The images from Ferguson are alarming — heavily armed police officers dressed in battle fatigues facing off with demonstrators, launching an anti-riot ordinance. Police kicking in doors, in what appears to be the militarization of America’s police force. In an economy that is hard-pressed to provide street lights in some communities, or build new schools, or keep youth athletic programs open, police forces have tanks, grenade launchers and sub-machine guns.
When did we go to sleep to wake up to an America with a paramilitary police culture with fascist tendencies? Where does all of this hell-spawn weaponry come from, and why is it trained on stifling dissent with tactics used on battlefield enemies regardless of whether such force is called for? And how long must police step over the line before something is seriously done?
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that showed local police forces militarizing at an alarming rate using such tactics disproportionately against people of color. “We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs,” said Kara Dansky, Senior Counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice. “Carried out by ten or more officers armed with assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and battering rams, these paramilitary raids disproportionately impacted people of color, sending the clear message that the families being raided are the enemy. This unnecessary violence causes property damage, injury, and death.”
As the “War on Drugs” waged in the ‘80s, police forces began to gear up with weapons to match the opponents they faced. This started the trend for more firepower and body armor. But it was not until the tragedy of September 11, 2001, that the federal government considered an internal threat that merited such intense consideration. Federal grant money was issued to cities that were considered high risk for terrorist activities, allowing them to buy tactical gear and armored vehicles.
A New York Times analysis of Pentagon data shows how the police are arming themselves for worst-case scenarios that admittedly may never happen. Since 2006, the police in six states have received magazines that carry 100 rounds of M-16 ammunition, which allow officers to fire continuously for three times longer than normal. Twenty-two states obtained equipment to detect buried land mines.
Attorney General Eric Holder today said of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, “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.” But it was during the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, that police departments 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 olive drab-clad and black-helmeted cops who appeared to run roughshod over demonstrators in Ferguson wore no identifying patches or nametags. The ACLU cautioned that, “At every level — from the police to the state governments to the federal government — there is almost no record keeping about SWAT or the use of military weapons and vehicles by local law enforcement.” In addition, the report recommends that state legislatures and municipalities develop criteria for SWAT raids that limit their deployment to the kinds of emergencies for which they were intended, such as an active shooter situation.”
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