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Police or Paramilitary Forces? The Militarization of American Law Enforcement

As police violently crack down on protests across the US, we look at the increasing influence of military technology on domestic police forces.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think the significance is, Stephen Graham, of the fact that protesters across the U.S.—and it’s been true in Europe, as well—are increasingly characterized as somehow criminal—drug addicts or sexual predators—or somehow a sanitation or a health hazard to the communities in which they’re protesting? Can you say a little bit about how this works?

STEPHEN GRAHAM: Well, in the book and elsewhere—other authors are writing these things, too—I think it’s important to put this debate in the bigger context of how cities have changed. And cities in the last 20 or 30 years, particularly in North America, have become much more sanitized, much more controlled by questions of zero tolerance, by questions of really aggressive policing, to clear out those that are deemed to be sort of not fitting a model of urban life, which centers on consumption, which centers on business. So there’s been a really powerful shift in cities to sort of criminalize homelessness, to criminalize panhandlers, to criminalize those not seen to belong in this—what Neil Smith in New York has called the "revanchist city," the city taking back spaces for the wealthy, effectively. That was very much Mayor Giuliani’s strategy.

So, in a way, I think what the Occupy movement is so powerful at is demonstrating that by occupying public spaces around the world, and particularly these extremely symbolic public spaces, it’s reasserting that the city is the foundation space for democracy. And we have to reassert that symbolically and with the actual groupings of the activists in space. So the internet is not enough. It’s very much necessary to reassert that cities are political spaces which need to be used to mobilize social and political change.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about how the population centers have so dramatically shifted, not only in the United States, but around the world, to the cities. And it’s that question we’ll end with, Stephen Graham.

STEPHEN GRAHAM: Absolutely. Well, I mean, last year, we moved past the moment where 50 percent of the world was living in cities. By 2050, 75 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. But too often, political and military power is controlled by people who see cities purely as threats, purely as sites of unrest, sites that need strong military and security control. And what’s so wonderful about the Occupy protests is that there’s a different, a much more hopeful idea of cities being pushed there, in a world where we have a really radical crisis and a radical sense of illegitimacy for the social model that we’re all still having to live under.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Graham, I want to thank you for being with us. His book is called  Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism.


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