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What happened to ‘protect and serve’?

rainey BARRETT


About 25 years ago, I loudly and publicly complained about one of the many policies our government was engaged in at the time that had roused my ire. As I recall, the words were proper, the thoughts well-organized – as usual, of course – and the anger was not hidden amongst flowery phrases. In typical government reaction, my well-delivered suggestions for immediate change were ignored.

All these years later, my angst regarding the issue has doubled. And doubled again. But government persists. And the bad policy continues to exist – redoubling again a few times itself. The issue: equipping and training community law enforcement to be hometown armies rather than agencies to “ protect and serve” as is written on the doors of so many local police cars.

The black anger in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, these days is exactly what I was talking about two decades ago. These unarmed, frustrated, socially-suppressed and mad people are in those streets of their own neighborhoods – often their own yards – being faced by officers in camouflage combat fatigues, snipers in the open on top of armored trucks, nearly all cops wearing gas masks and carrying many, many automatic weapons. Anyone speaking “protect and serve” speaks pure B.S..

All of this was brought sharply together in my living room a night or two ago when one of the TV networks was using some stock video footage as the faceless voice was talking about much the same issue – inappropriate police dress, tactics and weaponry. What connected it all was one of the scenes shot in a Caldwell, Idaho, neighborhood some months back, showing police in the same type of combat dress and carrying the same types of weaponry. And they were prominently accompanied by an MRAP! An MRAP parked on someone’s subdivision lawn!

An MRAP is a terrifically heavy behemoth, designed to ward off bullets of nearly any size as well as land mines and rocket fire. While these armed monsters of steel have undoubtedly saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, they seem terribly out of place in a community of 25,000 or so near the Snake River in Idaho. Like machines from science fiction movies.

This “uparming” of local law enforcement began under President Bush-the-Elder and has continued under Clinton, Bush-the-Junior and Obama. It started after we “freed” Kuwait from Saddam. All that hardly-used military hardware was just going to be scrapped. Until some in-over-his-head political appointee decided America’s local law enforcement agencies would pay 10-cents-on-the-dollar for it. And pay they have.

Since our beginnings as a nation, we’ve successfully carved out roles for our national defense – our military. Planes, tanks, drones, rockets of all sizes and all sorts of specialized vehicles. To take on any foreign adversary. We can kill and maim as well as any nation and better than most. “Hooray,” sez I. And we’ve got a well-trained – but badly misused – national guard in all states. Aside from being sent off to foreign battles over and over and over again, beyond most humans abilities, guard units have valuable, more localized peacekeeping roles.

But when you use this same overwhelming armament on local streets in local neighborhoods – and SWAT cops trained to kill – against unarmed, mostly twenty-somethings, angry about unemployment, life-long acts of discrimination and what they see as the murder-by-cop of another unarmed black kid – what-the-hell kind of response were you expecting?

That’s not “protect and serve.” That’s “confront and crush.”

It’s easy for us non-black, remotely-located and disconnected citizens to pass judgement on the folks in that small Missouri town – calling them “trouble-makers” and “rioters.” Too damned easy.

What I see are confused and angry people being faced with armed military troops on their own neighborhood streets. Maybe they’re wrong to be out there demonstrating their frustrations. Maybe they should send representatives to take up their issues with the all-white city council, the all-white county commission or the nearly all-white police department.

Maybe these jeans-clan, unarmed and mostly young black residents in their own neighborhoods shouldn’t react as angrily as they do when faced with an overwhelming force of heavily-armed “police” looking like they’re ready for gunfire and deadly conflict and are not there to “protect and serve.”

Maybe they should do all those things. Would you?

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