The Civil Rights Act is 50 years old. These two pictures were taken 50 years apart. Behold our progress.
The Politics of ‘Looting’ and ‘Violence’ May 3, 2015Posted by rogerhollander in Baltimore, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Police, Race, Racism.
Tags: baltimore, eric draitser, freddie gray, freddie grey, looting, marilyn mosby, no justice no peace, police, police killing, Race, racism, rioting, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: white middle class Americans cannot see anything at all legitimate in rioting and looting. The black mother who chased down and assaulted her teen age son on the streets of Baltimore became and instant hero with white America and a favorite with the mass media. The black middle and professional class also by and large eschews and condemns the kind of things that happen when anger gets “out of control.” What came to pass in Baltimore this week is nothing new. In my time there have been revolts in Watts (Los Angeles), Newark, Detroit, Miami, Cincinnati, New Orleans and probably a few that don’t come to mind at the moment. In context, I consider breaking into a store and running off with a television a genuine revolutionary act, regardless of the conscious mindset of the perpetrator at the moment. Well, this article says it better than I can.
Just let me add that there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the so-called rioting and looting in Baltimore brought about immediate charges against the police officers responsible for Freddy Grey’s death in a way that no peaceful protesting could have done. Am I advocating violence? Absolutely not. I am only underscoring the profound and inescapable wisdom of four simple words: “No Justice, No Peace.”
Baltimore and Beyond
Television screens throughout the US, and around the world, have broadcast in recent days images of Baltimore in crisis: young people of color on the streets clashing with police, protesters marching peacefully shoulder to shoulder, and a relatively small number of city residents taking food, toiletries, and consumer goods from stores. Naturally, the forces of political reaction both in the media and society at large have attempted to isolate these incidents – ‘looting’ they call it – in order to demonstrate the purported savagery and lawlessness of people and communities of color.
“You see?” the racist narrative goes, “They have no respect for property or the law,” or some such variation on this theme. However, as should be expected, the political and media establishment demonstrate an incredible degree of hypocrisy in portraying the events in such a manner. For while in 2015 media outlets such as the allegedly center-left MSNBC and CNN, and the unabashedly right wing FOX News, propagate a shamelessly racist narrative of “thugs” and “criminals” on the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson, these same media outlets almost without exception worked hand in hand with the Bush administration to justify similar actions in Iraq. So too have the media been complicit in presenting biased narratives of US wars in places like Libya and Syria where the media parroted Washington’s talking points to justify and/or condemn whichever actions were politically expedient at the time.
Examining the issue further, the questions of power and “otherness” are also unavoidable. When the powerless and marginalized – those who are not deemed worthy by the establishment – engage in such actions, they are described as violent thugs. When the powerful engage in far worse actions, they are deemed righteous. Whether it is the looting of cultural artifacts by British and French imperialists in Africa, the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples by American settlers, or the wholesale plunder and exploitation of entire continents, such actions are somehow justified by their historical context and role in modern social and cultural formation.
From Baltimore to Baghdad
Were one to examine the events of the last week in Baltimore purely through the lens of the corporate media and political class, one would get the sense that the actions of a small minority of the black community constitute egregious and criminal acts of savagery and barbarism, acts that could have no possible justification. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking so, as even President Obama (you know, “the First Black President”) had nothing but words of condemnation and contempt. As Obama explained to the media:
There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive…When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson… A handful of people [are] taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.
Here Obama reveals not only an ignorance of the nature of these actions, but also a complete disregard for the systemic and institutionalized social and economic violence perpetrated against these communities for decades. While Obama waxes poetic about “property owners” being “stolen from” he has little to nothing to say about the fact that the people who live in those communities are almost entirely shut out from property ownership themselves; that the true owners are the real estate developers, speculators, financiers, and economic elites from the affluent communities. This is the class that perpetrates the true violence by exploiting the economic blight left by unequal wealth distribution, the elimination of employment opportunities, the breakdown of communities thanks to police violence, drug abuse, and countless other preventable phenomena that are the symptom, not the cause, of poverty and desperation. And make no mistake, it is poverty, desperation, and frustration that is transmogrified into violence.
But of course, Obama knows these things, he simply cannot address them as they are the fruits of the financial and political elites he serves. Make no mistake: the establishment understands perfectly the phenomenon of looting. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld articulated in the immediate aftermath of the US war on Iraq:
While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. And I don’t think there’s anyone in any of those pictures … (who wouldn’t) accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.
Reading such a statement devoid of context, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was made by activists in Baltimore, and not the Secretary of Defense in justification for the illegal war he and his cronies had just waged in Iraq. Do communities of color not have pent-up feelings resulting from decades of repression? Have not countless members of those communities had members of their families killed by the “Law and Order” regime that acts as an occupying force on their streets?
In its landmark report, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement concluded through extensive research that a Black person is killed extra-judicially every 28 hours by law enforcement or quasi-law enforcement. Such brutal repression would certainly qualify as eliciting pent-up feelings of anger. And yet, Black youth in Baltimore are nothing but criminals according to Obama, the corporate media, and White America. Is it because of the objective value of their actions? Or is it because the sort of repression that they experience every day simply does not count because, rather than serving to legitimize the political and economic agenda of the ruling class, it challenges it, exposing it as fundamentally racist?
Indeed, it is power, not objective reality, which determines what is and is not acceptable violence. To take by force in Baghdad in 2003 is liberating and justified; to take by force in Baltimore in 2015 is violent “thuggery” and unjustifiable. The relation of any group to the agenda of power is the only determinant of righteousness and sin according to the morality of the Empire.
Hypocrisy: America’s Top Export
Sadly it is no surprise that the corporate media would spin a narrative of mindless violence and race riots, barbarism and chaos. The media exists not to inform, but to reflect the values and objectives of the forces that own and control it. It is interesting though to compare the portrayal of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson with other violent actions around the world.
When the US and its NATO allies were bombing in support of Al-Qaeda terrorists – affectionately referred to as rebels and freedom fighters – in Libya, there was little mention of the brutal trail of violence and bloodshed they left in their wake. The brutal lynchings and ethnic cleansing of black Libyans, and anyone else who opposed the foreign-backed aggression, was almost completely suppressed from the media narrative of the neat and tidy “war for democracy and freedom.” Such violence served Washington’s interests, therefore it was deemed to be unworthy of reportage.
Similarly in Syria, the US and its NATO-GCC-Turkey-Israel allies have been arming and financing terrorist forces infiltrating the country to wage war against the legitimate government. These terrorists have directly caused the deaths of tens of thousands (if not more) of innocent Syrians, to say nothing of the refugees and internally displaced whose lives have been forever shattered by the US-backed war on their country. However, this extreme violence is somehow acceptable in the service of the war against a “brutal regime” which, conveniently enough, presents a political obstacle to the Empire.
In Gaza however, a people living under a vicious and illegal occupation and inhuman siege are denied even the right to resist by the US and Israel. The Palestinians are portrayed as barbaric terrorists whose inhumanity is manifested by their each and every action. Never mind the fact that they have been robbed of their basic rights, had their homes destroyed, and their land stolen. Never mind the fact that their economy is suppressed by a military occupation, their employment opportunities almost non-existent, and their children made to live as second class citizens, racial inferiors to the Israeli settlers. Objectively speaking, a Palestinian is in many ways in a similar socio-economic position to many Black Americans in the poorest communities of color.
One could point to countless other examples, from the demonization of rebels in Eastern Ukraine fighting against a US-backed fascist-oligarch government that calls them “terrorists,” to the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, to the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia – all groups that have been crudely characterized as violent thugs because of their opposition to Washington’s favored groups. Conversely, the death squads of Central America, mujahideen of Afghanistan, Chechen extremists, and countless other terror groups, they are kindly referred to as “freedom fighters,” primarily because they fight for the freedom of the Empire to continue to make war and dictate the fate of peoples and nations.
It is power – political, economic, military – that draws the line between good and bad violence, between rebels and terrorists. It is the establishment that wields the power that determines when a rebellion in Baltimore is a violent riot, and when “taking” becomes “looting.” But of course, we’re not forced to accept these crude, bigoted, racist generalizations as truths to be held self-evident. We know what we’ve seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, just as what we see in Gaza, is not simply violence…it is resistance!
Eric Draitser is the founder of StopImperialism.org. He is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Truth About Police Action Fatalities in America April 14, 2015Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Police.
Tags: killed by police, police, police brutality, police coverup, police fatalities, police great britain, police killings, police statistics, roger hollander, us police
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Roger’s note: I read a fascinating analysis of police killings in the United States (http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-Truth-About-Police-Act-by-Brian-Lynch-Armed-Police-Killing-People_Police-Coverup_Police-Culture_Police-Response-Tactics-150412-925.html) which used data from from a project that does intensive research to uncover the statistics that are largely not reported by police jurisdictions (KilledByPolice.net). This is the basic finding: “Between May 1, 2013 and April 4th, 2015 there were 2,181 people killed by police officers in the United States. That works out to around 95 per month or 3 police action fatalities per day.”
You can go to these sites and see for yourself the various breakdowns with respect to gender, race, age etc. But here I just want to share with you this amazing statistic:
“To help put these numbers in an international context, there were only 70 civilians killed by the police in Great Britain in the last 90 years.”
Tip of the Iceberg December 12, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Police, Racism.
Tags: alejandro navidad, emiliano zapata, la quinta california, police, police brutality, racism, racist policing, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: this is a video I came across in the Spanish version of RT, the Russian television news channel. The explanation given is that Alejandro Natividad was a passenger in a car that was pulled over in La Quinta, California. As you will see, the driver is order to lie down on the sidewalk. Alejandro, a U.S. Army veteran, refuses, even when he is confronted by two armed police. The story does not tell how the situation resolved, but Alejandro later explained in an interview with Free Thought Radio that at some moment he recalled the famous maxim of Emiliano Zapata, the icon of the Mexican Revolution, “Mejor morir de pie que vivir toda una vida arrodillado”. Better to die on your feet than to live all your life on your knees.
As you will see, Alejandro admits that he is scared shitless as he “stands his ground” against highly irresponsible racist police officers who had their guns pointed at him. He did have the presence of mind to film the encounter with his cell phone as he continually protested his rights and reminded them that they were men behind their badges and should act like it.
Civil Rights: Then and Today August 14, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Police, Race.
Tags: Civil Rights, civil rights movement, history, police, police brutality, Race, racism, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: A thousand words.
War Gear Flows to Police Departments June 9, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in armaments, Arms, Civil Liberties, Police.
Tags: local police, matt apuzzo, militarization, police, police departments, roger hollander, surplus weapons, swat teams
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Roger’s note: I am reminded of the infamous remark made by Malcolm X when President Kennedy was assassinated: “The chickens have come home to roost.” Local police departments with armored vehicles, machine guns, planes and helicopters, grenade launchers, etc. I wonder what they can be used for. Protecting your home from a burglary? Fraud investigations? Bank hold ups? It seems to me that these weapons are geared towards dealing with large numbers, let’s say perhaps, citizen protests? Please excuse my cynicism, I happen at the moment to be reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and it somehow has a contemporary feel to it.
The 9-foot-tall armored truck was intended for an overseas battlefield. But as President Obama ushers in the end of what he called America’s “long season of war,” the former tools of combat — M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more — are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.
During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.
The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.”
“It just seems like ramping up a police department for a problem we don’t have,” said Shay Korittnig, a father of two who spoke against getting the armored truck at a recent public meeting in Neenah. “This is not what I was looking for when I moved here, that my children would view their local police officer as an M-16-toting, SWAT-apparel-wearing officer.”
A quiet city of about 25,000 people, Neenah has a violent crime rate that is far below the national average. Neenah has not had a homicide in more than five years.
“Somebody has to be the first person to say ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” said William Pollnow Jr., a Neenah city councilman who opposed getting the new police truck.
Neenah’s police chief, Kevin E. Wilkinson, said he understood the concern. At first, he thought the anti-mine truck was too big. But the department’s old armored car could not withstand high-powered gunfire, he said.
“I don’t like it. I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid,” he said. But he said the possibility of violence, however remote, required taking precautions. “We’re not going to go out there as Officer Friendly with no body armor and just a handgun and say ‘Good enough.’ ”
Congress created the military-transfer program in the early 1990s, when violent crime plagued America’s cities and the police felt outgunned by drug gangs. Today, crime has fallen to its lowest levels in a generation, the wars have wound down, and despite current fears, the number of domestic terrorist attacks has declined sharply from the 1960s and 1970s.
Police departments, though, are adding more firepower and military gear than ever. Some, especially in larger cities, have used federal grant money to buy armored cars and other tactical gear. And the free surplus program remains a favorite of many police chiefs who say they could otherwise not afford such equipment. Chief Wilkinson said he expects the police to use the new truck rarely, when the department’s SWAT team faces an armed standoff or serves a warrant on someone believed to be dangerous.
Today, Chief Wilkinson said, the police are trained to move in and save lives during a shooting or standoff, in contrast to a generation ago — before the Columbine High School massacre and others that followed it — when they responded by setting up a perimeter and either negotiating with, or waiting out, the suspect.
The number of SWAT teams has skyrocketed since the 1980s, according to studies by Peter B. Kraska, an Eastern Kentucky University professor who has been researching the issue for decades.
The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.
In South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s website features its SWAT team, dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun. Capt. Chris Cowan, a department spokesman, said the vehicle “allows the department to stay in step with the criminals who are arming themselves more heavily every day.” He said police officers had taken it to schools and community events, where it was a conversation starter.
“All of a sudden, we start relationships with people,” he said.
Not everyone agrees that there is a need for such vehicles. Ronald E. Teachman, the police chief in South Bend, Ind., said he decided not to request a mine-resistant vehicle for his city. “I go to schools,” he said. “But I bring ‘Green Eggs and Ham.’ ”
The Pentagon program does not push equipment onto local departments. The pace of transfers depends on how much unneeded equipment the military has, and how much the police request. Equipment that goes unclaimed typically is destroyed. So police chiefs say their choice is often easy: Ask for free equipment that would otherwise be scrapped, or look for money in their budgets to prepare for an unlikely scenario. Most people understand, police officers say.
“When you explain that you’re preparing for something that may never happen, they get it,” said Capt. Tiger Parsons of the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office in northwest Missouri, which recently received a mine-resistant truck.
In the Indianapolis suburbs, officers said they needed a mine-resistant vehicle to protect against a possible attack by veterans returning from war.
“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs. Sergeant Downing did not return a message seeking comment.
The police in 38 states have received silencers, which soldiers use to muffle gunfire during raids and sniper attacks. Lauren Wild, the sheriff in rural Walsh County, N.D., said he saw no need for silencers. When told he had 40 of them for his county of 11,000 people, Sheriff Wild confirmed it with a colleague and said he would look into it. “I don’t recall approving them,” he said.
Some officials are reconsidering their eagerness to take the gear. Last year, the sheriff’s office in Oxford County, Maine, told county officials that it wanted a mine-resistant vehicle because Maine’s western foothills “face a previously unimaginable threat from terrorist activities.”
County commissioners approved the request, but recently rescinded it at the sheriff’s request. Scott Cole, the county administrator, said some people expressed concerns about the truck, and the police were comfortable that a neighboring community could offer its vehicle in an emergency.
At the Neenah City Council, Mr. Pollnow is pushing for a requirement that the council vote on all equipment transfers. When he asks about the need for military equipment, he said the answer is always the same: It protects police officers.
“Who’s going to be against that? You’re against the police coming home safe at night?” he said. “But you can always present a worst-case scenario. You can use that as a framework to get anything.”
Chief Wilkinson said he was not interested in militarizing Neenah. But officers are shot, even in small towns. If there were an affordable way to protect his people without the new truck, he would do it.
“I hate having our community divided over a law enforcement issue like this. But we are,” he said. “It drives me to my knees in prayer for the safety of this community every day. And it convinced me that this was the right thing for our community.”
Cases add up of LAPD assaults on restrained suspects November 19, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in California, Los Angeles, Police.
Tags: LA Times, lapd, los angeles, natasha lennard, News, police, police brutality, roger hollander, Taser
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A cop Tasered a handcuffed women in fourth case in recent months of LAPD using force on detainees
The LA Times reported over the weekend that an LAPD officer was witnessed shocking a handcuffed woman with a Taser gun while “joking with other officers at the scene.” Just days after a federal jury ruled that Chicago police officers upheld an entrenched “code of silence” in covering up each others’ wrongdoing, reports have emerged to show that Los Angeles cops have lied for two years about the Tasering incident.
The LA Times reports:
Officer Jorge Santander… appeared to lie about the December 2010 incident repeatedly in written reports. The three other LAPD officers who witnessed Santander stun the woman all corroborated his version of events when first questioned and failed to tell supervisors that one officer had recorded a video of the encounter, the records show.
The video shows Santander firing the Taser without warning and later displaying a Superman logo he wore on his chest beneath his uniform, according to the records. Off camera, another officer is heard laughing and singing.
… This marks the fourth time in the last few months that cases have come to light in which LAPD officers are accused of using force on suspects who had been restrained.
… In August, a security surveillance camera captured an officer violently throwing a handcuffed woman to the ground with any apparent provocation. Days later, the Times reported on a July incident in which a video camera in a patrol car recorded a female officer stomping her heel onto the genitals of a woman who was being restrained by other officers. That woman died after being forced into the back of a patrol car, although there is no evidence that her death was caused by the officer’s kick. And this month The Times learned about a botched arrest in July, in which a handcuffed man was mistakenly shot by officers after he escaped custody.
Despite statistics suggesting that there are around 1,700 cases per year of inappropriate force with less than lethal weapons by the LAPD, “department officials rejected the idea that the cases add up to a larger behavioral pattern,” reported the LA Times. “Cmdr. Andrew Smith called them ‘isolated, unrelated cases in which officers got out of line’.” However, the police officers’ attempts to slide Santander’s Taser incident under the rug echo the police culture indicted last week by a federal court — whether LAPD officials admit to a pattern or not.
Tags: berkeley, berkeley police, civil liberties, first amendment, Homeland Security, nick sibilla, oakland police, ows, police, police brutality, roger hollander, uasi
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Roger’s note: As a UC Berkeley graduate, who as an undergraduate took part in free speech and anti-war protests, I maintain an abiding interest in the city and the campus. The militarization of American police forces is an ominous development, and it is no coincidence that Berkeley is in the vanguard given its long and proud history of non-violent first amendment protest. An imperial nation such as is the United States, which supports and spreads violence around the globe, will eventually see that violence erupt on its own shores. This is surely the case with what we are witnessing today. One is reminded of Malcolm X’s prophetic (in response to the Kennedy assassination): “the chickens have come home to roost.
The police departments for Berkeley, Albany, and the University of California system have partnered together to buy an armored personnel carrier (APC). Not quite a tank, the APC is a Lenco Ballistic Engineered Armoured Response Counter Attack Truck, better known as a BearCat.
If approved, the APC will be paid for by a $200,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI). Created in 2003, UASI funds counterterrorism measures in “high-threat, high-density urban areas.” From FY 2003 to 2011, over $6.5 billion was appropriated for UASI. In FY 2012, UASI had funding worth $490 million.
However, David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has criticized UASI: ”Currently, there appears to be a virtual absence of independent, objective evidence indicating the effectiveness of UASI…Increased spending does not equal increased effectiveness.” Daniel Borgstrom, a former US Marine now active in the Occupy movement, recently urged the Berkeley City Council to reject the APC and police militarization: “I’m asking, please stay out of this urban warfare stuff.”
Meanwhile, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan praised the BearCat, calling it “a defensive resource” necessary to protect officers from being killed. But according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks the deaths of law enforcement officials, no officers from UC Berkeley or Albany have been killed in the line of duty and only two Berkeley police officers have ever been killed by gunfire. The last Berkeley police officer killed in the line of duty was in 1973. Furthermore, as Radley Balko observes at the Huffington Post:
We’re now about halfway through 2012, and this year is on pace to be the safest ever for America’s police officers…Fifty officers have died on duty so far this year, a 44-percent decrease from last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). More remarkably, 17 have died from gunfire, down 55 percent from last year. (21 died in traffic accidents, the remaining 12 in various other incidents.) If the second half of this year follows the first, fewer officers will have died on duty this year than in any year since 1944, a time when there were far, far fewer police officers.
In addition, there have been significant concerns about armored vehicles’ ability to violate civil liberties and increase police brutality. A spokesman for the UCPD insisted that the BearCat “is not going to be used for protests or crowd control…it’s nothing to be feared.”
However, police in nearby Alameda County (which includes Oakland) used a $323,000 grant from Homeland Security to buy an APC from Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater). That APC was even used to suppress protests by the Occupy in May 2012. The Inter Press Service elaborates:
Locally, police militarisation was evident at the Nov. 9, 2011 Occupy Cal demonstration at UC Berkeley, where combat-gear clad police injured peaceful protesters with baton strikes, and on Oct. 25, 2011 in Oakland, when similarly armed police nearly killed a young former Marine when they fired a tear-gas canister that hit him in the head.
Due to mutual aid agreements, whereby law enforcement agencies can assist each other, the UCPD could share the APC with both the Berkeley and Albany police departments. The decision to renew mutual aid has previously been postponed, thanks to efforts by the Coalition for a Safe Berkeley, which is advised by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
As Emily Odgers noted earlier this year, turning police into soldiers has eroded the Constitution:
This clash between Occupy protesters and police highlighted a need to stand in support of the protection of First Amendment rights. In the past ten years, there has been a decay of constitutional freedoms in America and the only way to get them back is through cooperative grassroots movements.
This is not just an issue for Occupiers or other activists; the First Amendment applies to everyone and it is necessary that the rights described within it are preserved for all, if they are to be preserved for any.
Local Police Stockpile High-Tech, Combat-Ready Gear December 22, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Occupy Wall Street Movement, War on Terror.
Tags: #occupy movement, andrew becker, fargo, g.w. schulz, Homeland Security, local police, militarization, n.d., police, police brutality, police departments, s.w.a.t., swat team, terrorism, war on terror
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Published on Thursday, December 22, 2011 by Center for Investigative Reporting
If terrorists ever target Fargo, N.D., the local police will be ready.
Atlanta Police S.W.A.T. members searched a building for a shooting suspect in July of 2010. More than ever before, police rely on quasi-military tactics and equipment, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found. (John Bazemore) In recent years, they have bought bomb-detection robots, digital communications equipment and Kevlar helmets, like those used by soldiers in foreign wars. For local siege situations requiring real firepower, police there can use a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret. Until that day, however, the menacing truck is mostly used for training runs and appearances at the annual Fargo picnic, where it’s been displayed near a children’s bounce house.
“Most people are so fascinated by it, because nothing happens here,” said Carol Archbold, a Fargo resident and criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University. “There’s no terrorism here.”
Fargo, like thousands of other communities in every state, has been on a gear-buying spree with the aid of more than $34 billion in federal government grants since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
The federal grant spending, awarded with little oversight from Washington, has fueled a rapid, broad transformation of police operations in Fargo and in departments across the country. More than ever before, police rely on quasi-military tactics and equipment, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
No one can say exactly what has been purchased in total across the country or how it’s being used, because the federal government doesn’t keep close track. State and local governments don’t maintain uniform records. But a review of records from 41 states obtained through open-government requests, and interviews with more than two-dozen current and former police officials and terrorism experts, shows police departments around the U.S. have transformed into small army-like forces.
Since Occupy Wall Street and similar protests broke out this fall, confusion about how to respond has landed some police departments in national headlines for electing to use intimidating riot gear, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators. Observers have decried these aggressive tactics as more evidence that police are overly militarized. Among them is former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, who today regrets his “militaristic” answer in 1999 to the infamous “Battle in Seattle” protests.
Many police, including beat cops, now routinely carry assault rifles. Combined with body armor and other apparel, many officers look more and more like combat troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The list of equipment bought with the federal grants reads like a defense contractor catalog. High-tech gear fills the garages, locker rooms and patrol cars in departments across the country.
Although local officials say they have become more cautious about spending in recent years, police departments around the country are continually expanding the equipment and tactics of their jobs, despite, in many cases, the lack of an apparent need.
The share of federal grants for Fargo and the county it anchors is more than $8 million, a considerable sum for terrorism defense given its remote location and status as one of the safest areas in America. Fargo has averaged fewer than two homicides a year since 2005, and there have been no prosecutions of international terrorism in the state for at least a decade, if ever.
North Dakota’s biggest city is a humble place set on plains so flat that locals like to say you can watch your dog run away for two weeks. Yet all patrol officers in Fargo now carry an assault rifle in their squad car.
Fargo police Lt. Ross Renner, who commands a regional SWAT team, said the world is a dangerous place, and the city wants to be ready for anything.
With that in mind, Renner pushed for military-style assault rifles to become standard issue in department patrol cars.
“It’s foolish to not be cognizant of the threats out there, whether it’s New York, Los Angeles or Fargo. Our residents have the right to be protected,” Renner said. “We don’t have every-day threats here when it comes to terrorism, but we are asked to be prepared.”
Other communities also have ramped up as well. In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff’s department owns a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone. In Garland County, Ark., known for its pleasant hot springs, a local law enforcement agency acquired four handheld bulletproof protective shields costing $600 each. In East Baton Rouge, La., it was $400 ballistic helmets. In Augusta, Maine, with fewer than 20,000 people and where an officer hasn’t died from gunfire in the line of duty in more than 125 years, police bought eight $1,500 tactical vests. And for police in Des Moines, Iowa, it was two $180,000 bomb robots.
Homeland security and law enforcement officials say the expenditures and modern training have helped save civilian and police lives. Do the armored vehicles and combat dress produce a sort of “shock and awe” effect? Lt. Jeremy Clark of the West Hartford Police Department in Connecticut hopes so. He said it can persuade suspects to give up sooner.
“The only time I hear the complaint of ‘God, you guys look scary’ is if the incident turns out to be nothing,” said Clark, who organizes an annual SWAT competition.
But the gear also can be used for heavy-handed – even excessive – tactics. In one case, dozens of officers in combat-style gear raided a rave in Utah as a police helicopter buzzed overhead. An online video shows the battle-ready team wearing masks and brandishing rifles as they holler for the music to be shut off and pin partygoers to the ground.
Arizona tactical officers this year sprayed the home of ex-Marine Jose Guerena with gunfire as the man stood in a hallway with a rifle that he did not shoot [PDF]. He was hit 22 times and died. Police had targeted the man’s older brother in a narcotics-trafficking probe, but nothing illegal was found in the younger Guerena’s home, and no related arrests had been made months after the raid.
Police say greater firepower and more protective equipment became increasingly necessary not only as everyday criminals obtained deadlier weapons, but also in response to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. They point to a 1997 Los Angeles-area shootout with heavily armed bank robbers and the bloody 2008 shooting and bombing attack in Mumbai, India, which left 164 people dead and 300 wounded.
Every community in the country has some explanation for why it needs more money, not less, to protect against every conceivable threat. It could be a shooting rampage at an amusement park, a weapon of mass destruction hidden at a manufacturing plant, a nuclear device detonated at a major coastal port. Nothing short of absolute security seems acceptable.
“The argument for up-armoring is always based on the least likely of terrorist scenarios,” said Mark Randol, a former terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service. “Anyone can get a gun and shoot up stuff. No amount of SWAT equipment can stop that.”
Law enforcement leaders nonetheless bristle at the word “militarization,” even if the defense community itself acknowledges a convergence of the two.
“I don’t see us as militarizing police; I see us as keeping abreast with society,” said former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, now chairman of Kroll Inc., the security consulting firm. “And we are a gun-crazy society.”
SWAT competition underscores training
They appear on a grainy video in slow motion, wearing battle fatigues, helmets and multi-pocketed vests.
Figures move through the scene as though on a mission. One large man with a pistol strapped to his hip swings a battering ram into a door. A colleague shoots a flash-bang grenade into a field. A third man points an assault rifle into the distance, peering at his target through a scope. A fourth, holding a pistol and wearing a rifle strapped to his back, peeks cautiously inside a bus.
The images unfold to the pulsing, ominous soundtrack of a popular video game, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”
These are not soldiers in a far-flung warzone. They are members of the Massachusetts State Police competing at a SWAT team competition in Connecticut. The video, posted on YouTube, underscores the training and devotion tactical officers bring to their jobs. It also illustrates the level of force police units across the country can now deliver.
The annual Connecticut SWAT Challenge, hosted by the West Hartford Police Department, is one of numerous contests and exercises that have flourished since the terrorist attacks, as ultra-equipped, better-trained units sought to enhance their skills. The number of participating units more than doubled in five years, to nearly 40 teams by 2009, and dozens of sponsors seek to ensure their products and logos are on display.
One such sponsor sells ThunderSledge breaching tools for smashing open locked or chained doors. Another, Lenco Armored Vehicles, assembles black, bulletproof box-like trucks on oversized wheels that can fit up to 15 officers. Options include radiation detectors and hydraulic rams. KDH Defense Systems markets body armor to police that matches protection “used by some of the world’s most elite warfighters.”
Clark, of the West Hartford police, says he started the competition precisely because of the new counterterrorism spending. State and local governments weren’t willing to match it with costly training necessary for the gear to be used effectively and safely. Clark is startled by the number of SWAT teams falling below the 16 hours of minimum monthly training recommended by the National Tactical Officers Association. Without proper maintenance, only luck remains.
“Luck is not for cops. Luck is for drunks and fools,” Clark said. “Invariably, what happens with a police officer is he slips and falls, he breaks his back, he’s paralyzed for the rest of his life. Some suspect gets shot with an M4 (assault rifle) through the neck, and he’s out of the hospital in a day. Police officers and military guys never seem to have that kind of stubborn luck.”
Competitions in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston use grant cash to create realistic and elaborate challenges, said Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, who created the Urban Shield event in 2007.
In one scenario, officers with goggles, rifles and fatigues swept through the cabin of a boat. Flames poured from an exploded vehicle during another. Video of the 2009 Urban Shield – with its own heart-thumping doomsday music – depicts tactical teams moving carefully through darkened quarters, roping down the sides of buildings and leaping from a van. Images of 9/11, the Columbine shootings and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California appear with the words “train, adapt, overcome.”
Special ops supplier Blackhawk Industries – founded by a former Navy SEAL – was among several elite Urban Shield sponsors this year.
Ahern points to a real-life recent case that tested area responders. A gunman killed three people and injured seven others in October at a Cupertino, Calif., cement plant where he reportedly clashed with co-workers. These incidents aren’t infrequent, Ahern insists.
“When you say low probability, I think we deal with these issues on a fairly regular basis,” Ahern said, adding that police “identify infrastructure, potential targets, in our area and try to have our teams train at those actual sites.”
No one knows for sure the number of SWAT teams nationwide. But at a time when the crime rate has been dropping, the number of police associated with SWAT duties has gone up. The National Tactical Officers Association, which provides training and develops SWAT standards, has about 1,650 team memberships, up from 1,026 in 2000, according to Executive Director John Gnagey.
“What we’ve always said is if you don’t have a specific need, you shouldn’t have one,” Gnagey said, referring to SWAT units.
Convention showcases latest tactical gear
The giant showroom in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center provided a vivid picture of how the nation’s law enforcement agencies are arming and armoring themselves. Chicago hosted the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in late October. Some 800 exhibitors set up booths in 180,000 square feet of noisy space, many displaying military-style gear as thousands of police and other law enforcement professionals wandered the expo, dazzled by the latest gadgetry.
The sights and sounds are bewildering for a casual observer.
Electronic blasts and booms pour from the IES Interactive Training booth, where attendees chose among a shotgun, handgun and assault rifle with realistic recoil to aim at uncooperative suspects and inanimate targets on a life-size screen. Other booths offered combat-style apparel, such as one vest with a “Never Forget” patch, stirring up the memory of 9/11. At the Blackhawk booth, a mannequin was dressed head to toe in heavy-duty dark attire, a rifle slung from its neck and an additional sidearm strapped to its thigh. Another mannequin wore a full-face black mask.
Then there was the panoply of weapons. Colt’s Manufacturing Co. offered a selection of assault rifles. The most popular among cops? An M4 semi-automatic, “closest to what the military issues,” a salesman said.
Elsewhere, police officials admired a jumbo armored vehicle in camouflage green emblazoned with the words, “Greater Salt Lake.” It was built by Massachusetts-based truck maker Lenco, which also assembled the beefy BearCat that the Fargo-area SWAT team began using last year. The display vehicle had a battering ram affixed to the front. A man who answered questions about it showed off a remote gas delivery system that can be attached to the ram for spraying tear gas into a building from a long steel spear.
Advertising materials throughout the expo send a uniform message: The world is fraught with peril, and new high-tech gear is a solution.
“As criminal organizations are increasingly armed with military-style weapons, law enforcement operations require the same level of field-tested and combat-proven protection used by soldiers and Marines in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high-risk locations,” reads one brochure for the Oshkosh Corp.’s burly “tactical protector vehicle.” Minus passengers and cargo, it weighs more than two standard F-150 pickups built this year.
Colt makes its own appeal for a family of assault rifles: “The fundamental law enforcement mission profile has undergone drastic changes since the days of Sam Colt’s ‘gun that won the West.’ … Colt’s current law enforcement products have benefitted from decades of field and combat experience.”
Security market for state, local agencies growing
Security analyst Dilip Sarangan of Frost & Sullivan, which tracks the homeland security industry, said security spending by governments and the private sector is “event-based.” Both are suddenly willing to budget more when tragedy ignites new anxieties, such as after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the 2005 London train bombings, the Mumbai terrorist attacks and, most of all, the 9/11 hijackings.
“That’s what their business is, unfortunately – anytime something bad happens, they make money,” Sarangan said.
The homeland security market for state and local agencies is projected to reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from $15.8 billion in fiscal 2009, according to the Homeland Security Research Corp.
New opportunities are making major defense corporations more a part of our domestic lives.
Lenco, manufacturer of the BearCat and other SWAT vehicles, has sold more than 300 of its trucks to law enforcement agencies around the country. It also markets vehicles to the Defense Department, some for use in fighting improvised explosive devices. The company does not disclose sales figures, but a spokesman said more have been sold since 9/11.
In 2007, British defense giant BAE Systems spent $4.5 billion to buy a company called Armor Holdings, which had subsidiaries that made and supplied police equipment, such as riot shields, hard-knuckle gloves, Delta 4 tactical helmets and laser sight mounts for AR-15 assault rifles.
Minnesota-based Alliant Techsystems, the Army’s primary provider of small-caliber ammunition, acquired in recent years two major tactical equipment suppliers, Blackhawk Industries and Eagle Industries. Company executives told shareholders that Blackhawk was a “highly profitable business,” with $115 million in predicted sales this year.
While such companies also outfit sporting enthusiasts and the military, law enforcement agencies are cast by Alliant as essential customers “in the rapidly growing security market.”
Local officials assert that homeland security grants, used to pay for the type of equipment showcased in Chicago, have slowed. But the grants still add up to a lot of spending: The Department of Homeland Security awarded more than $2 billion in grants this year, and President Barack Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped more than a half-billion dollars into existing grant programs.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is largely responsible for distributing homeland security grants. It operates a website known as the Responder Knowledge Base, which serves as a sort of war-on-terror catalog listing what local governments are allowed to buy with readiness funds.
One item featured is an armored bulldozer with a thick front shield and propelled by “tank-like, all-terrain tracks.” The manufacturer, Dolmen Corp., says police operate in an increasingly violent world, where the arms race between good guys and bad guys is constantly escalating.
The firm says the military-style vehicle allows police to “gain the edge on crime.”
Gnagey, of the tactical officers association, said there’s a sense among some local police that the price increases when makers know it’s being paid for with federal funds. The minute new equipment arrives, he joked, “if it’s painted black and called SWAT, the price doubles.”
But the evolution continues. In the Phoenix area, Sheriff Joe Arpaio claimed this year to have his own air armada of private pilots he could dispatch to monitor illegal border crossers. He called it Operation Desert Sky. Arpaio also picked up a full-size surplus Army tank, complete with treads.
The city of Ogden, Utah, is about to launch a 54-foot, remote-controlled “crime-fighting blimp” with a powerful surveillance camera affixed to its belly by the end of the year.
Standard-duty officers seen daily on the streets of Los Angeles were retrained to break in and kill terrorists without negotiating, under an assumption that the attackers could have a death wish and not be interested in resolving matters peacefully. Many officers were also equipped with assault rifles.
Bratton, the former police chief, said in an interview that terrorism had been a low priority early in his career. By the time he retired in 2009, it consumed a significant part of his workday. After the Mumbai attacks, Bratton believed he had to act fast to prepare for such an event.
“We were not structured for that type of attack,” he said. “Within six months, we were.”
Las Vegas rushed forward as well. Everyday patrol officers were given additional training, and each shift now has “in-the-box” squads that can meet at a pre-determined location and respond as a group to would-be campus or casino attackers. Squad members carry additional gear in their cars, including gas masks, body armor and high-powered rifles.
“When you go to a substation now at a police department and you see someone walk out to their car to start their shift, no longer are they just walking out there with a briefcase,” said Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie. “They’ve got other equipment they’re taking with them that if the situation arises, they put that on and they use it.”
Charles Ramsey, who was police chief in Washington, D.C., during 9/11, said officers in the nation’s capital began to train for multiple simultaneous attacks. The Mumbai bloodshed, which took place after Ramsey headed to Philadelphia in 2008, also served as a spur for him to make further changes and spend more money to up-armor his force.
Some 1,500 beat cops in Philadelphia have been trained to use AR-15 assault rifles – akin to the high-powered weapons issued to war fighters.
“We have a lot of people here, like most departments, who are ex-military,” Ramsey said in an interview. “Some people are very much into guns and so forth. So it wasn’t hard to find volunteers.”
Preventative measures critical, Fargo police say
Fargo is not a place anyone associates with crime or terrorism. Its combination of friendly folk, low housing prices and high employment has garnered it recognition as one of the best places in the country to live. It is home to one of Microsoft’s largest campuses and North Dakota State University.
Officials in Cass County, which includes Fargo, began buying gear in 2002. The spending on police gear rose from tens of thousands a decade ago to millions.
Police there said such spending is more than justified as a preventative measure. North Dakota has what could be perceived as targets, and the FBI established in Fargo one of its 104 Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Critical energy and agriculture sectors drive the booming economy in the remote border state. Drones used in the war on terror and homeland security are stationed at or operated from air bases in Grand Forks and at the local Fargo airport.
In addition, they say, some right-wing militias and white supremacists have been long-standing threats.
Fargo police justify the purchase of their SWAT truck, saying that with regular maintenance and low miles, it could serve the force for 30 years. They point to past shootings, like a 2004 incident in which a former Army ranger shot at SWAT team members and pinned down one officer who could have been aided by the truck.
In their minds, if it saves even one life, it’s worth the cost.
Other purchases, like the bomb-detection robots, are shared with federal agencies in Fargo that have outposts, but not the resources. The local police also say they’ve taken a regional approach to spend wisely, leveraging federal grants to buy equipment that has multiple uses.
“It doesn’t make sense if we only use it for terrorism activity, and it doesn’t make sense if we only use it for criminal activity,” said Fargo police Capt. Patrick Claus, a former SWAT commander.
Some residents agree. Tim Kozojed, a corn and soybean farmer in Hillsboro, 40 miles north of Fargo, said he believes police ought to have the equipment they need. But he also believes they must spend money wisely. He’s not certain that’s happened with the grants.
“I’m very reluctant to get anxious about a terrorist attack in North Dakota,” Kozojed, 31, said. “Why would they bother?”
Claus, who was responsible for buying some of Fargo’s military-style gear, including the BearCat truck, understands such thinking. But he contends it’s misguided, and he and other law enforcement authorities are obliged to prepare as well as they can.
“We prepare for the worst and hope it never happens,” he said. “But how many fires do you have to have before you buy a fire engine?”
This story was edited by Robert O’Harrow, Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Our militarized police forces November 8, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Democracy.
Tags: alex parene, arthur rizer, police, police brutality, police forces, police militarization, roger hollander
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The wars on drugs and terror have given police departments a lot of deadly toys and dangerous attitudes
An armed Metropolitan Transportation Authority police officer stands guard in New York’s Grand Central Station on Monday, May 2, 2011. Security was heightened as a result of the announcement of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin) (Credit: AP/Stephen Chernin
The Atlantic has a good piece on one of those subjects that I am slightly obsessed with, the ongoing militarization of American police forces. As a New Yorker, I am accustomed to being greeted by cops bearing assault rifles bravely monitoring the morning commute, which is more than slightly jarring, but the depressing thing is that that sort of sight quickly becomes normalized.
As former peace officer and Iraq veteran Arthur Rizer and co-author Joseph Hartman write, the police arms race has very clearly spread well beyond the urban borders of the only cities to actually be targeted by foreign terrorists.
Now, police officers routinely walk the beat armed with assault rifles and garbed in black full-battle uniforms. When one of us, Arthur Rizer, returned from active duty in Iraq, he saw a police officer at the Minneapolis airport armed with a M4 carbine assault rifle — the very same rifle Arthur carried during his combat tour in Fallujah.
The extent of this weapon “inflation” does not stop with high-powered rifles, either. In recent years, police departments both large and small have acquired bazookas, machine guns, and even armored vehicles (mini-tanks) for use in domestic police work.
What possible need does your average American police department have for a tank? I mean, besides giving it to Steven Segal so that he can kill a puppy during a raid on a suspected cock-fighter that’s being filmed for a reality show.
Turning police departments into quasi-National Guard regiments isn’t just a huge waste of resources, it’s also dangerous and demoralizing. A militarized police force makes the citizenry — especially minorities — feel like they’re living under a military occupation. (As with most police abuses, it’s generally easier to ignore for members of the classes not routinely stopped, frisked and thrown in jail for minor drug offenses.) It’s unsettling and undemocratic. And the cops start to feel like occupiers.
The most serious consequence of the rapid militarization of American police forces, however, is the subtle evolution in the mentality of the “men in blue” from “peace officer” to soldier. This development is absolutely critical and represents a fundamental change in the nature of law enforcement. The primary mission of a police officer traditionally has been to “keep the peace.” Those whom an officer suspects to have committed a crime are treated as just that – suspects. Police officers are expected, under the rule of law, to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the “bad guys.” For domestic law enforcement, a suspect in custody remains innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, police officers operate among a largely friendly population and have traditionally been trained to solve problems using a complex legal system; the deployment of lethal violence is an absolute last resort.
Soldiers, on the other hand, are trained to identify and kill the enemy. This is a problem. Cops are increasingly seeing the citizens they’re hired to protect as “the enemy.” This is in part how nonviolent protesters end up tear-gassed and shot at. This is part of why violence is so often the first resort of cops dealing with any sort of tricky situation, rather than the last. The idea that we need our cops to be the heavily armed soldiers of the streets — instead of, say, social workers with the power to arrest — leads to bad recruiting, bad training, unnecessary deaths, mass distrust of the police by vulnerable communities, and the contemptuous feeling of many cops that they themselves are above the law.
The authors identify 9/11 as the start of this trend. But I agree with Reason magazine that it actually all started with the war on drugs. Radley Balko did the essential research on the subject a few years back, and most paramilitary police actions that end up going horribly wrong are anti-drug raids. The Patriot Act itself is routinely used to fight the drug war. The argument that these tactics are necessary to keep us safe from scary foreign terrorists falls apart when you see how often all this firepower is directed at Americans looking only to get high or make a buck getting someone else high.
- Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene More Alex Pareene