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"How Could This Happen in America?" Why Police Are Treating Americans Like Military Threats

Why is the armed might of the state, (necessary in waging war against foreign enemies) being applied to domestic policing of local communities and peaceful protests?
 
 
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"How could this happen in America?"

"Is this still my country?"

In the past few days, those and similarly poignant Twitter posts have appealed to fundamental American values in objecting to the notorious U.C. Davis event, where police pepper-sprayed seated protesters, and to cities generally cracking down on the Occupy movement. The crackdowns have brought a military level of combativeness to what many Americans -- even those not in sympathy with the protesters -- would normally see as a police, not a military matter.

Police, not military. The distinction may seem academic, even absurd, when police are bringing rifles, helmets, armor, and helicopters to evict unarmed protesters. But it's an old and critical distinction in American law and ideology and in republican thought as a whole. The 17th-century English liberty writers, on whose ideas much of America's founding ethos was based, believed that turning the armed might of the state, (necessary in waging war against foreign enemies), to domestic policing of local communities tends to concentrate power in top-down executive action and vitiate treasured things like judiciary process, individual liberty, representative government, and free speech.

Constabulary and judiciary matters, high Whigs came to think, should never be handled by what they condemned as "standing armies." It's true, on the other hand, that keeping public order, not just aiding in prosecutions, is a duty of local police. When concerted crowd violence occurs against people and property, policing may be expected to be pretty violent too, and distinctions between combat and policing sometimes naturally blur.

But where protest is peaceful -- maybe loud, maybe deliberately annoying, combative in its rhetoric, even possibly illegal, yet not actually violent or dangerous -- treating it the way a state normally treats an outside military threat will give many Americans, across a broad political spectrum, a gut problem.

We've seen military hardware and tactics used in the Occupy crackdowns. We've seen them in post-9/11 federal funding in the states and municipalities for homeland security. We've seen them in the aptly named "war on drugs." And anyone who has watched shows like "Cops" has seen -- and may by now take for granted -- techniques and technologies of military-style police raids on homes, raids that in more upscale neighborhoods might amount to nothing more than knocking on a door and serving a warrant. A Twitter post from Joy Reid, of the blog the Reid Report, put it this way last week: "Disconnect: liberals see a suddenly 'militarized,' possibly federalized police force. Black people see 'the usual.'"

The police behavior at U.C. Davis -- manifestly not "rogue-cop," a trained, planned exercise -- reveals the cool military thinking behind the operation. Pepper-spraying looked surgical, preemptive, even robotic. The strategic directive must have been to conserve police effort and maintain police maneuverability at virtually any cost. Such efficiencies and capabilities would be important in a riot; they're not important when hoping to evict unarmed, seated protesters. It's not as if officers have been resorting to battle gear under otherwise unmanageable pressure or initiating violence only as a last resort. They've been arriving in battle gear. They've been construing noncompliance as potential attack. They've moved preemptively to disable attack where none existed, not just trying to evict but seemingly hoping to inspire fear, to punish and defeat.

The mood these operations convey is that failure to achieve police objectives must result in something awful for the body politic. In reality, leaving citizens sitting around a park or campus a few more days, even possibly illegally, might be frustrating for police and others; it's hardly the end of the world. Sometimes taking a few deep breaths is the only thing to do. But military training, tactics, and weaponry seem to inspire the idea in civic strategists that failure to achieve an objective is tantamount to fatal defeat by a hostile enemy. Intolerable. Not an option.