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When Did Americans Become the Enemy? New Video Explores Decades Of Police Militarization

By Zoe Carpenter for The Nation Magazine:

As the U.S. Senate prepares to hold a hearing Tuesday on the militarization of local police—not just in Ferguson, Missouri, but across America—a short new video from Brave New Films underscores that the problem of trigger-happy, armed-for-warfare cops is more widespread and disturbing than we think

As the U.S. Senate prepares to hold a hearing Tuesday on the militarization of local police—not just in Ferguson, Missouri, but across America—a short new video from Brave New Films underscores that the problem of trigger-happy, armed-for-warfare cops is more widespread and disturbing than we think. 

“Why in the world do police in Ferguson, Missouri, look like this? Why are they driving a $300,000 armored vehicle through the suburbs?” the video asks, in opening scenes taken from television news reports. The narrator goes on to explain that the transformation of departments into combat-ready forces, especially in rural America, is hardly new.

“It’s not just Ferguson. Police are being militarized all through the country,” the narrator says, showing weaponry that have been sent to overseas war zones and then brought back to Main Street. “Does Keene, New Hampshire, population 23,000, also need that ballistic engineered armored response counterattack truck? How about Cullman County, Alabama, population 14,000; Do they need a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle? Does Montgomery County, Texas sheriff’s department need a $300,000 drone? Why do the Fargo, North Dakota police look more like soldiers fighting overseas?"

“How did local police all over America become hostile military forces?” the narrator continues, before providing the answer. “Because the federal government has been spending billions of dollars making them that way.”

The police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and ensuing protests have prompted Missouri's Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, to schedule a hearing on police militarization on Tuesday morning. McCaskill chairs a Homeland Security Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight. The hearing will “examine federal programs that enable local police departments to acquire military equipment, such as the Defense Department’s 1033 program for surplus property and grants made through the Department of Homeland Security,” her Senate website said. “She plans to gather stakeholders in order to hear several perspectives, including those of local law enforcement.”

Since Ferguson, lobbyists and police and military contractors have been making a full-court press to defend their arsenals. Last week, Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, wrote a USA Today opinion piece in which he said, “Access to equipment that assists law enforcement in carrying out their mission does not ‘militarize’ them… The equipment is primarily defensive in nature—soft body armor, armored vehicles, aircraft—and is used to protect officers.”

The Brave New Films video refutes the claim that local police primarily use these weapons for defensive purposes.

“They said it was to make us safer—protect us from criminals and terrorists. But is that really what’s going on?” the video says, recounting the recent history of police militarization. “After America lost the so-called war on drugs, drug dealers and thugs became public enemy number one. So Congress came up with a series of programs [known as 1033 and 1122] that allowed the military to give $700 million worth of equipment to local police forces. Ammunition, machine guns, armored cars, aircraft—all these weapons that were designed for the battlefield came to a Main Street near you.”

According to the video, this not-so-little trickle of arms became a torrent over the past two decades. 

“Then the Justice Department provided grants that allowed the police to buy even more equipment. That was another $1 billion per year by the late 1990s. After the September 11 attacks, we launched a new war. This time it was the war on terror. Like drug dealers, terrorists could be lurking behind every corner… So the new Department of Homeland Security granted even more money to law enforcement. A total of $35 billion. When you keep declaring wars at home, it’s no wonder the police become warriors.”

The U.S. has long had major laws that seek to keep local police from being militarized. One of the central complaints of our country’s founders was the British policy of stationing soldiers in people’s homes. After the Civil War, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which said that local police were not to be armed like the military. But in 1981, as part of President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, the Act was amended to allow military weapons to be used by anti-drug officers and National Guard units.

Fast-forward to today and the results are clear. At the 2011 Occupy protests across America, militarized SWAT teams descended on protesters, injuring many and even shooting some. In Ferguson last month, after an unarmed black youth was shot and killed, ranks of local and state police armed to the teeth showed up to intimidate people expressing their constitutional right to free speech.  

“All this because the federal government is sending billions of dollars in arms to police forces that don’t need them, aren’t trained properly and are all too eager to use their toys on the people they’re supposed to protect,” Brave New Films’ video concluded. “It’s time to shut these programs down. Help stop police militarization.”

The video urges viewers to sign an online petition demanding that Congress roll back the programs that fund and transfer arms under the National Defense Authorization Act. That petition is at StopPoliceMilitary.org.

“Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must end the flow of military grade gear from the Pentagon to our local communities,” said Robert Greenwald, president and founder of Brave New Films. “It’s time for the militarizing of police to end.”