United States / Policing

Ferguson, Dissent, and Containment: Militarized and Racialized Policing in the United States

Following police officer Darren Wilson’s murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August of this year, national media attention has been directed toward racial profiling in a supposedly post-racial America, as well as the excessively forceful response of law enforcement to demonstrations following Michael Brown’s killing. The unrest in Ferguson has brought the reality of militarized and racialized domestic policing to the forefront of the American consciousness. However, although this is a newly acknowledged phenomenon for many, the effects of misguided law enforcement policies have long been understood and lived by thousands of Americans.

The United State’s self-proclaimed role as global policeman and its War on Terror have embodied a tradition of disregard for civilian life that has direct implications for the militarization of domestic law enforcement. In Pakistan alone, drone attacks have resulted in the extrajudicial murders of anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people. The operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed an estimated 135,000 civilians (the September 11 attacks, in comparison, claimed 2,977 victims). The casualties of these wars should, under any circumstances, be cause for introspection of US foreign policy. However, what is equally concerning is the extent to which these same tactics are becoming part of domestic policing. International “counterterrorism” trainings, which promote violent tactics of suppressing domestic dissent, are freely attended by domestic police agencies. St. Louis police chief Timothy Fitch, whose department is being fiercely criticized for its brutal response to the protests following Michael Brown’s shooting, attended one such training in Israel in 2011.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, paramilitary tactics and weaponry can be used domestically outside the guise of counterterrorism. In the early 1990s, Congress implemented a program allowing “leftover” military-grade weapons to be acquired by local police units. This means that the same weapons that are employed by the United States in its campaigns abroad are also being used at home against its own citizens. In his discussion of the scale of domestic militarization, Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times reports, “During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.” These are weapons of war that have no place in ensuring domestic peace and security, and yet they are offered, with very little oversight or restrictions, to local law enforcement agencies.

The War on Drugs, which began under President Nixon in 1971 and was reinvigorated by the Reagan administration, has also contributed to the rise of militarized policing in the United States. It has led to a growing number of increasingly violent police raids, a larger proportion of which are being conducted with unnecessary support from SWAT teams, often resulting in extensive civilian casualties. The campaign also targets communities, composed primarily of ethnic minorities, which have historically faced hostile treatment from law enforcement. The War on Drugs is largely responsible for the United States sporting the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, consisting of a disproportionately high number of nonviolent offenders of color. When observed through the lens of the War on Drugs, police militarization takes on a distinctly racialized character—it is just as much a war on the disenfranchised as it is on illegal drugs.

Finally, border militarization and the racial profiling tactics that are being employed to that end have become an increasingly large presence in domestic policing. Weapons technologies corporations have taken advantage of border security concerns in order to expand their markets. They no longer only supply the tools of war for America’s campaigns abroad, but are now also benefactors for the wars that take place within its borders—wars on terrorism, drugs and immigration. Military-style checkpoints are becoming increasingly commonplace within border states, no longer reserved to the border itself. Similarly, the “stop and frisk” tactics that are used at these checkpoints continue to be challenged on the basis that they rely upon racial profiling.

The recent events in Ferguson are a culmination of the consequences of these historical trends of increasingly racialized and militarized policing. Chilling photos of the demonstrations in Ferguson feature mostly white police officers in riot gear, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, facing off against civilian demonstrators of color chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Michael Brown was unarmed and shot at least six times, his body left in the street for hours; hundreds of protestors and journalists have been tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets or arrested by police at the scene. Meanwhile, Darren Wilson, the police officer responsible for Brown’s death, remains on paid leave. All of these events demonstrate the lack of oversight, consequences and public consent that are associated with police militarization.

Through Ferguson, America has begun to become self-aware of a dark reality: its law enforcement agencies treat minority communities as hostile parties rather than as US citizens whom it is their duty to protect. It cannot be treated as an isolated tragedy—in fact, since Michael Brown’s murder, at least 13 black men have been killed by police under disputed circumstances. Ferguson needs to be understood in relation to the trends of racialized and militarized policing and with the realization that, too often, the bodies that are granted the right and responsibility to protect us act in violent opposition to those ideals.