From War on Drugs to War on Occupy
The increasing militarization of the police first took root in black communities.
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.