Sometimes it takes a seminal event to spark change. That might be taking place today in regards to the militarization of the nation’s police departments.
The image of police wearing military uniforms, brandishing assault weapons in the streets of a small Midwestern town, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, and arresting journalists is more reminiscent of Egypt or Iran than the United States. As an American that cares about our constitutional rights — not just the First Amendment but all of our cherished rights — what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and indeed throughout our nation, is deeply troubling.
The dirty truth is that police abuses are nothing new. Stories of police brutality are as old as the republic itself. Police beatings of protesters were a trademark of both the civil rights and the Vietnam peace movement of the 1960s. Police officers in Birmingham, Alabama used dogs and fire hoses to harass and maim both blacks and whites who dared to challenge the Jim Crow status quo. Mayor Richard J. Daley famously oversaw Chicago as his police department brutally beat-down protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention — an event that has since been described as a “police riot”. Not even President Lyndon Johnson’s outrage could temper the batons.
Police have more recently been deployed to crush dissent at Iraq anti-war rallies and at Occupy protests throughout the country. College students on the campus of UC-Davis were infamously pepper-sprayed for a peaceful demonstration against income inequality. “Free speech zones” have even been erected at political conventions to quell political dissent.
Chicago, always the epicenter of police abuses, passed a set of city ordinances pushed through by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to curb protests at the NATO summit. Emanuel’s ordinance doubled the maximum fine for resisting arrest or obstructing a police officer to $1,000; required organizers to carry a $1 million insurance policy and reimburse the city for any damages; and gave the Police Superintendent the power to deputize virtually anyone, including private “rent-a-cops”. It was billed as temporary measure but quickly became permanent.
What has changed is the means in which police abuse their power. Police departments have become more heavily armed since the 1990s — during the height of the “war on drugs” — and into the 2000s after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. In its infinite wisdom, Congress thought that it was a good idea to turn our local police departments into small armies to combat the drug trade and terrorist threats — never mind the fact that their local role has always been intended to be distinct from a traditional military force.
It turns out that the Pentagon — which receives roughly $600 billion in funds each year (with war supplementals) — has way more weapons than they need. The Pentagon has even asked for a cancellation to expensive weapons and weapons systems, such as the Abrams tank, but Congress refuses. These military surplus goods end up in the hands of police departments for free.
Winamac, Indiana, with only a population of 2,439 people, has acquired an armored vehicle meant for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The United States of America has become a war zone,” Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer told USA Today. “There’s violence in the workplace, there’s violence in schools and there’s violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Machine guns, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, tanks, helicopters, and armored vehicles are ending up in the hands of police departments across the country — even in small towns with only a few thousand people. Ferguson, Missouri has only brought this madness to light.
Voices from across the political spectrum have expressed outrage and a desire to see the nation’s police departments de-militarized.
“This is America, not a war zone,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said on Twitter. “The people of #Ferguson just want answers. We all want answers.”
“We need to de-militarize this situation—this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” Democrat Claire McCaskill, Missouri’s senior senator said. “I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right. Today is going to be a new start, we can and need to do better.”
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky gave perhaps the most forceful response yet, saying that “the images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”
“When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands,” Paul writes.
President Obama called for a return to peace and urged police to show restraint.
One member of Congress, Hank Johnson (D-GA), is already introducing legislation to curb the militarization of police departments. As Think Progress reports, the proposed Stop Militarization Enforcement Act would prevent “the federal government from transferring military equipment to federal and state agencies.”
While a law would be preferable, President Obama could use his executive authority to halt the transfer of military equipment to local police departments. This wouldn’t prevent future presidents from reinstating the military surplus giveaway, but it would at least stop it for now. He may even have the authority to use Defense Department funds to reacquire equipment that has previously been given away — something that Congress should require on a massive scale.
If we are to see our police departments de-militarized, voters will have to speak up. The best place to start is in your own community. Write to your local city council member or mayor to express your concern for what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Tell them that you do not support you police department using similar equipment and tactics. Do the same with your US Representative and Senator. Tell them that Congress should end the transfer of military equipment to police departments and institute a program of reacquiring equipment that was previously given away.
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