Mark the date. On August 13th, America awoke to learn the horrid truth. Its police departments, from bucolic hamlets in the rural Midwest to seething metropolises, had become militarized. The prime time revelations came as a relief to white liberal commentators, who felt much more comfortable denouncing troopers in body armor than probing the racist nature of policing in America. Moreover, it gave MSNBC’s hipster newshound Chris Hayes the opportunity to play war correspondent, reporting nightly from the “combat zone.”
The arc of the story peddled by the press was that the militarization of America’s police departments was a largely post-911 phenomenon, another menacing legacy of the Bush years. Of course, this is a ludicrously warped reading of history. I still have vivid flashbacks of my own close encounter with soldier-cops on the streets of Seattle in the fall of 1999, ducking my head under fire from rubber-coated bullets, exploding tear gas canisters and concussion grenades. A few months later a similar scene of mayhem played out in Washington, DC, during the IMF/World Bank demonstrations, where, as JoAnn Wypijewski reported at the time, the police snipers were issued “shoot to kill” orders. Alexander Cockburn used to say that you can only take the ruling class off-guard once every decade or so before they rearm and escalate their techniques of political repression.
In truth, the police have always been militarized. In 1914, local cops, private security forces and the National Guard, acting to defend the investments of John D. Rockefeller, opened fire with machine guns on striking coal miners and their families in
Ludlow, Colorado, killing 26 people, including two women and eleven children. The weapon of choice for the paramilitaries at Ludlow was the Gatling Gun, which strafed the strikers and their familes at a rate of 200 rounds a minute.
In the fall of 1919, the federal Department of Justice unleashed raids on Russian immigrants, unionists, and suspected anarchists across the United States under orders from Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Armed with automatic weapons, Palmer’s men, lead by the young J. Edgar Hoover, swept up more than 10,000 people in dozens of violent raids. These savage actions were heartily endorsed at the time by the Washington Post, then a leading purveyor of Bolshevik fear-mongering, which impatiently noted: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”
In 1921 General John T. Thompson invented the Thompson Submachine Gun (or Tommy Gun), the most lethal firearm of its time, which was capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute. The first sales of the so-called “Annihilator” weapons were to the US Postal Inspectors Service. The gun was soon marketed to police forces across the country and by 1933 had become a standard weapon in the arsenal of Hoover’s FBI. Today’s FBI SWAT teams are armed with MP5/10 submachine guns, M4 carbine rifles, M1911A1 Springfield pistols, .40 Glocks, Remington 12 gauge shotguns, stun guns, tasers and grenades. The people at Waco and Ruby Ridge never stood a chance.
It should come as no surprise that these violent police tactics have been used most viciously against black radicals. Take the murders of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. In the early morning hours of November 4, a 14-man Special Prosecutions Unit, composed of Chicago police and FBI agents, invaded Hampton’s apartment, guns firing. Clark was shot and killed while sitting in a chair. Hampton was shot multiple times while asleep in his bed. Earlier in the evening, he had been slipped a large dose of secobarbital by an FBI informant named William O’Neill. The wounded Hampton was dragged from his bed and into the hallway, where he was killed with two shots to the head. The police officers who murdered Hampton and Clark were exonerated by a grand jury. The only regret offered by the FBI agent on the scene, Gregg York, was that more Panthers weren’t in the room at the time of the hit: “We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”
Cut to 1985 in West Philly. The black liberation group Move had established a commune and organic gardens in neighborhood of row houses on Osage Avenue. After numerous clashes with neighbors and police, Philadelphia police launched a raid on the Move building that culminated with a police helicopter dropping a water-gel bomb, supplied by the FBI, on the building. The TNT-like explosive ignited a huge blaze that burned down the Move building and 60 other houses and killed 11 people, including Move’s leader John Africa and five children. And so on and so on.
Meanwhile, back in Ferguson, what about the murder of Michael Brown? The repellant circumstances of his death were largely eclipsed by the orgiastic coverage of the police response to ten days of rather placid protests, where Al Sharpton, FBI snitch, played his usual role as pacifier of public outrage. There did come news that Brown’s killer had received more than $250,000 in donations from FoxNews watchers, many of whom likely wished they could have been riding shotgun in that cop car and pulled the trigger themselves.
Mike Brown wasn’t shot by a SWAT team or a sniper or an AK-47. He was murdered in a more banal and insidious manner, the way most black men are killed (at the rate of one every two-and-a-half days) by cops and vigilantes in America. Brown was gunned down in a neighborhood street, by an unremarkable patrol officer, performing his nightly duty to harass and intimidate black men, who are viewed, almost at the moment of their birth, as enemies of the state. This is the ghastly reality that the Pharisees of the press refuse to confront.
Am I alone in feeling unsettled by the image adopted by the protesters on Ferguson’s streets, of citizens with their hands upraised, in a posture of submission and surrender to authority? It’s surely a long way from the Black Power salute of a raised and clinched fist.
I much prefer the video of Mike Brown in that convenience store, a burly, confident teenager, pulsing with the arrogance of youth. I imagine him when he was accosted turning toward that cop and saying with a gesture of defiance: “You don’t have the right….”
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: email@example.com.