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Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America

Heavily armed SWAT teams are increasingly used for such small tasks as raiding poker games and trying to stop underage drinking. How did we get here?

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Perhaps the best insight into the mentality the police brought to the DNC protests could be found on the T-shirts the Denver police union had printed up for the event. The shirts showed a menacing cop holding a baton. The caption: DNC 2008: WE GET UP EARLY, TO BEAT THE CROWDS. Police were spotted wearing similar shirts at the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. At the 1996 DNC convention in Chicago, cops were seen wearing shirts that read: WE KICKED YOUR FATHER’S ASS IN 1968 . . . WAIT ’TIL YOU SEE WHAT WE DO TO YOU!

This default militaristic response to protest of overkill was then given an extended national stage during the Occupy protests of 2011. In the most infamous incident, now forever captured in countless Internet memes and mashups, Lt. John Pike of the University of California–Davis campus police casually hosed down a peaceful group of protesters with a pepper-spray canister. But that was far from the only incident. Police across the country met protesters in riot gear, once again anticipating—and in too many instances seemingly even craving—confrontation. In Oakland, the skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was fractured by a tear-gas canister that the police had fired into the crowd. In New York, NYPD officer Anthony Bologna pepper-sprayed a group of helpless protesters who had been penned in by police fencing.

One thing the Occupy crackdowns did seem to do was focus renewed attention on police tactics and police militarization. Big-picture stories about the Pentagon buildup, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding for antiterror gear, and the proliferation of SWAT teams started streaming out of media outlets, giving the militarization issue the most coverage it had received since Kraska’s studies came out in the late 1990s. Part of that was due to social media. The ubiquity of smart phones and the viral capacity of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and blogs were already bringing unprecedented accountability to police misconduct and government oppression, be it a Baltimore cop screaming obscenities at a kid on a skateboard, a transit cop in Oakland shooting a man who lay handcuffed on his stomach, or government paramilitaries in Iran gunning down a young woman in cold blood during Arab Spring democracy protests. But the Occupiers, who tended to be young, white, and middle-to upper-middle-class, knew social media like few other demographics. They knew how to live-stream video directly to the Internet. They all had smart phones, so police couldn’t suppress incriminating video by confiscating one or two or ten phones—someone was bound to have video of not only the original incident but also of police trying to confiscate phones to cover it up.

The political reaction to the Occupy crackdowns was interesting to watch. In the 1990s, it had been the right wing—particularly the far right—that was up in arms over police militarization. Recall the outrage on the right over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the raid to seize Elián González. The left had largely either remained silent or even defended the government’s tactics in those cases. But the right-wing diatribes against jackbooted thugs and federal storm-troopers all died down once the Clinton administration left office, and they were virtually nonexistent after September 11, 2001. By the time cops started cracking heads at the Occupy protests, some conservatives were downright gleeful. The militarization of federal law enforcement certainly didn’t stop, but the 9/11 attacks and a friendly administration seemed to quell the conservatives’ concerns. So long as law enforcement was targeting hippie protesters, undocumented immigrants, suspected drug offenders, and alleged terrorist sympathizers, they were back to being heroes.

Steven Greenhut, a conservative-leaning columnist for the Orange County Register and editor of the investigative journalism site CalWatchdog, was dismayed by the right’s reaction. “What’s really disgusting is the natural instinct of so many conservatives to stick up for the police,” Greenhut wrote. “They don’t like the Occupy protesters, so they willingly back brutality against them, without considering the possibility that conservatives at some point might be on the receiving end of this aggression.”

 
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