The massive display of force by the police of Ferguson, Missouri in response to protests at the apparent extrajudicial execution of black teenager Michael Brown has once again drawn attention to what the Economist has called the ‘hyper-military culture’ of the US police.
This culture has drawn the attention of civil liberties campaigners for some time, in over-the-top SWAT team raids that recall the US Army in Iraq, in the acquisition of military hardware by police departments across the country, and in the militarised policing of protests, which blurs the boundaries between policing and counterinsurgency.
All these tendencies were on display at Ferguson, where police in military uniform used stun grenades,an armoured car, tear gas, snipers and shotguns with ‘non-lethal’ beany bag cartridges specifically designed to fire at crowds, and arrested two journalists, in what New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb called ‘ a kind of municipal version of shock and awe.’
Media criticisms of police militarisation have revolved around the question of proportionality and police accountability, and the potentially damaging impact on the democratic right to protest when the distinctions between police and soldiers are blurred and protesters are treated as an enemy to be suppressed.
Such policing is not without precedent. American history is filled with episodes of the violent suppression of strikes, riots and peaceful protests by the army, police and national guard. In July 1932 General MacArthur deployed cavalry, tanks and soldiers armed with bayonets to disperse settlements established by World War I veterans in Washington protesting at the government’s failure to pay them bonus payments promised by Congress.
The over-the-top SWAT-team raids denounced by the American Civil Liberties Council in the last decade have their precedents in the bombing of the Move sect in Philadelphia in 1985, in the assault on the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993. The militarised policing of protest was already apparent at the massively over-the-top Darth Vader policing of the Seattle WTO Summit in 1999.
Such events are not uniquely American. The savage attacks on anti-globalisation protesters in Genoa; the commando-style operations of Brasil’s paramilitary BOPE police force in the favelas; the military-style raids of Canadian Royal Mounted Police on indigenous peoples and the gassing and pepper-spraying of student protesters; the brutal response of the Spanish police to anti-austerity protests; the 2009 raid by French police on the Tamac commune – all these episodes are part of a global drift towards repression and militarised policing that has increasingly become an corrollary of the crisis-prone capitalist order.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the phenomenon of the ‘soldier cop’ has become particularly striking and widespread in the US over the last decade. Since 2006, according to an investigation carried out by the New York Times in June, police departments across America have received tons of surplus military equipment that includes armoured cars, camoflauge uniforms, night goggles, silencers, aircraft, machineguns and magazines.
Like many liberal commentators, the Times is clearer about what is happening than it is about why it is happening. Its reporters are struck by the fact that much of this equipment has been acquired by police forces in small towns with very low crime rates, under the military transfer program initiated by Congress in the 1990s, and that police militarisation has taken place at a time when crime rates are falling nationally, and note that ‘as the nation’s wars abroad wind down, many of the military’s surplus tools of combat have ended up in the hands of state and local law enforcement.’ as if this outcome were the consequence of some kind of inevitable buy-up sale.
To some extent police militarisation is a consequence of the ‘risk averse’ culture of the post 9/11 era, in which all-embracing notions of national security, public safety and terrorism have become a justification for the projection of hard state power against an endless array of worst-case scenarios.
As Tony Blair once argued in defense of the Iraq War, 9/11 ‘changed the calculus of risk’, and made it possible for governments, armies and the security apparatus of the state to take a range of actions that had previously been seen as illegitimate, whether launching ‘preemptive’ wars, locking up ‘enemy combatants’ indefinitely without charge or torturing suspects.
These actions are a consequence of an overarching parabola of security that includes the American ‘homeland’, border enforcement and America’s wars abroad, which has created a kind of conveyor belt in terms of ideas and concepts and sometimes in personnel, so that security contractors that ran American prisons also helped run the military’s overseas detention facilities, and private military contractors provided training to SWAT teams and also supplied mercenaries to work alongside the US military.
US military texts for more than a decade have argued that the US Army is now obliged to combine the destruction of the enemy with policing duties in ‘three block wars’, and ‘military operations in urban terrain’ (MOUT) fought in the world’s ‘feral cities.’ T
US securocrats and military stategists fret continuously over the ‘volatility’ of the 21st century world, and research is ongoing into an array of ‘non-lethal’ weapons to be deployed in response to the security threats posed by the turbulent inhabitants of Third World slums and ‘megacities’. One of the recurring themes of the US military’s recent fascination with futurism is the idea that the military may one day be obliged to suppress similar threat inside the ‘homeland’ itself.
In this sense the comparisons made by some commentators between Ferguson and Fallujah are not at all outlandish. Both are part of a continuum in which war has become a form of law enforcement and law enforcement has increasingly become an extension of war, just as Clint Eastwood’s rogue cops once predicted in Magnum Force.
But in the 21st century police forces no longer need to rely on Dirty Harry’s magnum, but on the technologies and hardware borrowed from the war on terror, that can now be deployed with impunity against criminals, drug dealers – and protesters.
After more than three decades of the greatest transfer of wealth to the rich in American history, the police, like the military, increasingly acts as the instrument of the one percent. In its attempt to intimidate and suppress protest, it also seeks to consolidate and shore up the gross inequalities and social divisions that produce such protests in the first place.
In Ferguson, with its 75 pecent black population, its higher rates of poverty and unemployment than the state average, and its nearly all-white police force, these divisions are explicitly racialised. On one level therefore, Ferguson is a microcosm of wider racial divisions in American society. But the police ‘army’ that attempted to repres the protests against the shooting of an unarmed black teenager is also an indication of the possible future, of a collapsing and stagnating America policed by solder cops in a fractious and ghettoized ‘homeland’ that increasingly resembles The Hunger Games or Terry Gilliam’s Brasil.
That future is not inevitable. Contrary to what some critics of American power have suggested, the declining US empire has not become a fascist plutocracy that cannot be challenged, but remains a democracy – however corrupted by elite wealth and power – with an active and vibrant civil society and strong democratic traditions that have not been extinguished by the hysteria of the last thirteen years and the shoring up of the national security state..
In Ferguson, protesters succeeded in bringing enough pressure to force the state government to withdraw its armoured soldier-cops, resulting in the no-less astonishing spectacle of a black highway patrol officer marching alongside the demonstrators, instead of looking at them through the telescope of a sniper’s rifle
That outcome is a reminder that we are not in The Hunger Games – yet.