A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.
Jeff Roberson/AP

The weapons of war on a U.S. city’s streets

There’s something viscerally gut-wrenching about the photos. We see police officers with powerful, military-style guns from the roof of armored, military-style vehicles; then we see those officers pointing these weapons at unarmed civilians.
The questions are obvious. Why aim these guns directed at peaceful protesters? By what rationale would such threats from law enforcement diffuse an already tense environment?
And why do St. Louis-area police have roof-mounted machine guns on armored vehicles in the first place? On this last question, Adam Serwer reminds us today of the “militarization” of domestic law enforcement – weapons “built to fight a faraway war” have “turned homeward.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Defense has transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local and state police through the 1033 program, first enacted in 1996 at the height of the so-called War on Drugs. The Department of Justice, according to the ACLU, “plays an important role in the militarization of the police” through its grant programs. It’s not that individual police officers are bad people – it’s that shifts in the American culture of policing encourages officers to “think of the people they serve as enemies.”
Since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged further militarization of police through federal funds for “terrorism prevention.” The armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor borne by the police in Ferguson are the fruit of turning police into soldiers. Training materials obtained by the ACLU encourage departments to “build the right mind-set in your troops” in order to thwart “terrorist plans to massacre our schoolchildren.” It is possible that, since 9/11, police militarization has massacred more American schoolchildren than any al-Qaida terrorist.
If, as you watch developments in Ferguson unfold, it looks as if police officers are soldiers, it’s not your imagination.
What’s more, it’s likely to continue.
Dara Lind noted this morning, that “with the winding down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the Obama administration, the Department of Defense finds itself with a lot of excess military equipment on its hands.” It’s leading to “a lot of local police departments and sheriff’s offices asking for, and getting, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and M-16s.”