Police Militarization Meets Urban Unrest

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By: Luke Gould

This week was marred by increasingly violent episodes as protestors in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson clashed with militarized law enforcement following the police shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown.

Tensions climaxed Wednesday Aug. 13th on a fourth night of protesting. Heavily equipped police, armed with assault rifles, fired tire gas canisters into an angry crowd of largely African American protestors. Local police forces were also reported to have trained snipers and fired rubber bullets on the crowd. Protestors responded by throwing Molotov cocktails. Ferguson Police are also said to have detained several journalists. This incident not only underscores long standing issues of justice for minorities in America, but also acutely highlights the militarization of an increasing number of American police units.

This type of racial profiling has not only filled prisons with minorities, but has also caused the disproportionate killing of minorities by police forces. In case after case, police are quick to conceive of  these disenfranchised groups, particularly young black men, as nothing more than delinquents, and this prejudice is evident in their actions. Mother Jones magazine reported that at least 4 black men died this month in the United States at the hands of local police. In a 2007 investigation of 10 American cities, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporteruncovered that there were a lop-sided number of African American deaths at police hands compared to their white counterparts.

Senator Rand Paul addressed the issue in a Time magazine opinion piece last week.  “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”  This is an everyday reality for African Americans, whether they live in a poor majority black area or an affluent mostly white suburb. There are seemingly no places where police have not killed African Americans with little to no discretion.

Perhaps more appalling then the shooting of Brown and the stigmatization of young African Americans is the response of law enforcement to those manifesting in the streets to demand justice. The images and videos coming from Ferguson this week bring to the mind the Nazi occupation of France, or the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. These images do not suggest an organized, disciplined community policy force maintaining order while allowing citizens to exercise their constitutional right to protest.  The use of advanced gear and weapons by Ferguson Police suggests a disturbing trend that can be directly related to federal policies.

The 1033 program is the Defense Department (DOD) initiative which has armed local police forces with the type of military equipment seen on the streets of Ferguson. This initiative, implemented in 1990, originally transferred equipment from the DOD to federal and state agencies to deal with drug related crime, but has since been expanded to cover terrorist activity as well. Weapons and technology used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have made their way to our local police due to this initiative. The National Journal reported that “since 2006 the Pentagon has distributed 432 mine-resistant armored vehicles to local police departments. It has also doled out more than 400 other armored vehicles, 500 aircraft, and 93,000 machine guns.”  Additionally the 1033 program requires that new equipment be used within the first year of it being received. This has led an escalation in SWAT missions where specialized equipment is often used. SWAT has been used overwhelming on minorities suspected of non-violent drug offenses. As residents of Ferguson have already discovered, the potential for brutalization of American citizens, especially minorities, on American soil is tangible.

Tensions in Ferguson deescalated on Thursday, following a change in police force from local authorities to the state patrol. Unrest however returned early Saturday morning and is likely to continue following the Saturday afternoon announcement of a state of emergency and a curfew in Ferguson. It appears locals and the nation will continue demanding justice for Michael Brown and a response for the heavy handed tactics of the St. Louis County Police.

Many organizations and influential individuals nationwide have come out against police racism and militarization. Despite this outcry it is unlikely that this trend will significantly change. In June, the House of Representatives voted on a bill to prohibit the transfer of military grade equipment from the DOD to local agencies. House Amendment 918 as it was known was voted down 355 to 61. Contributions from the defense and weapons industry amounted to $51,000 per house member that voted against the bill. In other words, the militarization of police is unlike to slow due to legislators close relationship to the situations biggest benefactor- the defense industry. Unless systemic changes are made, another Ferguson is an inevitability.

 

 

Photo Credit of – AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

 

 

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