"How Could This Happen in America?" Why Police Are Treating Americans Like Military Threats
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That mentality tends to place American governments at enmity with their dissident citizens -- and vice versa. The fact that much militarizing of police, over the past twenty years, has federal sources raises endlessly complicated questions that reflect strangely on the histories of American federalism and government suppression. A horrific theme of the Civil Rights Movement was police violence, and many Americans have branded on their brains the watercannons, clubs, dogs, fists, and boots used against nonviolent protesters in the 1950s; police involved were generally state and local. Then in 1957 federal troops -- the 101st Airborne Paratroopers -- entered Little Rock, Arkansas, with fixed bayonets, to enforce federal law by ensuring the entry of African American students to state school there; states-rights advocates talked about federal overreaching and police state, the end of liberty. Then again, in the 1960s and '70s the federal government, via its law-enforcement arm the FBI, carried out a covert war -- involving assassination, it's fairly uncontroversial to say -- on the militant activist group the Black Panthers, who it's fairly uncontroversial to say were not always peaceful protesters.
Responding now to police efforts against demonstrators, liberals and leftists have begun raising anew the issue of inappropriate police militarization and violence. Yet it's the libertarian right that has done much of the reporting and research on the issue in recent decades ( Democracy Now! is among left-liberal institutions that have also covered the issue for many years). The current state of heightened awareness means there's a possibly interesting opportunity for people of varying backgrounds and politics to begin a new conversation. That conversation would involve some very strange bedfellows -- and might spark new enmities. The Salon columnist Joan Walsh's suggestion last weekend on Twitter that if police violence has federal sources, then President Obama bears some responsibility set off a torrent of invective violent even by Twitter standards.
James Madison may offer some long-range perspective. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, arguing for forming a nation instead of retaining the confederation of states, he said that force applied to citizens collectively rather than individually ceases to be law enforcement and becomes war; groups so treated will seize the opportunity to dissolve all compacts by which they might otherwise have been bound. Madison's argued against militarism in favor not of anarchy but of a higher kind of law and order.
And in 1794, Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, advising President Washington (to no avail) to eschew military adventure against the so-called Whiskey Rebels, and to use prosecutions instead, argued passionately that the real strength of government always lies not in coercion but in the affection of the people. Randolph was facing an actual insurrection, with threat of secession, not a peaceful protest; there were federal crimes involved. Still he advised against a military operation. The loathing of military suppression as a substitute for due process of law, going back to our first administration, runs deep in the American psyche.
But it's worth remembering that equally strong feelings have always run the other way. Long before events known as the Whiskey Rebellion had risen to any kind of crisis, Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, was urging Washington to bring military force against citizens somewhere in the country; otherwise, Hamilton believed, authority would always be in question. When Washington did so, he ignored habeas corpus and nearly every individual right set out in the new Bill of Rights, federalizing militias to bring overwhelming force to shock and awe innocent citizens of an entire region of the country. In his book Crisis and Command, John Yoo, author of the notorious "torture memo," has defended the George W. Bush administration's tactics in dealing with suspected terrorists by citing precedent -- not wrongly -- in Washington's behavior in the 1790s.