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Militarized policing comes to America

The crackdown on the Wall Street occupation and similar actions around the country have prompted two authors to warn about an increasing militarization of America’s policing.

Tom Engelhardt, whose latest book, The United States of Fear is out this month, has dubbed the space in New York that police brutally cleared of occupiers as “Zuccotti Prison”. He says that there are no tents, no kitchen, no library left in the park.

Just 30 protesters and 100 police plus private security guards. Parts of the park are cordoned off with yellow police tape that would normally surround a crime scene. When he went there last week, a young protestor was being arrested, evidently for the “crime” of lying down on a bench.

Engelhardt writes gloomily about a “distinctly up-armoured, post-9/11 American world”, citing the example of the “police” who so notoriously pepper-sprayed non-violent, seated students at University of California Davis. They were, in fact, campus cops who in his days wore civilians clothes and had no real powers.

Now, around the country, they are armed with chemical weapons, Tasers, tear gas, side arms, you name it. Meanwhile, some police departments, militarizing at a rapid rate, have tank-like vehicles, and the first police surveillance drones are taking to the air in field tests and capable of being weaponized.

He warns:

In the United States, increasingly, those in power no longer observe the law. Instead, they make it up to suit their needs. In the process, the streets where you demonstrate, as (New York’s mayor keeps telling us) is our ‘right’, are regularly transformed into yet more fenced-in, heavily surveilled Zuccotti Prisons. This may not be a traditional police state (yet), but it is an increasingly militarized policed state in which the blue coats [police], armed to the teeth, act with remarkable impunity.

William Hogeland, the author of the narrative histories Declaration and a collection of essays, Inventing American History writes how the crackdowns around America “have brought a military level of combativeness” to the scene.

It's not as if officers have been resorting to battle gear under otherwise unmanageable pressure or initiating violence only as a last resort. They've been arriving in battle gear. They've been construing noncompliance as potential attack. They've moved pre-emptively to disable attack where none existed, not just trying to evict but seemingly hoping to inspire fear, to punish and defeat. The mood these operations convey is that failure to achieve police objectives must result in something awful for the body politic. In reality, leaving citizens sitting around a park or campus a few more days, even possibly illegally, might be frustrating for police and others; it's hardly the end of the world. Sometimes taking a few deep breaths is the only thing to do. But military training, tactics, and weaponry seem to inspire the idea in civic strategists that failure to achieve an objective is tantamount to fatal defeat by a hostile enemy. Intolerable. Not an option.

He shows how creating a clear distinction between the police and military is fundamental to American constitutional law, history and ideology. Hogeland's article reviews tendencies both toward and against police militarization that go all the way back to the country's founding.

Some like Naomi Wolf see a conspiracy by the federal state to galvanise local authorities into action (see a sound demolition of her argument by Alternet’s Joshua Holland) against the occupation movement. No conspiracy is required, however. There is a nervousness within the state at all levels as the economic crisis worsens and the American dream looks more like a nightmare. The result is a lashing out by authorities whose legitimacy, not to say democratic credentials, is seeping away at federal and state level. Time for another American revolution to protect, enhance and advance democracy in new ways.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
29 November 2011

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