As last night's institutional violence unfolded in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, an old trope came back to life: America's police have been militarized. Like most tropes, it holds a grain of truth, but it's off-base in one critical respect: The U.S. armed forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops.
Multiple law enforcement agencies have flooded Ferguson with SWAT teams and emergency services units. Armored vehicles with small-arms mounts are ubiquitous, as are rubber and wooden bullets. Tear gas and smoke canisters have been popped in quantities that would evoke jealousy in a Marine colonel girding his unit for practice maneuvers on a North Carolina beach. There are enough AR-15s in the St. Louis suburbs this week to arm a Contra army.
Some of the police vehicles in Ferguson even carry LRADs—multidirectional transmitters meant to debilitate a target with a blast of sound. As a lowly midshipman on summer training, I saw them being tested at Marine Corps Base Quantico, along with other experimental field gadgets. I never imagined I'd see them on a street in the United States. I am not alone:
@PaulSzoldra LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), the last place I saw one of those was at the Iraqi detention facility.
— James Skylar Gerrond (@JimmySky) August 14, 2014
Police are clad not merely in traditional riot gear, but in more tactical gadgetry and armor than an invading infantry captain:
The gentleman on the left has more personal body armor and weaponry than I did while invading Iraq. pic.twitter.com/5u6TxyIbkk
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) August 14, 2014
So there's a fair basis for the trope. Radley Balko—a Washington Post reporter with whom I have serious disagreements on many other issues—recently wrote a gripping and definitive book on cops playing army, and Glenn Greenwald's analysis today is especially poignant.
How, then can anyone say that the police in St. Louis County, and all over America, are not militarized? Because the cops aren't acting like soldiers. They're acting like extras in a Michael Bay movie playing soldiers.
Despite their expensive costuming, the police in Ferguson are putting on an unsophisticated, unscripted performance, a copy without an original. If these cops were to take a page out of the Army's book on crowd control, it would be an improvement. But they seem to be making up tactics to go with the gear they've acquired.
It goes without saying that the American military is not benign or without defect. Its primary job—and the orientation of its training and equipping—is to defeat violent threats with superior firepower and maneuver. It an inherently violent mission. The military is an inherently violent institution.
But U.S. military development of nonlethal weaponry and crowd-control tactics has happened haltingly over the last half-century, and new doctrine has come with it. Here are several salient passages that literally come from the first page of the Army's field manual on civil disturbances:
During unified action, U.S. forces should never violate basic civil or human rights. Most protesters are law-abiding citizens who intend to keep their protests nonviolent, but some protest planners insist that the event involve violence. Often in the media, protesters can gain sympathy for their cause by prompting authorities to take physical action against them...
Inciting a crowd to violence or a greater intensity of violence by using severe enforcement tactics must be avoided...
Community unrest results in urban conflicts that arise from highly emotional social and economic issues. Economically deprived residents may feel that they are treated unjustly or ignored by people in power and authority. Tensions can build quickly in a community over a variety of issues, such as hunger, poor employment opportunities, inadequate community services, poor housing, and labor issues. Tensions in these areas create the potential for violence. When tensions are high, it takes a small (seemingly minor) incident, rumor, or perceived act of injustice to ignite groups within a crowd to riot and act violently. This is particularly true if community relations with authorities are strained.
Lest you think nobody really goes by that book, check out this collection of tweets from military veterans reflecting on the events in Ferguson. At least these vets understand, from their training and experience, that crowd control is not for winning hearts and minds—it's for acknowledging you've lost them. That it's not enough to just show restraint—you must also show that you're showing restraint. That even if you care about nothing else, you should care about optics.
For all that, the military still has plenty of ethical disasters, its My Lais and Hadithas. But it also has clearer lines of accountability in place for when such things happen. Who's responsible for each granular part of an operation, who's in command, what the overall objective is, where complaints go, even who pays when soldiers fuck up: All of these aspects are considered and concisely drawn for each arm of the organization.
Above all, the military has learned that even its best planning and organization can't win a war for hearts and minds. Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that.
But imagine if the military didn't even try to perform these tasks well. Imagine if there was no clear command and control. If a force's response to the involvement of one of its own in the shooting death of a civilian was to say nothing and to lock down on the entire community. If members of that force didn't feel the need to identify themselves to the populace they aim to govern. If they mocked the populace and arrested civilians without charges as a mere matter of course, with no fear of punishment from their superiors. You begin to get a picture of how badly the police in Missouri are failing.
It's not that the police could simply do better with all this military gear if they were given more training on it or had improved protocols. Practically and ethically, the police just don't need this equipment. It is not conducive to protecting and serving a civilian population that enjoys freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
In the military, these weapons and vehicles exist on the lower end of a spectrum of force. Getting hit by an LRAD or being water-hosed is preferable to seeing the business end of a .50-caliber belt-fed machine gun or an M203 grenade launcher. But in police departments, this gear is on the upper end of the force spectrum. It's a far, far cry from community policing.
So how did we get here? It's partly due to the easy availability of surplus armed forces gear. We have a plump security industrial complex and a demobilizing military. Politicians have tight asses and loose budgets post-9/11. Law enforcement leaders want "cool tools," and they want to use them.
But none of those material factors actually account for cops' proven willingness to use this gear on American citizens. That comes only with a citadel mentality, what I call Fortress America: a belief that "we" are under siege from "them." It comes from a society that establishes poverty and privation as a matter of course for some citizens, then criminalizes those citizens, then dehumanizes the criminal class. Only after we have constructed someone as an internal enemy does it then make sense to target him thus:
— Lana Berry (@Lana) August 14, 2014
And to justify the spectacle as law and order.
STL County Police Chief Belmar: "We've done everything we can to demonstrate a remarkable amount of restraint." pic.twitter.com/97AcVPPZGK
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 14, 2014
So no, it's not fair to the military to say America's constabulary has been militarized. But there's no question a lot of Americans—cops and civilians—are digging deep foxholes. Until we tackle that mentality, and take away the toys that enhance it, "cops and robbers" will continue to look like Full Metal Jacket.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]