The increasing militarization of the police first took root in black communities.
The photos and description of what took place at Occupy Chapel Hill, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot in North Carolina, resemble the second tenet of the so-called Powell Doctrine. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Colin Powell said that "force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate to the force used by the enemy."
On Nov. 13 a tactical team of 25 Chapel Hill police officers equipped with assault rifles, helmets and bulletproof vests forced 13 people to the ground in handcuffs, including a reporter covering the protest, and arrested eight nonviolent and unarmed demonstrators and charged them with breaking and entering for occupying a vacant car dealership.
Later that week, there was the controversial NYPD raid on the original Occupy encampment in lower Manhattan, and more recently, a video of peaceful student protesters being pepper-sprayed on the campus of the University of California, Davis, went viral and sparked national outrage. The shocking imagery is now ingrained in the public consciousness, representing the increasingly violent response of police to these nonviolent protests.
Overwhelming and disproportionate, indeed. But what Powell was describing in 1991 was a new way of waging war, one intended as a last resort and to minimize military involvement unless absolutely necessary. What police officers at the Occupy protests were engaging in was not war.
In the wake of the U.C. Davis incident, much has been made about the increased militarization of local police departments, raising questions about the effectiveness of these tactics and a concern about the far-reaching authority of police to use force. However, this is hardly a new phenomenon. The increased militarization of America's police forces can trace its origins to the black community, and like so much that is currently plaguing the criminal-justice system, it is a different so-called war that can be blamed: the war on drugs.
"Most of society operates on the default that if a police officer is using violence, using force, it's against someone who is a threat to the public," says William Jelani Cobb, associate professor of Africana studies and history at Rutgers University. "We as black people have known that wasn't the case for a really long time."
As Christian Parenti laid out in his book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, increased reliance on Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams has affected the way this country has approached policing. Originally conceived by then-LAPD commander and future chief of police Daryl Gates in 1966 to address police inability to respond effectively to riots, the activity of SWAT-style paramilitary units quadrupled between 1980 and 1995, the height of the war on drugs. This policy has disproportionately affected communities of color.
Much of what these units do, according to Parenti, is "stop, search, harass, arrest and brutalize petty offenders, parole violators and bystanders." They use "aggressive group tactics, automatic weapons and infrared scopes" in place of "the social skills, forbearance and individual discretion essential to accountable and effective civilian policing," as described by Parenti.
In order to justify the ballooning budget that accompanies these units, police departments started to rely on them to conduct routine business, such as serving search warrants and chasing down ordinary parole and probation violators. The result has been turning communities inhabited by black and brown people into literal war zones.
Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman attempt to frame the proliferation of these militarized tactics in terms of a post-9/11 mindset in a recent article for the Atlantic, "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police." They note that before 9/11, responsibility for combating terrorism in the United States rested with law enforcement. Since President Bush's declaration of a war on terror, that duty has shifted to the military. In response to their perceived inadequacies in dealing with the threat of terrorism, police departments across the country "have substantially increased their use of military-grade equipment and weaponry to perform their counterterrorism duties, adopting everything from body armor to, in some cases, attack helicopters."
More than just the proliferation of high-powered assault rifles, Rizer and Hartman state that in recent years "police departments both large and small have acquired bazookas, machine guns, and even armored vehicles (mini-tanks) for use in domestic police work." What the authors see as a consequence of acquiring these heavy artillery is "the subtle evolution in the mentality of the 'men in blue' from 'peace officer' to soldier."
They aren't wrong in their general assessment; the police in this country are increasingly being trained not as community peacekeepers but as a paramilitary force to be deployed to protect the interests of "law and order" as has been so narrowly defined by our politicians. But their time frame about when this began is slightly off. It's an issue of not seeing the problem until it becomes a problem affecting mainstream white America. It's a familiar pattern.
"The attitude toward Vietnam seemed pressed until regular middle-class families were being forced to see their kids off to the war," Cobb says. But, he adds, "that may be the thing that you need to bring about some kind of meaningful reform."
It's a difficult pill to swallow, but people only seem interested in addressing the social ills in this country when they affect the broader "99 percent." Not unlike the economic inequality that the Occupy protests have served to highlight, the problem of a militarized police force that the protesters have encountered was a regular presence in black and brown communities first. And like the issue of economic inequality, the pseudo-military police have come under great scrutiny in recent weeks. Perhaps now we will ask more questions and eventually correct the issue.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental-health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.