It’s clear from the images emerging from the various Occupy protests around the country last week that the incursion of military tactics and weaponry into local policing is a boon for defense contractors. More importantly, though, it is a black eye for American democracy.
First the sheer ugliness.
Eyewitness and video accounts of various incidents around the country have shown that when you put more and more weaponry into the hands of local police forces, some of the individuals on those police forces will react to their new toys by using them in totally inappropriate ways, as seen in:
- this attack on an Iraq war vet by a line of policemen dressed as storm-troopers on the streets of Oakland, hollering “move” in unison until one of them breaks from the pack and starts beating the man with his club, a pummeling that ruptured the man’s spleen
- or this attack on students at the University of California Davis, sitting on the ground in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. The UC Davis video is eight minutes long, but the entire video is well worth watching: as students shame the police for this unprovoked, unwarranted use of pepper spray, the video shows closeups of the cops faces – they are bewildered, confused. At first they grip their weapons tightly, but as the students yell “you can go” they eventually do back down.
- or this action against demonstrators in Seattle where pepper spray was used indiscriminately, affecting young and old alike. The Seattle mayor eventually apologized for this, if only because an 84-year-old activist was among the victims.
In New York City, a retired New York Supreme Court Judge and legal observer for Occupy Wall Street witnessed the police overreaction to a woman attempting to get information on her daughter, who was in Liberty Square the evening police in full riot gear executed an eviction order by attacking demonstrators as they slept. The woman was concerned for the safety of her daughter, but the response from one overly armed police officer was to push her to the ground and beat her with his club. When the retired judge objected, the cop pushed her against the wall, despite the fact that she was wearing a clearly marked cap identifying her as a legal observer. This activity was described on Democracy Now! which also included an interview with retired Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who oversaw the use of military tactics on demonstrators during the 1999 WTO protests, a decision that he now regrets:
We were using military tactics. I authorized the use of chemical agents on nonviolent offenders. I thought I had good justification at that time. I did not. The police officer in me was thinking about emergency vehicles, fire trucks, aid cars being able to get through a key intersection. The police chief in me should have said, “This is wrong,” and vetoed that decision. I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. We took a military response to a situation that was fundamentally nonviolent, in which Americans were expressing their views and their values, and used tear gas on them. And that was just plain wrong.
Web sites catering to police departments may list these weapons – batons, aerosols, tasers, launchers and projectiles – as “less lethal” because they do not use real bullets, but they have caused serious harm.
This country’s militarized police forces may reflect the climate of fear that has been cultivated since the 2001 terrorist attacks, but that climate has been nurtured over the years by a defense contracting industry eager for the huge profits that a fear-based society can engender. These contractors have of course reaped the benefits of two wars of choice, but those military incursions are slowing down somewhat if they are not entirely coming to an end. While defense contractors are losing a market as Congress debates cutting the defense budget, cities faced with their own budget constraints are looking to technology to supplement police forces. As noted in a recent article in Homeland Security News Wire, a defense contracting industry e-publication:
This issue will become more important as military technology is being adopted by law enforcement. In time of budget cuts, law enforcement turns to technology to augment capabilities with fewer resources. As defense contractors push into local markets, military technology may soon become ubiquitous in law enforcement.
Local officials along the US and Mexico border also represent a prime customer base for defense contractors. They have already been using these weapons and surveillance technology in their efforts to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing the border, but the influx of such weaponry was boosted by reports of possible drug violence and massacres occurring in the US, a claim so false that even a high level immigration official noted that the fear of cross-border violence was overblown. Still border governors like Jan Brewer and Rick Perry blathering on about headless bodies and other violence on the US side of the border has had the desired effect of creating a market for military equipment in policing. Defense industry insiders like former Office of Drug Control Policy director Barry McCaffrey have also added to the fear mongering.
The sale of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies may prove lucrative to defense contractors eager for more and more profits, but it has been disastrous for our democracy as more and more citizens engaged in protected First Amendment activities and civil disobedience meet up with supposed “non lethal” or “less lethal” weapons of war. It’s time for local police departments to stop using these weapons and tactics, to stop viewing peaceful demonstrators as a terroristic threat.