Both tragic and outrageous, the police shooting and killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown has cast a powerful light on the increasing militarization of police within the United States. Images of protests in Ferguson, MO, are unsettling, to say the least—however used we may have become to images of police in riot gear and in military formation. With images circulating online and on television of such modern war-gear as armored vehicles, semiautomatic assault weapons, and camouflage uniforms, as well as of tear-gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades being deployed against protesters, many commentators have likened the area to a war zone, as this BBC analysis details. Capturing the uncanniness of seeing weaponry and tactics that we associate with US militarism being deployed on US soil (Josh Levs summarizes this well in this CNN article), many commentators, such as Mike Bonifer on the Huffington Post or “Trotskyite” at Culture War Reporters, have taken to calling the area Fergustan.
I am quite taken by the rise of the term ‘Fergustan,’ since its fusion of foreign and domestic locales captures the essence of the increasing availability of military equipment associated with distant war-zones appearing here in the United States. While racial injustice is at the heart of the Ferguson protests, the stakes clearly go well beyond this single, albeit horrific, trend. Blurring the lines separating the civilian and the military, police militarization should frighten all of us—for the war material we thought we had sent safely way out there is being used here.
As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, explains in this BBC video, the explicit militarization of police can be traced at least as far back to the 1967 formation of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Unit) through Inspector Daryl Gates’s consultation with US military experts (see the Wikipedia history here; and see the LAPD’s own self-description of the unit here). Chillingly, the creation of these SWAT units were in response to the August 1965 Watts riots. As Balko makes clear, the incorporation of military tactics and gear in urban policing was quickly coupled with the political rhetoric of war, particularly the “war on drugs” that President Nixon chillingly declared on June 17, 1971, by naming drugs as “public enemy number one” (see this PBS timeline of this so-called “war,”). Once militarizing police departments found a constant set of targets supplied by the political rhetoric about a drug war, such disturbing trends as a consistently escalating number of “no-knock drug raids” ensued—with something like a 10-fold increase of such raids since the 1980s, according to Balko.
Especially insofar as I have been swayed by Stuart Elden’s powerful analysis of terror as a tactic that, while popularly held to be used only by non-state actors, is a fundamental part of modern state military strategy (see Elden’s Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2009; articles related to the book are archived here, at Elden’s fantastic blog, Progressive Geographies), I find the shocking deployment of military gear and tactics in Ferguson deeply alarming. While this case is, once again, in one respect solely about institutional racism (and on the ongoing problem of racial inequality in terms of police activities, see this response to Michael Brown’s killing by Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dara Lind’s disturbing history of racism on Vox, as well as the multiple excellent essays available here from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Race, Crime, and Justice), it is also very much another reminder of the disproportionate, quasi-military force being increasingly brought to bear upon protesters exercising their civil rights on American soil.
Police, as Steve Herbert discusses in his excellent Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), often treat urban spaces in the same manner as military do in war-zones—with any challenges to their territorial supremacy requiring aggressive actions made as if against enemy forces. It is, as many have pointed out, a profoundly unsettling move to go from conceiving of the police’s mission as protecting and serving the community to conceiving of their mission as military—for this can lead to police behaving either as if they are making incursions into hostile territory or defending territory from enemy forces. The bewilderingly disproportionate nature of law-enforcement response in Ferguson presents a stark reminder of the dangers of police militarization.
Given such disproportionate response, the movement of military equipment from the war-zones of Iraq and Afghanistan into local police departments is deeply disturbing. The activities in Ferguson are casting a light on this problematic practice, as can be seen from Rear Admiral John Kirby’s responding today to anxieties about such movement of military equipment, as reported here by CNN’s Barbara Starr. As Starr explains, the Department of Defense’s program, the Defense Logistics Agency, created in 1999, has been involved in transferring military equipment to local police departments. Happily, Starr reports, this program appears to be coming under review, with the unrest in Ferguson having spurred President Obama to call for analysis of a program that delivers military-grade equipment to police departments who are, it seems to go without saying, neither trained for military combat nor tasked with military missions.
While the killing of Michael Brown that initiated the civil unrest in Ferguson is irremediably saddening, it does hearten me to see both the intensity and the diversity of the protests concerning the law-enforcement response in Ferguson. Communities should always foreground shared stakes—and while not all of those present at Ferguson protests would be subject to the same institutional racism that African Americans regularly experience, all citizens should be interested in knowing that law-enforcement agencies must be held to account if they do not pursue justice impartially. Moreover, all of us have a shared stake in seeing that the trend of militarizing the police be reversed, lest we see more cities broadcast such war-zone-like scenes as to inspire names analogous to “Fergustan.”