A guest opinion fronm M. Reza Behnam.
Racial injustice, inequality and violence are as American as apple pie. The country is beginning to reckon with its history of anti-Black violence and the role law enforcement has played in maintaining the current social, political and economic system.
Racism and police violence at home are inseparably linked to the violence the United States has waged abroad in service of its self-declared role as policeman of the world. And like the nation, American policing has grown ever more militaristic.
American law enforcement emerged out of 18th century slave patrols in the South. White volunteers, empowered to protect the interests of slave owners, used vigilante tactics to control the enslaved population.
Police departments multiplied in southern states after the Civil War (1861-65) to reinforce white supremacy. Many of the terror tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups during Reconstruction (1865-1877) paralleled those used by slave patrols.
Jim Crow laws, enacted between 1877 and the 1960s, were enforced by the police. These laws, legalizing racial segregation, firmly embedded America’s racial caste system.
During the 1950s, to raise awareness of police violence, a civil rights organization presented a petition to the United Nations in 1951 entitled, “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.” The petition averred: “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet….We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”
Police culture became increasingly militarized as urban uprisings and anti-Vietnam war protests surged in the 1960s. It accelerated during the Nixon administration, as did the law-and-order rhetoric used routinely by President Trump.
President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) employed tough-on-crime rhetoric to gain support for his war on drugs and war on the welfare state. Local police departments began receiving training from the military and SWAT teams increased dramatically.
The “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and 1990s, with its war on drugs, draconian sentencing laws and harsh law enforcement tactics led subsequently to the United States becoming the world’s leader in incarceration.
A compelling example of police violence carried out in Black communities took place in Chicago between 1972 and 1991. During those years, police officers, at a Chicago station, systematically tortured over 100 Black men. Although the brutality was an open secret among Chicago police, prosecutors and elected officials, nothing was done until the atrocities were finally exposed by local newspapers beginning in 1990.
Today, in most poor and minority neighborhoods, police officers act more like an occupying army, patrolling with an “us against them” warrior mentality. Police using “no knock” warrants, kicking in doors during suspected drug raids, are all too reminiscent of U.S. soldiers barging into the homes of frightened Afghans and Iraqis.
Once referred to as peace officers with uniforms to match, police are now suited up like battle-ready soldiers. The use of military equipment has created a condition in which officers see residents as dangerous enemy combatants to be subdued.
Since 1997, the Department of Defense has dispersed over $6 billion of surplus equipment, weapons and armored vehicles, at no cost and without training, to 8,000 law enforcement agencies under the 1033 provision of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Since 9/11, police departments can now purchase new military equipment, using anti-terrorism grants provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The militarization of policing is reflected in their training. Federal, state and local officers, including ICE agents, have traveled to such controversial places as Israel to be instructed by the Israeli army and police. Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have condemned Israeli forces for their human rights violations against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and for their use of excessive force against peaceful protestors.
Weapons used by the U.S. military against people in the Middle East and elsewhere are now the “less lethal” arsenal being employed against Americans.
Federal officers have used tear gas against protestors in 100 different U.S. cities since the public murder in May of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Demonstrators are seeing firsthand what happens when militarization is brought home. In June, the Trump administration turned the area around the White House into a war zone to disperse peaceful protestors.
To dramatize his law and order offensive, Trump issued an executive order marshaling federal forces to protect Confederate monuments and statues.
Subsequently, the DHS sent Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and other federal agents to Portland, Oregon.
With 20,000 agents, the CBP—which views itself as a militarized force—boasts of being “one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations.”
Among the CBP agents sent to Portland was an elite special operations tactical unit—equivalent to the Navy Seals—known as Bortac, that has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bortac agents are trained for SWAT-style raids and have faced criticism for their culture of cruelty toward migrants.
Trump threatened to send troops to other cities, all with large Black populations.
When repressive regimes are toppled, the first statues to be felled are those erected by and for those regime’s dictators. Across America and the world, monuments to racists and imperialists have been defaced or razed, while the culture of violence and militarism endures.
America is reckoning today with what abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, understood in 1852: “The feelings of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy must be exposed….”
There is growing awareness that the institutions and belief systems designed to support and sustain racism, violence and militarism will not be felled as easily as the statues.
M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., is a cultural political scientist whose specialties include American foreign policy and the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.