How Police Use Military Tactics to Quash Dissent

Police have militarized from boots to brainstem.

As we wait for the grand jury verdict on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, schools in Ferguson are preparing to close, the police are stocked up on riot weapons and white supremacists are pledging to kill. A sand-colored, mine-resistant military vehicle was seen parked in front a local Dairy Queen. Protesters are organized and eschewing violence for clever forms of civil disobedience, but know they will likely face violence: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has already declared a state of emergency in Ferguson.

Armored trucks in the street and a fear of mayhem are more common abroad, but Ferguson shows they now have a place in the suburbs of America. Police have militarized from boots to brainstem. 

Police antagonized Ferguson residents from the very beginning and the world watched when they later teargassed and shot rubber bullets at people indiscriminately. Out of view of the cameras, there's also widespread surveillance and secret harassment of activists. Last month, Daily Kos' Shaun King posted a lengthy round-up of the behind-the-scense trampling of protestors' rights. Protest leaders are receiving hangup calls from unknown numbers; police are jotting down license plates. A Palestinian-American activist named Bassem Masri was arrested on October 15 with others, but was held for longer than any of them. Police threatened to hold him for a long period of time if he didn't spill the beans on other protesters, which he says he did not.

King draws a parallel to the FBI's COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) of the 1960s that targeted leaders like Malcolm X, Coretta Scott King, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. But police today are much more adept at intelligence operations than they were in the '60s, and all over the country, they're the first line of defense in spying on alleged threats. They're assisted by the Department of Homeland Security, which has spent over a billion dollars to create intelligence-sharing platforms (called fusion centers) connecting police departments to federal agencies (especially the FBI).

What's happening in Ferguson and St. Louis is more than counterintelligence, it's counterinsurgency. Secretive intelligence-gathering is just one tactic that, alongside cops in Desert Storm camouflage, no-fly zones, curfews and military checkpoints form the basis of a unified and militarized suppression of dissent. Police use of counterinsurgency strategy in Missouri and beyond is a critical component of the militarization of the police.

Making a Counter-insurgency

The Army Field Manual defines an insurgency as an “organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government...increasing insurgent control.” A counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) includes the use of “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions” to defeat the insurgency. Everything from spying to media-messaging to smoke bombing counts as a COIN tactic when it is used to undermine what the military calls an insurgency.

The Army first used COIN as a coordinated strategy in the middle of the Vietnam War in an attempt to undermine popular support for the Vietcong. The effort failed, but COIN returned again on a grand scale several decades later in Iraq. George W. Bush brought in General Petraeus, the Army's leading COIN strategist, to clean up the mess America made after ousting Saddam Hussein. COIN failed in Iraq (and Afghanistan) and has generally fallen out of favor in military circles.

By contrast, American police have moved in the direction of COIN for decades. Not only did the Pentagon begin giving away military gear in the 1990s, but the paradigm shift to “community policing” made intelligence-gathering processes more sophisticated. The latter was field-tested in New York City, where the NYPD began using a strategy of frequent interactions with low-level offenders (called “broken windows” policing) to build a massive database of persons of interest. This took place concurrently with another Clinton-backed initiative called COPS (community-oriented policing services), which provided federal funds for more officers. COPS money also pays for resources to build neighborhood bonds and partnerships with nonprofits, private organizations, and community services. The more inroads police have into a community, the thinking goes, the more likely they are to intercept valuable tips about criminals and extremists.

Community policing sounds benign and even progressive on the surface, but after 9/11, heightened contact between police and citizens became an important intelligence-gathering strategy. This information is filed in one of nearly 100 fusion center databases shared by police, the FBI, and other federal agencies. Building a massive database with information culled from a population is foundational to COIN operations, which aim to quash a nascent insurgency before it gains popular support.

Ironically, this “prevention” strategy was developed by domestic police, not the military, because in the places where America implemented large-scale COIN operations—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—an insurgency was already well-established. As Kristian Williams notes, “police innovations that COIN theorists recommend for military use are: the Neighborhood Watch, embedded video, computerized intelligence files, and statistical analysis.” Sometimes soldiers are literally the pupils of police. In 2010, 70 Marines on the eve of deployment to Afghanistan accompanied Los Angeles police officers on shifts. The Marines watched as the officers queried Angelenos for tips on gang members, a tactic they later used in Afghanistan.

Using the Army's definition of COIN—a coordinated effort to neutralize a group the state perceives as a threat—it's difficult to isolate just one example. Threats, after all, are very loosely defined: New Jersey's Homeland Security Director Charles McKenna lumped together “Jihad, Crips, [and] extreme animal-rights activists” as “people trying to damage the system.” The recent Harlem raids in New York, in which 1 flak-jacketed officers arrested dozens of young alleged gang members after the NYPD monitored their social media use for months, bears many of the hallmarks of COIN, including secret surveillance and strategic use of overwhelming force. But Ferguson stands out as an example of what the domestic COIN toolkit looks like in full force.

Baghdad, USA

That was the headline on the Huffington Post on August 14, the day after Ferguson really exploded. Beyond visual allusions to warfare, police and other coordinating agencies used softer COIN tactics to control land space and partition protesters into separate groups.

Edge City observed that the police, state troopers and the National Guard exerted “total spatial dominance” over the town's streets. This included setting up a command center in a strip mall overlooking streets where officers and protesters frequently clashed. From this central position, police established multi-layered checkpoints to keep protesters from coalescing. The no-fly zone was established for two COIN tactical ends: to keep media out (in order to control the public narrative) and to provide an unimpeded aerial view of the land.

Buttressing control of space was the use of “strategic incapacitation” to separate “good” protesters from “bad” ones. This tactic also utilized geography: The areas that police deemed permissible for protest  featured members of the clergy, local politicians, and other “moderate” activists who set up tents and served food. These groups actively negotiated and planned with police to keep popular anger from coalescing into a more radical movement (a tactic used by the Army in Baghdad). As George Ciccariello-Maher notes, the US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual emphasizes “a focus on the local population rather than the enemy, and the ideological winning of the hearts and minds of the uncommitted middle.” In Ferguson, moderates were used to coax youth into respecting the state-imposed curfew and channeling their frustrations in less destructive ways.

The true extent to which activists have been surveilled is unknown. In addition to the actions compiled by Daily Kos, eyewitnesses (including me) have seen police follow vehicles for miles with their sirens off. Vans have been broken into and ransacked for laptops and cameras, though there is no hard evidence that police have broken into vehicles. Activists report having email accounts attacked and being approached by people urging them to make molotov cocktails. If a coordinated attempt by police and federal agents to identify protest leaders is discovered, it should be understood as a tactic of counterinsurgency for two reasons: The targeting of leaders early in the movement, and an ongoing effort to separate protesters by building police ties with community leaders nearer to the establishment.

Nobody knows what will happen once the grand jury decision is announced, but we can speculate. Michael Brown's family may be disappointed. Darren Wilson may feel relief. St. Louis may or may not explode. The police may or may not act in a way that elicits global condemnation. We can, however, be sure that counterinsurgency tactics in the streets will complement clandestine intelligence-gathering that is almost certainly happening now, and after the smoke clears, journalists, activists and citizens will hopefully work to uncover a counterinsurgency campaign in action. 

Aaron Cantú is an investigator for the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmiguel_
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