Thursday, January 15, 2015

We've always been at war with Those People ...

Journalist Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces is an enormously valuable, insightful book with a gaping hole at its center.

Even if the police aren't running wild in your neighborhood, images of law enforcement acting like occupying soldiers, whether against protesters and bystanders in Ferguson or against Ohio State students celebrating a football championship in Columbus are part of all our lives.

Here's how Balko states the case he explicates:
How did we get here? How did we evolve from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of armed, standing government forces -- a country that enshrined the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights and revered and protected the age-old notion that the home is a place of privacy and sanctuary -- to a country where it has become acceptable for armed government agents dressed in battle garb to storm private homes in the middle of the night -- not to apprehend violent fugitives or thwart terrorist attacks, but to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activities?

How did a country pushed into a revolution by protest and political speech become one where protests are met with flash grenades, pepper spray, and platoons of riot teams dressed like Robocops? How did we go from a system in which laws are enforced by the citizens, often with non-coercive methods, to one in which order is preserved by armed government agents too often conditioned to see streets and neighborhoods as battlefields and the citizens they serve as the enemy?
Balko's history of the evolution of a professional police force in cities is not a topic many of us have encountered in school; we're encouraged to assume that the presence of overbearing, heavily armed, enforcers is a fact of urban nature, when actually it is something of a novelty in this country. He canvasses how the social disruptions of the 1960s and their exploitation by politicians began to normalize extreme police tactics. But he maintains that considerable respect for restrictions on law enforcement survived the era of the Black urban rebellions (Watts; Detroit; Washington DC and hundreds of other cities). It was the Nixon administration's need for a domestic enemy on whom to demonstrate its toughness that led to the "War on Drugs" and our trajectory toward today's militarized cops who have completely escaped most tactical and legal restraints.

I learned a lot from his account, some of it tangential to his main point. I've never much focused on the ills of the Drug War but Balko clarified for me a vital point about how this sort of ill-defined forcible intervention multiplies violence on our streets and across the globe. In the effort to stop drug commerce, law enforcement picks off dealers and attempts to break up their networks. But drug selling is an ordinary business that happens to be carried on outside the law; if some kingpins are removed, somebody else will rush in to pickup the trade. After all, there are profits to be won. And if there are multiple claimants on the territory, because they operate without law, they often fight it out to the great detriment of our neighborhoods. Presumably just such a fight over state power we've destabilized is also what we are seeing in such targets of U.S. "democratization" as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia.

Balko also documents thoroughly and frighteningly how police departments have come to misuse their authority to seize property they decide has been used in illegal business, usually without any judge's approval. Nice way to equip your force if you can get away with it, and you mostly can. And we've also begun, if we've watched the news, to realize that with the waning of mass U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is unloading surplus war-making equipment to domestic police forces, such as Davis, California's $700,000 armored tank.

This is a frightening picture; Balko does a great job of drawing it. Any engaged citizen of this country would do well to read and digest his account. And just maybe we can reverse some of this -- though probably not without confronting what Balko leaves out of his picture.
So what's to critique here? For all the depth and rigor of Balko's reporting, somehow he has described the militarization of our police forces without coming to terms with the white supremacist history and current white supremacist reality of our society. We permit police to brutalize and kill people, to stomp upon historic constraints on state power embedded in the Bill of Rights, because those of us who are white, largely unconsciously, count on police to protect us from Those People. And for this protection we give cops the benefit of the doubt unless we experience the reality of police violence up close. The reason that most officers are so confident that they are doing the job we gave them is that they are. Even if officers themselves come from communities of color, their institutional role as the guardians of a white country endures.

In the words of an anonymous correspondent at TPM:
the reason that [police who kill Black, brown and crazy people enjoy] support and trust ... is due to the fact that what they are protecting the majority population from, in the minds of far too many in that population, is us!

From the Slave patrollers to the rural sheriffs, to the modern police forces, the threat perceived most vividly by the population they “protect and serve” is that of the (violent) black person. Even a cursory look at the history and culture of this nation will reveal that in popular culture for many decades the majority culture was told to be scared of people of color. The result of this villainization of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow skin is a populace that believes, at least subconsciously, that any stranger with a dark skin is a potential threat. ...
It's true and if we want a less violent abusive society, this is what has to change.

All this seems worth remembering as we approach the weekend on which we claim to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, that radical disturber of a false and unjust "peace."


Hattie said...

I'm wondering what is going to happen on the Big Island as the situation in the Puna District, where people are going into panic mode, gets worse and worse. The lava is continuing to flow and is now setting off wildfires, which are making a lot of Puna uninhabitable already. Our police force is totally militarized, virtually all male, out of touch with the community at large and, I think, potentially very dangerous.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: are police on the Big Island mostly white? In addition to being "hippies" are many of the displaced Puna folks native Hawaiians? Police violence plays out differently with added race dimensions.

I know race sometimes works quite differently in Hawaii -- but if the Puna people belong to some subset that are already legitimate targets of repression, I join in your fear that this could be bad.

Brandon said...

@janinsanfran: Police on the Big Island and in Hawaii generally are mostly local (Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, etc.) The force is mostly male. There are many Hawaiians in Puna, but also a large haole population. In the early 20th century, Pahoa was predominantly Japanese.

janinsanfran said...

Thanks Brandon: fascinating. I was there only once, 20 years ago, but on vacation, naturally.

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