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Ferguson Exposes the Reality of Militarized, Racist Policing
Posted on Aug 17, 2014
By Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, Popular Resistance
This article was produced by Popular Resistance in conjunction with AlterNet.
The killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, who was identified Friday as Darren Wilson, and the aftermath in which nonviolent protesters and reporters were met with a violent and militarized police force have exposed something that has been building for years. Many have written about the militarization of the police and the disproportionate impact they have on people of color, but now more Americans are seeing this reality and cannot escape it.
Michael Brown is one of four unarmed black men killed in the last month by police. On July 17, Eric Garner was killed by an illegal chokehold in New York. On August 5, John Crawford was shot in a store in Beavercreek, OH. Just after Brown’s death, on August 9 Ezell Ford, a young man with known mental illness, was shot in Los Angeles. These are four examples of many, according to a recent study, a black man is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes. The whole nation is experiencing these tragedies; reality is being forced upon us.
The public reaction to the event has been immense. On Thursday evening protests were held from coast-to-coast expressing solidarity with the people of Ferguson and grief for the death of Michael Brown and the deaths of others across the nation killed by police. There are now increasing calls for the demilitarization of the police by the Attorney General and elected officials. And, the DOJ has announced a broad review of police practices that lead to deadly force. People are taking action pressuring the DOJ to act, see: Tell The Department of Justice to end racist and militaristic policing.
This is a teachable moment and an opportunity to advance the cause of transforming the police. Hundreds of thousands of Americans watched events unfold in Ferguson. They saw the police tear gassing a community in mourning, firing at them with rubber bullets and using sound canons to disperse them. They saw military-style police chase them into neighborhoods where they continued to fire tear gas and rubber bullets. They saw reporters abused and arrested as a SWAT team took over a McDonald’s where they were reporting from and other reporters attacked with tear gas and then the police dismantling the journalist’s equipment.
These events led to news outlets reporting on the actions of the police with even greater intensity. In response to the arrest of one of their reporters, Ryan Grim wrote an official Huffington Post statement about the journalist’s arrest which made a key point: “Police militarization has been among the most consequential and unnoticed developments of our time.” The police in Ferguson did an excellent job of drawing the nation’s attention to the reality of 21st Century policing and the need to dramatically change its direction.
The rhetoric of a “war” on drugs and “war” on crime is no longer mere rhetoric. Over the last few decades police forces in the United States, down to small town forces, have been militarized by the federal government. Militarization has been part of the escalating clampdown on dissent; and the targets of these extreme policing practices are disproportionately communities of color. Practices like ‘stop and frisk’ and ‘driving while black,’ as well as policies focused on Arabs and Muslims, have shown that racially-based policing is the intentional policy of police across the country.
Much of this has been growing in police departments in secret without transparency or public debate. Would the public want a militarized police force if they had a voice in the decision? Without a democratic process, the US has essentially created a standing army that violates the fundamentals of the US Constitution. The military police force applies the law unequally, violating equal protection of the laws and undermining the justice system as police take on the role of judge and executioner.
How Did We Get Here?
Racist policing is not new. As Victor E. Kappeler points out, “the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city” and “in 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol.” These patrols developed into the first police departments. The purpose of the first police was to control the slave population and protect the property interests of slave holders. This disastrous racial legacy continues to this day.
Ferguson is not unusual when it comes to racially unfair policing, tensions between police and the African American community has been building for years. For a community that is 2/3 African American, there are only three black officers on the 53 person police force. According to the Missouri Attorney General annual report on policing, although blacks make up 63% of the population of Ferguson, they make up 86% of police stops. Blacks are almost two times as likely to be searched and are arrested twice as often as whites although whites are more likely to possess contraband. While these are ugly statistics, the state of Missouri is even worse. The NAACP sued St. Louis for the racial disparity in its traffic stops. One resident told the Washington Post: “Everybody in this city has been a victim of DWB [driving while black].”
The militarization of police is a more recent phenomenon. Peter Kraska of the University of Eastern Kentucky has been writing about this since the early 1990s. He documents the rapid rise of Police Paramilitary Units (PPU’s, informally SWAT teams) which are modeled after special operations teams in the military. PPU’s did not exist anywhere until 1971 when Los Angeles under the leadership of the infamous police chief Daryl Gates, formed the first one and used it for demolishing homes with tanks equipped with battering rams. By 2000, there were 30,000 police SWAT teams; Kraska reports that by the late 1990s, 89% of police departments in cities of over 50,000 had PPUs, almost double the mid-80s figure; and in smaller towns of between 25,000 and 50,000 by 2007, 80% had a PPU quadrupling from 20% in the mid-80s.
And Kraska reported that SWAT teams were active with 45,000 deployments in 2007 compared to 3,000 in the early 80s. The most common use he found was for serving drug search warrants where they were used 80% of the time, but they were also increasingly used for patrolling neighborhoods. These numbers are consistent with a recent report by the ACLU.
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