Why Do Tea Partiers Get to Parade Around Armed, While Peaceful Protests Are Met With Tanks?
In the weeks following the brutal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, something unexpected has happened to mainstream American media. For the first time since Florida used the drug war as an excuse to become the first civilian police force to arm itself with tanks and M16 rifles, there is serious, national discussion of the problems inherent to militarizing the police.
“It didn't take long to go from Florida to Texas to New York, to other parts of the country,” said Deborah Small, civil rights activist and attorney, in a conference call with the Drug Policy Alliance’s Asha Bandele this week. “Initially this weaponry was justified as necessary to respond to ‘violent drug gangs that were heavily armed and had outdone the police.’ But quite frankly, after 9/11, that increase in military weaponry morphed with the war on terror.”
Now, the argument was, “We have to be prepared not only to respond to potential gun violence by drug cartels, but also by terrorists. It can be anywhere, anybody, and have any kind of weaponry we may not even know about.”
In the course of a couple of decades, the American police went from using rifles with silencers to asking for tanks and anti-bomb equipment. Today more than 500 police departments in the U.S. possess tanks designed to deal with incendiary explosive devices, “and yet there have been no cases that I’m aware of, of people actually using them to fight local police departments,” Small said.
Perhaps the scariest thing about police brandishing these types of weapons is the lack of oversight and training they receive.
“Police departments, all they had to do was ask for [military equipment],” Small said. “It was considered surplus by the army. Most of they time they didn't have to justify the reason they needed it other than to say it was part of their preparedness for emergencies, be it a terrorist emergency or some other form of emergency.”
There is no requirement in place for police forces to show they are trained to properly handle military-grade weapons.
As Asha Bandele put it: “You could just have any fool out there driving a tank or using … some kind of anti-missile device, who has no idea how to use it.”
Small said Ferguson brought forth some blatant examples of this problem.
“You had numerous national guard officials on television saying that it was inappropriate for police to actually be holding their weapons, pointing them at people who were unarmed,” she said. “They said the first thing they teach you in the military is what they call rifle muzzle awareness. Which means that you should have it either pointed down with your finger off the trigger, or, at minimum, at a 45 degree angle. But the idea that the police would be walking around with armed rifles and submachine guns pointed at people is completely inappropriate, and if they had been trained they would not be doing that.”
It’s Not Just Having the Equipment, It’s Who You’re Using It On
Small pointed out that there is a disturbing trend in the history of American military force against American protesters: It is a specific breed of protest in this country that gets answered with brute military force.
“It’s not just about having the equipment,” Small said. “It’s about when you use it, how you use it, and who you use it on.”
In America, that “who” are the poor and the racial minorities. It is the protesters who dare to bring up the racial and economic inequities of this nation. It is the social justice activists.
Small recalled that as early as the ‘30s, America has used military force to quell protesters. As Small pointed out, this first instance came during the depression era when the army was called out against WWI veterans who were camped out in Washington demanding they be paid their promised bonuses.
“The fact that our government was willing to use law enforcement against their own veterans who only were asking for the money that was due them, says a lot about how we use law enforcement to enforce power,” Small said.
About four decades later in 1969 military force famously came down to quell the Black Panther Party in the Los Angeles area. The next year, members of the Ohio National Guard fired on college kids protesting the Vietnam War on the Kent State University Campus, killing four.
While the drug war has been the modern conduit between military and police forces, America has long since militarized against its own people. And it hasn’t happened equally.
“This is part of American history that goes way way back, and I think it’s interesting that the press is focused on militarization in Ferguson in a way that they didn't during the Occupy demonstration a few years before,” Small said. “I was in Oakland, and the Oakland City Police came out in SWAT gear with helmets, etc. and fired rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators on the street who were doing the same thing as the people in Ferguson—just exercising their first amendment rights.”
The big question, which Small pointed out, is this: Why are Tea Party protesters allowed to demonstrate armed with automatic weapons while peaceful protesters are not? Why are some protesters treated like war enemies, and not others?
“We have this history of using [military force] against veterans demonstrating for their fair bonuses, against protesters demonstrating against income inequality, and people demonstrating against police brutality,” Small said. “But when you had those people at the Bundy ranch a couple of months ago who showed up armed to face off with federal agents because they were doing their duty to collect taxes, no one sent any law enforcement.
“When you had people going out in the streets and attacking buses that were bringing immigrant kids from across the border to shelter, I didn't see anybody doling out law enforcement against them either. And when you had Tea Party people brandishing guns and signs calling the president Hitler, and threatening members of congress and spitting on them, I didn't see anybody calling out law enforcement and SWAT teams against those people either.”
It’s not just a question of police militarization, Small said. “The fact that they can not respond in that way against armed protesters in Nevada at the Bundy ranch, but they will respond heavy handedly against unarmed black people protesting tells me something about the way this power is being used.”