Beyond black and white: Ferguson, police brutality and warrior cops

Riot police in combat gear confront a demonstrator in Ferguson, Missouri.

Riot police in combat gear confront a demonstrator in Ferguson, Missouri.

Demonstrations were held Thursday in more than 100 cities nationwide in solidarity with the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Mo., against the police killing of an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown. The youth was shot by a so-far unidentified police officer last Saturday as he raised his hands to demonstrate compliance with police orders, according to witnesses.

With protests intensifying in Ferguson throughout the week and the police response growing harsher – including on Wednesday night arresting two journalists who were covering the demonstrations – President Obama felt compelled to take a break from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to weigh in on the matter.

“It’s important to remember how this started,” the president said Thursday. “We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances.”

Obama went on to describe the common values that unite Americans as a people: “belief in equality under the law; a basic respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protest; a reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us; and the need for accountability when it comes to our government.”

As usual when the president speaks, there is an element of truth to what he said, but a good deal of obfuscation as well. First of all, to claim that this all started with the tragic death of Michael Brown ignores the general context that led to that killing in the first place. Specifically, there is a widespread problem across the country of police routinely overstepping their authority, harassing individuals, throwing people in jail, and all too often, using deadly force. These incidents disproportionately involve youth and people of color, but in reality, no demographic group is immune from potential police violence and harassment.

It is difficult to ascertain the full extent of the problem of police killings, as unfortunately (and unbelievably) there are no reliable nationwide figures on police use of deadly force. Despite a federal law, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, requiring the Attorney General to collect and publish data on the use of force by police and issue an annual summary, there is no indication that such a summary has ever been published.

There are however informal tallies. According to one, there have been at least 130 police killings of civilians so far this year, including the following:

  • Eric Garner, choked to death by police in New York City on July 17
  • Misty Holt-Singh, a hostage in a bank robbery, shot and killed along with Gilbert Renteria and Alex Gregory Martinez in Stockton, California on July 16
  • Carlos Mejia, shot holding a pair of gardening shears in Salinas, California on May 20
  • Steven C. Cordery, shot while surrendering outside of his home in Spokane, Washington on March 26
  • James Boyd, a homeless man camping outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico on March 11
  • Luis Rodriguez, shot in Moore, Oklahoma after police responded to a fight between his wife and daughter on February 14
  • Manuel Orosco Longoria, shot with his hands in the air in Phoenix, Arizona on January 14

The altercation in Ferguson reportedly all started when a cop driving by in a squad car shouted at Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk.” When the two did not immediately obey, the cop grabbed Brown and began choking him and then shot him when the 18-year-old tried to flee.

While the police’s account of the incident varies considerably from the version provided by eyewitnesses, it seems pretty clear generally what happened here. The two young black men were walking on the street – jaywalking – and when a police officer aggressively barked at them to get onto the sidewalk, they declined to immediately comply, possibly giving the cop some attitude. This set the cop off, and in a fit of rage he felt compelled to establish his authority at any cost, leading to the discharge of his weapon.

In this case, context is important. The neighborhood where the incident took place is predominantly black, but the police force is predominantly white. It is highly unlikely that this was the first time that Brown and Johnson had experienced harassment at the hands of local police, and somewhat understandable that they may have felt unfairly targeted and disrespected by this particular cop – hence the refusal to immediately comply with the profanity-laden police order.

While many of the protests around the country and in Ferguson itself have focused specifically on the racial aspect of the killing, there are deeper, more fundamental issues to address as well. As we have seen in the heavy-handed police response to the demonstrations, which has included the use of armored vehicles, tear gas, rubber and wooden bullets, and the deployment of officers wearing desert camouflage, there is a deep-seated authoritarian streak within U.S. police forces, and an apparent tendency to treat any sign of social unrest as a combat zone to be neutralized with military force.

The combat fatigues worn by the police in Ferguson make them virtually indistinguishable from armed forces in countries under U.S. military occupation such as Afghanistan. But as Paul Szoldra, an Afghanistan veteran, wrote this week at Business Insider, this sort of gear is completely unnecessary outside of a warzone.

“While serving as a U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan, we wore desert camouflage to blend in with our surroundings, carried rifles to shoot back when under enemy attack, and drove around in armored vehicles to ward off roadside bombs,” Szoldra wrote. “We looked intimidating, but all of our vehicles and equipment had a clear purpose for combat against enemy forces. So why is this same gear being used on our city streets?”

The police confronting demonstrators in Ferguson are armed with short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine, “with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters,” Szoldra pointed out. “On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each.”

So what is exactly is going on here? Why the use of all this heavy artillery and combat gear in policing America’s streets?

Well, one development that has happened in recent years has been the relatively new policy of the Pentagon donating surplus military hardware to local police forces. Under the 1033 program which was enacted by Congress in 1992, and expanded in 1997, police forces around the country have been receiving refurbished military equipment free of charge from the Pentagon. The Defense Department recently announced it would be giving domestic law enforcement forces hulking tank-like vehicles designed to efficiently maneuver in a war zone for use in thwarting any potential high-scale activity.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized this policy. “One of our concerns with this is it has a tendency to escalate violence,” said ACLU Center for Justice senior counsel Kara Dansky. Another concern of the ACLU is the growing use of heavily armed SWAT teams that are raiding people’s homes in the middle of the night, leading to people and pets needlessly being shot and killed.

“Our neighborhoods are not warzones,” says the ACLU in a recent report, “and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies. Any yet, every year, billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color.”

In this sense the problem of policing in the United States is closely related to the 13-year-old war on terror, which has led to an astronomical increase in Pentagon spending, and more combat gear than the military knows what to do with – despite our endless military deployments in countries such as Afghanistan.

The war on terror also seems to have led to a tendency in the U.S. to treat all problems as potential existential threats that must be eliminated by force and the liberal use violence to solve these problems, as well as a breakdown of the rule of law, and a lack of accountability for violating individuals’ rights. This is a tendency that is seen from Missouri to Helmand Province.

While protesters demand accountability for the slaying of Mike Brown, Amnesty International documents in a new report released last week that the families of thousands of civilians killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been left without any sort of justice. The report described dozens of killings that took place during night raids carried out by U.S. forces, none of which have been investigated or punished.

“Thousands of Afghans have been killed or injured by U.S. forces since the invasion, but the victims and their families have little chance of redress. The U.S. military justice system almost always fails to hold its soldiers accountable for unlawful killings and other abuses,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director.

Now, even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal are noticing the troubling trend of the war on terror contributing to rising police violence across the country. 

“Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield,” a Wall Street Journal article put it in an article last year. “The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.”

If American police departments are adopting more than just the weaponry of the U.S. military but also its mentality, there is a major cause for concern in America that goes way beyond the platitudes expressed by President Obama on Thursday.

As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, unleashing the armed forces on civilian populations only leads to tragedy. It is therefore time to rein in U.S. police departments before the United States begins to resemble one big military occupation.

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