“They’re Militarizing the Cops Again, Hurroo, Hurroo”

Photo by Spenser H

[The title, sung to the tune of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”]

It just never ends, does it?

While making my way through the newspaper (SFC) one day (Nov. 27, 2022), I came across a familiar story. Two cops in the Denver area had just been indicted for having killed a man who was sitting in his car. On June 10, the car had somehow started to slip down an embankment. The man had obviously gotten scared (it was the middle of the night), and called for help. When two cops showed up, they told him to get out of the car. He refused. He said something about being afraid. The media reports that they talked to him for about an hour. But he kept the window closed. Finally, they ordered him out of the car. Again, he refused. So they smash in the window of the car. He throws things at them. And they shoot him to death.

[Equal opportunity assassins; the guy was white.]

His name was Christian Glass. The cops are being charged with negligent homicide. Negligent?? They shot him six times. After talking to him for an hour. They finally figure out that the guy needed help, and came to the conclusion that only by pulling a trigger could they help him. That’s not negligence. They were right there on the job, taking care of business. They were doing what they were trained to do when somebody refuses to obey orders. That is the military way. An officer gives orders, and those orders must be obeyed instantly, or the recalcitrant will be removed from society (either by imprisonment or death).

It happens again and again. Walter Scott ran from a traffic stop after giving the cop his license (April, 2015). The cop commanded “stop,” and then shot him dead. Willie McCoy fell asleep in a Taco Bell drive-thru line (late at night, in February, 2019); the cops open his dooor, order him out (with which he complies), and whip out the handcuffs, to which he says “no.” And they shoot him to death as he tries to get away from them. Oscar Grant had been thrown to the BART platform by two cops on New Year’s Eve, 2009, and broke his fall with his hands under his body. Two cops sat on him, trying to get his hands free for cuffing. When they couldn’t (because of their own weight), it was interpreted as disobedience and Grant was shot in the back. When Vincent Bryant, a homeless man in Berkeley, January 2021, got hungrier than he could stand, he took a sandwich from a Walgreen’s, and left what he had in his pockets as payment. The cops found him a block away eating his sandwich and ordered him to drop it and get on the ground. He ignored them, and one cop shot him with a rifle from 50 feet, hitting him in the jaw (as if to punish him for eating). If the cop hit him in the jaw, it means he was aiming for his head; and that means he intended to kill this man (for being hungry).

It goes on and on. The ability to form a mini-military-situational-hierarchy in the moment is the core of police militarization. They assume the right to punish refusal (court-martial??) by shooting the person. And they therefore affirm an allegiance to a kind of “gun-nationalism.” The only thing to which they object is being indicted, so it happens rarely – a bit more often now in the wake of the 2020 summer of demonstrations. Speaking of which, George Floyd’s case wasn’t even one of disobedience. He was already in handcuffs and in custory when Chauvin and his gang showed up. They took him from the custody officer, threw him on the street, and killed him. It was premeditated murder.

The media mentions some alleged experts who were of the opinion that the decision to break the window on Glass’s car “escalated” the encounter. What encounter? Since when is a guy sitting in a car saying “no” an “encounter”? Didn’t these cops ever hear of the Constitution? Was it beneath their dignity to say, “Be calm, sir, we are calling a tow-truck.” Apparently, the cop’s didn’t see it as an encounter, either. For them, it was treason to the nationalism of the gun. For which they executed him, after a one-hour’s court-martial.

The issue of police militarization has been raised recently over the bestowal of military grade weapons to local police departments by the Dept. of Defense. Their gifts include assault rifles, flash-bang grenades, armored vehicles (aka tanks), drones, tear gas, and others. Since standard police practices are already militarist, are these weapons simply the icing on the cake, signifying DoD approval for the way the cops deal with disobedience?

The issue of this military equipment has become so controversial that the California legislature has even passed a bill (AB 481) requiring city governments to be diligent, and pass an ordinance on each item of military equipment that the police wish to adopt. The bill includes involving local communities at all stages of each investigation, and calls for organizing city-wide forums on the issue. City governments like Berkeley have yet to do that. In general, milktoast politicians speak about how the police have to win the trust of the people instead of giving the people a platform from which to speak and (heaven forbid) participate in making policy.

Berkeley actually passed an ordinance in May, 2021, requiring any military weaponry offered the police to be investigated and cleared by City Council enactment. This measure was intorduced at roughly the same time that the California state assembly was considering its own law (AB 481). The city ordinance falls short of the state bill by not requiring forums on the issue or community-wide meetings on any military equipment accepted.

That is par for the course for Berkeley. It doesn’t want “the people” involved in policy-making. For instance, no RV dwellers were included in making city policy for those who have only a vehicle to live in; no encampment dwellers were included in making policy about encampments; no low income neighborhood residents were included in making policy about housing affordability. The city begs off by saying that people have “input.” But being restricted to letters, or a minute or two comment in council meetings (instead of a seat at the table) is actually a form of exclusion from policy-making.

Theoretically, the community should have the power to veto the police having or using any weapons. But it generally takes a massive expression of outrage to compensate for the vacuousness of “input.” One would need a City Council with some spunk to go against the police and its love of weapons in the interest of a constituent community. Both City Council and the leadership of those involved in constituting a Police Accountability Board have very little of that. They value wheedling the officials (aka lobbying), rather than build a community base of assemblies from which to represent the needs of the people, and redefine accountability itself.

Both groups know that the cops kill in response to disobedience. Yet they accept the police assurance that the weapons are a sign that social violence is being brought under control. The police claim there are so many weapons “out there” in people’s hand that these military weapons have become a necessary “equalization” mechanism.

However, the police bring their history of gun-nationalism with them wherever they go. If they don’t like that reputation, they have no one to blame but themselves. And to the extent they do not make the people feel safe, then the people will buy the instruments they need for their own self-defense.

Yet where did those weapons come from originally? Way back, after Prohibition and world war, there were laws against private persons owning automatic weapons – you know, the machine guns that gangsters use to blow each other away in the movies were actually illegal. How have so many weapons gotten out there that the police now need to become an army?

It is an interesting story. Let us return to 1963 or 1964. Federal law enforcement began to worry about the “threat” (as Hoover called it) to national security of the civil rights movements. They “worried” that massive uprisings against segregation and racial discrimination could possibly become insurrectionary. Restaurants, pools, public areas, means of transportation, public events like professional sports, concerts, movies, etc., that had all been previously (for almost a century) reserved for whites-only were being opened to all of humanity by the mass actions of people of color and some allies. For those in power (still uniformly white), this was inimical to their sense of white racialized identity. They decided that the country needed to prepare for martial law if the uprisings got too “disruptive.” The National Guard was already the agency designated to protect against insurgency. It was thought that civilian assistance would be necessary and desirable. So the National Guard established relations with a number of right-wing organizations (survivalists, neo-nazis, White Citizen Council off-shoots) for the purpose of training them in weaponry and tactical police maneuvers.
When word got out that this kind of project was being promoted (for instance, in the pages of a radical left-wing investigative newspaper called the National Guardian), much of the project was cancelled. However, the training sessions had already transferred a large number of military grade automatic weapons (still illegal) to private hands. When individuals who had been part of the original project needed money, they would sell the weapons, which would then end up in gun store “special” backroom inventories.

In an ancillary project, when confronted with the backwash from the Iran-Contra scandal, the Feds concocted a similar project to start a war between LA gangs dealing crack. In 1986m the CIA planted a couple of unlocked boxcars full of weapons on a siding in LA, and let the word out. The next day, the boxcars were empty, and the turf war had begun. (Gary Webb wrote articles about that.) The government found itself having to deal with automatic weapons in the streets of its cities without any possibility of explaining how they had gotten there.

So now, the government finds it useful to give PDs military weapons. But instead of dealing with crack turf wars, PDs are arming themselves against a populace that is in motion against white supremacy and police brutality (as we saw during the summer of 2020). Against this, with government approval, the police now take a war-making stance. And they carry the weapons, and they become a source of social violence.

In November, 2022, there was a panel in the Bay Area on the police acceptance and use of military equipment, organized by two local police reform groups (the Ashby Village Task Force for Police Reform, and the Society of Friends Racial Justice Action Team). The basis of the panel’s approach was the recognition that police use of militaristic violence often makes situations more injurious and deadly than they otherwise would have been.

But the panel was somewhat disappointing. No one asked, “what the hell is the government doing beefing up the police military attitudes when they have already taken extreme social control stances on our streets? No one asked why civil society needed a militarized police in the first place.

One panelist mentioned that throughout the history of policing in the US, they have always been somewhat militarized. They have always been a force for social control, he said. Though he didn’t think that was positive, he spoke about it as if history determined destiny, as a legacy unopen to question. For him, this meant that we have to change how people perceive the police. Does that mean it is the fault of all those killed for disobedience that they didn’t perceive themselves as being in a military situation while still in a civilian city? What happened to the recognition, from the summer of 2020, of a need to change policing itself, and make it more human-oriented, more civilian oriented? How does a milktoast attitude toward military weaponry not discount what people have been saying from the streets?

The panelists gave uncritical credence to the existence of the police, as if it were a sovereign entity. It says, policing simply exists, period. It is not something that civil society has to arrange, the way a family has to arrange putting food on the table every day. The bread to be eaten doesn’t put itself on the table in whatever character it decides to make of itself (stale, rotten, moldy, or fresh and gluten free, etc.). Families and communities are duty bound to preserve the security of the people in them, which means taking control of both the character and the freshness of the bread – that is, of the police.

When one panelist spoke about a balance of interests between the community and the police, it granted mutual existence and interest to police and community alike, separate and equal (the bread and the diner having equal input). Where does that kind of attitude come from? Another spoke about risks vs. benefits, as if one could take an administrative perspective, observing from a distance the relation to human life to security. Only one panelist focused on the sociological and psychological effects on people when confronted with a militarily hostile attitude — especially toward black and brown communities.

The police officer who had been invited to be on the panel was a retired cop who had been, at different times, a spokesperson for the police. When a panelist complained that assuming people were criminals by making derogatory reference to them exhibited an attitude of utter disrespect, this ex-cop said he thought the complaint was valid, and that the path should be toward better “understanding and conversations that don’t demonize or make people ‘other.’” But that is the hypocrisy of the police in accepting military weaponry. Military style comportment does nothing but make people “other.” Glass’s panic, even before they broke his window, was precisely at being rendered “other.”

One panelist who had been in negotiations with the police admitted that it did not go as expected, but that, instead of oversight, the community representatives were more of a collaboration with the police, compromising rather than communicating. In short, these community representatives found themselves negotiating with a non-community entity and having to accept it as sovereign.

The movement for police reform is a movement to stop the government of the US, at all its levels, from killing its own people – as well as injuring and discriminating against and harassing and segregating them. If no one calls in question the form and content of policing in this country, then it means its militarism has already become accepted as fixed, separate from community, a force invading from beyond its boundaries. Just to say that the police have a job to do, and we should discuss with them how to get that job done, means that the police get to define what that job is, and who “we” are in service to that definition. We cease to be those in whose name the police are supposed to exist in the first place.
Alas, what we do not question rapidly becomes unquestionable.

And we still have to deal with the entire issue of social violence. That’s for the next article.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.