Ferguson and the Militarization of Police

Last night I stayed up late, refreshing my Twitter feed and watching commentary about the situation in Ferguson, Mo. Thank goodness for Twitter, for the folks on the ground live-tweeting what they see and for the social commentary of many brilliant minds. I checked my other social media accounts and looked at the differences in what people were seeing and saying.

One of the themes to many of the comments was the idea that “Ferguson looks like a foreign country,” “Ferguson is a war zone,” and comparisons between Ferguson and places like Iran, Syria and Palestine. There was a general sentiment: This doesn’t look like America.

No, it doesn’t look like your America.

Ferguson is America. It is America in the grips of racism and the military-industrial complex. If you think it looks like a war zone, it’s because America is a war zone. Black American citizens have been living in a war zone for decades, and it’s only incidents like Ferguson that draw the rest of the country’s attention to that fact. As Warren Buffet says, “there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won.” Add to Buffet’s identification of class warfare a few of the statistics on racial discrimination in our institutions of education, health, economics, politics and justice, and it’s not hard to see who is winning and who is losing.

Driving these observations that Ferguson looks like a foreign theater of war are images of a highly militarized police force. The police “kept the peace” in Ferguson with riot gear, powerful firearms, and SWAT teams stationed atop tanks, their rifles trained on the ground. Our war veterans have taken to social media, noting that the police in Ferguson appear more heavily armored and armed than soldiers patrolling the streets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why is there a tank rolling down the streets of suburban Missouri? How did we get here? Why do I have this weird sense of déjà vu?

Peter Kraska has written about the police and their increasing militarism, “a set of beliefs, values and assumptions that stress the use of force and threat of violence as the most appropriate means to solve problems.” In 2011, the Pentagon provided $500 million to assist local law enforcement agencies in the purchasing of military equipment including drones, tanks, armored vests and a variety of high-powered weapons. Further funding has come from the Department of Homeland Security. According to USA Today, Department of Defense programs allow police agencies to obtain military equipment “left over from military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” The New York Times has more information, including an infographic on the number of MRAPs (that’s “Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected” armored vehicles), aircraft, machine guns and magazines distributed to US states since 2006. The consequence of all this is, according to Kraska, the “blurring of the line between war and law enforcement, on the one hand, and between U.S. military and civilian criminal justice, on the other hand.”


So why does Ferguson look so foreign to most Americans? Why doesn’t it look like the America they live in? It looks foreign because these special forces and weapons are not equally deployed in all communities. This display (and often use) of force is reserved for the targets of America’s domestic “wars” on crime, drugs, and terror. These “wars” are waged against the lower classes, especially against racial and ethnic minorities, the American citizens with the least privilege and power to resist the government’s monopoly on coercion.

The military gear may be new, but the motivating factors are not. The history of race relations in the U.S. is littered with incidents so similar to Ferguson, the only thing shocking about this incident is that it is still happening. From the days of law enforcement sweeping up escaped slaves and returning them to their tormentors, from the creation of racist laws designed for the purpose of arresting freedmen and leasing them back to plantation owners at a profit, from Jim Crow laws and segregation and the dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights protesters: none of this is new.

Police dog attacking civil rights demonstrator, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.| Copyright Charles Moore.
Fire hoses being used on civil rights demonstrators, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. | Copyright Charles Moore.

If you don’t believe that war is being waged against Black communities, just look at some of the data coming out of the Ferguson police department. Just three of the 53 police officers in Ferguson are Black, tasked with protecting and serving a community that is more than 60% Black. According to a report by the Missouri Attorney General, in 2013 in Ferguson, 483 Black people were arrested versus only 36 Whites. 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved Blacks – but 1 in 3 Whites stopped were carrying contraband, versus only 1 in 5 Blacks. In Ferguson, in America, blackness is criminal. Black citizens are harassed, stopped, searched, detained, all because they share the color of their skin with a racist myth- and media-driven profile of “a criminal.”

America is a place where Black parents try to teach their children important survival lessons and know that it might not be enough. America is a place where petty criminal “strikes” will get you life in prison, especially if you’re Black, but swindling Americans out of their retirement savings and contributing to the housing crisis will get you a golden parachute, and being former CEO of a company with one of the worst records of violations of health, environmental and business laws will get you a sweet government gig. America is a place where Black women are nearly four times as likely as White women to die in childbirth and where, in some communities, maternal mortality rates are higher than in developing nations like Kenya and Rwanda. America is a place where Blacks make up 13.6% of the population but 39.4% of the immense population in prison or jail, and a place where Blacks experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice process.

If you can’t believe that what is happening in Ferguson is happening in America, you haven’t been paying attention.

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