-- More than $3.6 million worth of camouflage gear and other "deception equipment"

The scale of the militarization would be comical if it wasn't so frightening.

A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pointed out as an example how police in three New Hampshire cities--Keene, Concord and Manchester, just 30 miles apart--each got federal funds from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase armored personnel carriers known as "BearCats" ("Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck").

The justification? According to the Keene Police Department's application, "The terrorism threat is far-reaching and often unforeseen"--even, apparently, in a city with a population of 23,000 people. The application "goes on to cite Keene's annual pumpkin festival as a potential terrorism target in need of protection," the ACLU reported.

As one City Council member told the ACLU, "Our application talked about the danger of domestic terrorism, but that's just something you put in the grant application to get the money. What red-blooded American cop isn't going to be excited about getting a toy like this? That's what it comes down to."

Nor is it only official police departments that participate in the 1033 program. According to a 2014 Los Angeles Times report, at least 22 school systems in eight states were participating in the 1033 program that year.

After a public outcry, the Times wrote, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that it would "return three grenade launchers, but intends to keep 61 rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle it received through the program."

POLICE AND other law enforcement agencies routinely claim that these vast arsenals are necessary to protect communities from terrorist attack--or to protect officers from violent criminals. But it's hard to fathom what use bayonets and grenade launchers are in either case.

The reality is that this weaponry is purchased as show of power--and utilized to the same end.

And as the ACLU points out, simply having access to the hardware makes it more likely to be used: "As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, if the federal government gives the police a huge cache of military-style weaponry, they are highly likely to use it, even if they do not really need to."

Along with the expansion of the 1033 program, the ACLU reports, is an increase in the routine use of SWAT teams in policing, particularly as part of the U.S. "war on drugs." This has happened even as more Americans favor de-escalation of drug-war policies that disproportionately target people of color and have failed spectacularly to stop drugs.

Between 2011-12, the ACLU found, among more than 800 SWAT deployments carried out by 20 law enforcement agencies across the country, nearly four in five were carried out not in response to a violent threat, but to execute a search warrant on a home. Some 62 percent were specifically for searches related to drugs. In a majority of the searches, no weapons were found in the homes where the warrant was "served."

Such deployments are, not surprisingly, racist in who gets targeted. ACLU researchers found that 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino.

This includes raids like the one against the family of Aiyana Stanley-Jones--a 7-year-old African American girl in Detroit who was killed when the city's Special Response Team burst into the wrong apartment. After throwing a flash-bang grenade through the window and kicking open the wooden door (which was unlocked), officers burst in, and one opened fire. A bullet struck Aiyana in the head and exited her neck, killing her.

In a similar case outside of Atlanta, 19-month-old Bou Bou Phonesavanh was so severely injured by a flash-bang grenade that landed in his crib during a mistaken SWAT team raid that he had to be placed in a medically induced coma.

As his mother Alecia Phonesavanh later said, "This is about race. You don't see SWAT teams going into a white-collar community, throwing grenades into their homes."

AND NOW, this weaponry and military-grade equipment is increasingly appearing on the streets of cities as part of police crowd control operations against protests.

In the run-up to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, for example, the city's police force received $20 million worth of equipment, including 2,000 sets of riot gear, 2,000 retractable steel batons for "crowd control," 15 motorcycles, night-vision mounts, and 16 "illuminator aiming lasers."

Organizers of the demonstrations outside the convention believe they were on the smaller side of what was expected in part due to the intimidation of police preparing for, essentially, a war with protesters.

Last month in Baton Rouge, the images of heavily armed riot police in gas masks and armor facing off against unarmed protesters showed, as the Intercept's Robert Mackey wrote, "a clear mismatch between the threat of violence from protesters and the aggressive use of force by police officers confronting them."

Yet State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson later blamed protesters for the mass arrests that police carried out--claiming that the demonstrators' anti-police chants incited officers. "[T]heir words were not conducive to a peaceful-type demonstration," Edmonson said.

But the blame for escalating tensions belongs with the police and the public officials who armed them. As the ACLU put it, "Militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies."

That attitude was on display in a recent interview in the Boston Herald with an anonymous 10-year Boston police force veteran about calls from the police "union" for even more military hardware:

We are the first and last line of defense. People have to understand the police are serious. We're not looking for a new toy. Police officers have wives and husbands, and they have to tell them that everything is okay. It seems like a small thing to give us the equipment that makes us safer and helps us keep the public safe.

"The first and last line of defense"--but for who and from what should be the question.

"I would hope that what we do in the community every day, every shift, every hour of every shift, would far outweigh the uncomfortable feelings that people have if they see that equipment," the Boston officer said.

But people are right to have "uncomfortable feelings" when they witness cops dressed for a war zone, carrying weapons whose only purpose is to cause death and destruction, not "keep the public safe." And all the more so if they know firsthand the racist violence that police commit in Black and Brown communities on a daily basis.

The victims of this harassment and brutality have "wives and husbands," too.

When police can fire at least 15 bullets at the back of an unarmed, fleeing teenager and then high-five each other for a job well done after the fact--as the Chicago cops were caught doing on video in the murder of Paul O'Neal on July 28--how can anyone claim they need more firepower? When officers can be heard saying to "make sure this [body camera] is off," how can anyone suggest they won't abuse the power goes along with more deadly weaponry? How can anyone take seriously the idea that our communities will be safer if the police are equipped with grenade launchers?

Yet it seems that the Obama administration might be poised to do just that.

Following the police crackdown on protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, the Obama administration announced in May 2015 that it was curtailing some aspects of the 1033 program--specifically the sale of heavy military equipment like tanks and grenade launchers to local police forces. (It should be pointed out that police departments were never restricted from purchasing such weaponry and hardware privately.)

But fast-forward to today: After the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge last month, the Obama administration agreed to "review" the restricted items and seems poised to undo the ban.

Defending the need for police to have access to military gear, Baton Rouge Chief of Police Carl Dabadie told reporters following the shooting of police: "We've been questioned for the last [two] weeks about our militarized tactics and our militarized law enforcement. This is why. We are up against a force that is not playing by the rules."

But Dabadie's version of the "rules" includes a police force that deliberately acts like an occupying army as a means of threatening whole communities into compliance and intimidating people from dissent. The police should be demilitarized now.

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