'This is the Story of Power in this Country': Ferguson, Institutionalized Racism and the Militarization of Police

Police officers in Ferguson, Missouri arrested 31 people during protests Monday night (Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

'This is the Story of Power in this Country': Ferguson, Institutionalized Racism and the Militarization of Police

'They're willing to sacrifice the lives of the community members based on the actions of a few' — CCR Bertha Fellow Chauniqua Young

Last week, after days of violent police rampages in Ferguson, Missouri, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) said the Senate will "review" the Defense Department program that gives military weapons and equipment to civilian police departments for free.

It took five apocalyptic nights in Ferguson for Levin to make that statement, but the national dialogue on the militarization of police has begun.

Only it didn't just take Ferguson. It took years of violent arrests. Exposes that revealed small towns being patrolled by tanks and big cities controlled by force. Rampant and institutionalized violations of citizens' human and constitutional rights. Protests and demonstrations around the country suffocated by intimidation, brutality, and weapons only ever seen in warfare.

The most recent crackdown came in response to a march that grew out of a vigil for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. The community of 20,000 wanted justice for another young black man killed with impunity; the police did not want to answer for their actions.

"There's a real problem in this country in thinking systematically about power," Chauncey DeVega, founder and editor of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes, told Common Dreams. "We need to emphasize that racism and police brutality are not separate things."

Harrowing images and videos from Ferguson's ongoing protests showed tense days turning into chaotic nights as police forces descended on the demonstrations, dressed in army camouflage and black helmets, wielding attack dogs and assault rifles, straddling armored tanks. They arrested reporters, refused to answer questions, and confiscated and dismantled news cameras. They fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at groups of protesters, eerily backlit by sporadic street-lamps and tank headlights. The smoke grenades sent heavy, billowing clouds through crowds of people who recoiled from the gas and held their empty arms in the air with the simple, pleading message, "Don't shoot."

On Thursday, after almost a week of nightmarish standoffs documented with equal reverence by reporters and social media users, Attorney General Eric Holder made a statement on the excessive and violent police response to the protests.

"[It] is clear that the scenes playing out in the streets of Ferguson over the last several nights cannot continue," Holder said. "At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message."

The 1033 program

How did we come to this? The reasons are complex and deeply ingrained in America's troubling racial history, but the source of the problem is simple: widespread partnerships between law enforcement and government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

The quiet militarization of police departments began in 1990, when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, a provision of which -- known as the 1033 program -- allowed the Secretary of Defense to "transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition."

In 1996, during the peak of the War on Drugs, Congress expanded the program and incentivized active use of the equipment, making it free for recipient agencies and simultaneously requiring them to use it within a year. The expansion of the 1033 program also required agencies to give preference to transferring equipment for "counterdrug and counterterrorism activities." And it hasn't stopped there.

But equally concerning as the 1033 program itself is the recent opportunity Congress had to end it -- which it didn't take.

On June 19th, almost two months before the death of Michael Brown, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida), introduced an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have prohibited federal funds from being used to "transfer aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents (including chemical agents, biological agents, and associated equipment), launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines, or nuclear weapons (as identified for demilitarization purposes outlined in Department of Defense Manual 4160.28) through the Department of Defense Excess Personal Property Program."

The amendment failed in a House vote 355-62. One of the votes against the amendment came from Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents Ferguson, Missouri.

As political finance research organization MapLight points out, Clay is one of the many members of Congress who receives a large chunk of campaign donations from the defense industry -- $25,000 in Clay's case. The representatives who voted against the amendment receive, on average, 73 percent more money from defense contractors than those who voted to de-fund the militarization program.

The Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2011 that more than $34 billion in federal grants have gone to stocking police forces with tanks, riot gear, and assault weapons. The relationship between government and the defense industry is unmistakable. The Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2011 that more than $34 billion in federal grants have gone to stocking police forces with tanks, riot gear, and assault weapons. The number could well be higher, but neither the federal government nor the state and local governments keep close track of what they sell or obtain, the Center said.

In 2011 alone, approximately 12,000 police organizations procured $500 million in firearms, helicopters, and other equipment. A highly publicized moratorium imposed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in 2012 to prevent inappropriate weapons transfers was lifted -- this time without fanfare -- in 2013 with no new safeguards.

As the ACLU reported (PDF) in June, the DLA, which is responsible for transferring the equipment to civilian police forces, "can simply purchase property from an equipment or weapons manufacturer and transfer it to a local law enforcement agency free of charge."

The phenomenon of surplus of military weapons making their way into the supplies of city police forces is not always visible to the public, as it has been in Ferguson. The turmoil is all too often private, witnessed only by people inside their homes and the SWAT teams that kick down their doors in the middle of the night to serve a warrant. Michael Brown's tragic death is part of a much more pervasive trend of police brutality on large and small scales that is strengthened and perpetuated by militarization -- one that encourages the police to see the people as an enemy, and vice versa.

Racial disparities in policing

Michael Brown's death -- and Eric Garner's, John Crawford's, Ezell Ford's, and Dante Parker's -- are the most recent examples of a historic trend with deep, troubling roots.

"There is a historical precedent" to racism in policing, DeVega told Common Dreams. "Modern police can trace their origins back to slave patrols."

As Eastern Kentucky University professor Victor E. Kappeler writes, "The institution of slavery and the control of minorities... were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing."

"[T]he St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols," writes Kappeler, who is Associate Dean of the School of Justice Studies at EKU. "Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property."

Institutional racism in policing is not a new development, but militarization is. During the 1980s and 90s, the government took advantage of the public fear of drugs to gain support for ramped up military-grade policing programs. Apart from 1033, federal support also came in a variety of DOJ and DHS grants that bolstered state and local law enforcement agencies, which used them to purchase lethal weapons, body armor, and vehicles built to withstand roadside bombs in war zones. Joint operations between police departments and the federal agencies like the FBI became common.

But the changes caused by militarization were not equal among all communities. Racial disparities were rampant. Black communities were disproportionately targeted for policing and arrests -- and the increasingly militarized equipment and conduct that went with it -- despite evidence pointing to higher levels of drug crimes among whites.

"Police are now being trained by military," DeVega told Common Dreams. "They try out their programs on poor black communities."

Militarization gave police forces a "warrior" mentality that gradually normalized the use of assault weapons on routine patrols, ACLU found. Legalized racial profiling programs, like the SB1070 bill in Arizona and the Stop and Frisk policy in New York City, quickly followed.

To see the warrior mentality in one single, heartbreaking example, look no further than Michael Brown's recently released autopsy report. The bullet path indicates that he was in a position of surrender when he was shot. Brown might even have survived the first five hits, forensic expert Dr. Michael Baden said -- it was the final shot to his head that killed him.

EKU criminal justice professor Pete Kraska, who has studied the rise of paramilitary policing for decades, wrote in a report (PDF) that the mentality is also fueled by "[t]he allure of police paramilitary subculture... the enjoyment, excitement, high status, and male camaraderie that accompany the heavy weaponry, new technologies, dangerous assignments, and heightened anticipation of using force in most PPU [Police Paramilitary Unit] work."

Harsh sentencing policies, such as the three-strikes law in California, have led to a 40 percent black prison population, compared to a 12 percent black U.S. population -- an example of the kind of institutional racism that feeds into the "cycle of cruelty," as DeVega puts it.

"Most people likely assume this must be due to rising crime rates, but the explosion in the prison population, as well as its changing complexion, are better explained by harsh criminal justice policies," said Rebecca Hetey, a Stanford University psychology researcher. Joshua Correll and Tracie Keesee, psychology researchers at the University of Chicago, likewise discovered that police officers are more likely to shoot black targets, whether they are armed or unarmed.

Outside of prison, many poor black communities found themselves subject to a different kind institutionalized control, which Yale University assistant professor Vesla Weaver called "custodial citizenship."

"Criminal justice interventions transform how people understand their government... their citizenship," Weaver wrote for the Boston Review. "[T]hose who have been exposed to criminal justice tend to have low levels of trust in politicians and public institutions and a diminished sense of standing. They don't believe the state will respond to their needs."

"Their relationship to the state looks more like that of an undocumented person than that of a citizen," Weaver wrote.

A study (PDF) by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement published in April 2013 discovered that police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes "extrajudicially" killed at least 313 black men in 2012. That means a black person was killed by an officer, without trial, every 28 hours in one year. However, as these statistics come only from reported deaths, the real number could be much higher, MXGM said.

The report, Operation Ghetto Storm, quoted New York State Senator and former NYPD police captain Eric Adams, who testified that police commissioner Ray Kelly focused Stop and Frisk on young black and Latino men because "he wanted to instill fear in them every time they leave their home."

A recording made at a Brooklyn police station captured Kelly telling NYPD officers, "If you get too big of a crowd there, they're going to get out of control, and they're going to think that they own the block. We own the block... We own the streets here."

Ferguson as a front line

Militarization shows that police and governments are "willing to sacrifice the lives of the community members based on the actions of a few."
-- Chauniqua Young, Center for Constitutional Rights
The police response in Ferguson poses another question: Why is it that, with years of reports on tanks and weapons being funneled into small town police forces, the first time we see widespread coverage of these doomsday armies emerging is in a town that happens to be majority black?

Chauniqua Young, Bertha Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Common Dreams that "the excessive force by the police demonstrates disrespect for black lives" at an institutional level. "It was justified based on the alleged actions of individuals... in reality, it affected families."

Young, who was present during the protests in Ferguson, said many of the residents running from tear gas were parents with strollers.

Militarization shows that police and governments are "willing to sacrifice the lives of the community members based on the actions of a few," Young said.

Operation Ghetto Storm's authors write that "police, sheriffs, security guards and, to a certain extent self-appointed enforcers of law (vigilantes) ARE 'authorized' by governments and paid for by taxes" to kill black people. Many cities see police forces killing black citizens without trial in numbers that greatly outweigh their black populations. Roughly 71 percent of them were, like Brown, either unarmed or "allegedly" armed, a status that MXGM says is used by police forces that are "infamous for planting weapons or declaring that a cell phone, wallet or other harmless object is a gun."

Statistics compiled by the National Safety Council and the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, and immortalized in social media memes ever since, showed that an individual is eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. Added together, the presence of racism and militarization in the institution of law enforcement have combined to target minorities at unprecedented levels.

A study published in December 2013 found that, from 1997 to 2008, 49 percent of black men in the U.S. were arrested by age 23. That was the same year that the U.S. Bureau of Justice published the shocking estimate that 40.2 percent of all inmates in the corrections system were black -- at 846,000 inmates, that statistic meant that there were more black men in jail that year than there were enslaved in 1850, before the start of the Civil War.

As Deadspin writer Greg Howard wrote for The Concourse, "If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they're working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men."

SWAT teams as police

Paramilitary policing in majority-black neighborhoods doesn't stop with supplying war-grade weapons to local departments and giving cops free rein to target minorities for illegal search and seizures. It also includes the widespread, excessive, and often deadly use of SWAT teams to conduct low-risk operations.

In theory, Special Weapons and Tactics teams are specialized units only called in for missions considered too dangerous for ordinary police departments, like hostage situations and shooter standoffs. But as the ACLU discovered, more than 800 SWAT deployments -- roughly 62 percent -- between 2011 and 2012 were drug searches in people's homes. Only 7 percent of deployments were in response to the very situations SWAT teams were created for.

What is a SWAT raid like? As described by the ACLU, they begin when officers armed with grenades and assault rifles break down suspects' doors and windows with battering rams, often in the middle of the night, often with children present. On far too many occasions, they include SWAT officers opening fire into residential homes with no cause and no warning; on far too many occasions, they end in death.

SWAT raids have killed at least seven civilians and injured 46 since 2010, ACLU reports. Among them were Eurie Stamp, a grandfather of 12; seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones; Tarika Wilson, a young mother whose baby was also wounded by the gunshots; and Jose Guerena, an Iraq veteran. The injured also include 19-month-old Bou Bou, who was put into a medically-induced coma after a grenade that landed in his crib gave him third-degree burns and chest wounds.

None of them were suspects. None of the raids turned up drugs. Few of the officers involved were ever held responsible for killing innocent civilians.

But SWAT teams turning low-risk operations into deadly missions is only one aspect of police militarization and its direct consequences for communities of color.

"There is a collective consciousness that black men are criminals," DeVega told Common Dreams. "And there is a reluctance to say, 'Why these communities?'"

"Who are some of the people who are invested in militarization?" DeVega said. "Who are they trying their tactics out on? Innocent black people are more likely to encounter police than guilty white people. It's not coincidental."

Vincent Warren, CCR executive director, said the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests are "part of a continuum of racial profiling and state violence."

The future of militarization

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) on Thursday introduced the first tangible action to defund 1033 since Grayson's failed bill in June. Garnering immediate support from Sen. Claire McCaskill, who represents Missouri, Johnson announced that he would soon propose a Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act (PDF) in the House of Representatives.

"[A]re MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] really needed in small-town America?" Johnson wrote for USA Today. "Are improvised explosive devices, grenade attacks, mines, shelling and other war-typical attacks really happening in Roanoke Rapids, a town of 16,000 people? No."

"Militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent," wrote Johnson, who supported Grayson's previous bill to de-fund 1033.

Other supporters of the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act include Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), who also voted in favor of Grayson's effort in June.

The program is unlikely to go down without a fight. Pentagon spokesperson and Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told the U.S. News and World Report that 1033 is "a useful program that allows for the reuse of military equipment that would otherwise be disposed of, that could be used by law enforcement agencies to serve their citizens."

There is also the rhetoric of fear. "The problem is always [in the] public safety argument... that it would disempower [police] to enhance public safety," Young told Common Dreams. "People need to understand that there are alternatives to militarization, like community policing."

"This is the story of power in this country."
-- Chauncey DeVega
Ferguson's brief window of calm, led by Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, was a working example of community policing. On August 14th, Johnson and other officers -- who dressed in plain uniforms and did not carry assault weapons -- walked side by side with protesters, hugged and took photographs with them, and assured residents that the police were there to protect their rights, not to threaten their safety. Mutual cooperation ensured a night of peaceful marches and a joyful, party-like atmosphere, as many reported.

Tensions rose again the following day as Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson released surveillance footage of Brown allegedly stealing cigars from a convenience store a few hours before he was shot. The information was irrelevant to Brown's death, but the police department's smear campaign against him had begun. As St. Louis County officers were allowed back on the ground, tear gas poisoned the air again and more violent arrests were reported. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon instituted a city-wide curfew that the ACLU called "a lockdown on the residents of Ferguson who have done no wrong and seek nothing more than justice."

Many media outlets called the protests and the subsequent crackdown "standoffs" and "clashes," but those terms are misleading, Young said. "The narratives are simply not true," Young continued. "The over-escalation has been by the police, not the protesters." Photographs surfacing on Twitter showed residents -- mostly young black men -- standing guard in front of storefronts that had been targeted for looting. "Who you out here for? Better be for Mike Brown," one said.

Some critics say the problem with community policing is that the institution is too problematic at its core -- that police threaten the community with or without military weapons. As Ed Kilgore wrote for the Washington Monthly, "even with conventional weaponry (indeed, probably more so since the outrages in Ferguson might not have attracted so much national attention if not for the Fallujah imagery), the shooting of Michael Brown and the handling of the whole situations would have illustrated a systemic problem that all the tanks and tear gas and riot gear made worse but did not create."

Johnson, who helped create the sense of calm in Ferguson that lifted spirits earlier this week, on Monday began subtly changing his tone about protesters after police once again began using brutal tactics against them. "We are not going to let groups congregate and build into larger groups because that's what causes problems," Johnson said during a press conference.

On Monday, officers told protesters that they were not allowed to stand still unless they were in an approved protest area.

In the meantime, it seems at least a small faction of the government has finally noticed the power differential. "Before another small town's police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America," Rep. Johnson wrote in his letter.

DeVega notes that no poor community is immune from excessive police force. "When people think about white supremacy... the police are a part of that," he told Common Dreams. "This is the story of power in this country."

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