How Lawmakers Are Exploiting Public Fear After Orlando to Push More Police Militarization
To date, the Orlando Police Department has disclosed no definitive evidence that its military-style weaponry protected public safety the morning of the horrific massacre at the LGBTQ Pulse club’s Latin night. And the department's chief has not ruled out that officers may have been responsible for some of the casualties when they stormed the nightclub. But that is not stopping law enforcement unions and congressional representatives from seizing on public fear over the mass shooting to push for police militarization across the country.
On June 15, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed by voice vote an amendment to H.R. 5293, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act that allows the Pentagon to fork over unlimited amounts of military grade weaponry to police departments. The amendment reverses an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in 2015 which placed some limits on the federal 1033 program that allows the military to distribute “surplus equipment” to law enforcement agencies. Among other measures, Obama's order created a list of weapons that are prohibited from distribution and added more steps to the acquisitions process for other arms.
The June 15 amendment states, “no funds shall be used to implement President Obama's Executive Order 13688 limiting the donation of surplus federal equipment to state and local law enforcement as part of the DOD's Excess Property Program (1033 program).” After passing the House, the bill will be conferenced with the Senate.
Demands for the demilitarization of police have been a key rallying cry of Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country since 2014, and many argue that Obama’s order did not go far enough. But the new legislation, which is still in the House, could strike a significant blow against even the most limited police reforms.
The amendment advanced on June 15 was introduced by Rep. David Reichert (R-WA), who has a record on LGBTQ rights that could be described as spotty at best. In 2006, Reichert voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Ironically, in arguing for the amendment in the House, Reichert directly invoked the mass killing of LGBTQ people. "Tragically as we saw in San Bernardino and most recently in Orlando, we’re living at a time with increasing threats against local communities," he said.
Chuck Canterbury, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national police union known for its vehement resistance to reform, showered praise on Reichert in a statement released June 16. "The heroic response of law enforcement to the terrorist attack on the Pulse nightclub demonstrated the utility and necessity of the equipment our officers need and we are very pleased that Mr. Reichert's amendment to H.R. 5293 was adopted to restore our nation's equipment programs,” he said.
This police statement was featured on the Facebook page of the Orlando chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. The Orlando Police Department also circulated an image of a damaged, green helmet that they say is made of Kevlar and saved an officer’s life on June 12. While it is not immediately clear whether the Orlando Police Department received supplies from the 1033 program, widely-circulated media images of heavily armed SWAT team members indicate that at least some officers were equipped with military-style gear.
In the aftermath of the bloodbath, police and lawmakers have hammered on the importance of keeping massive stockpiles of military-style weaponry in law enforcement arsenals.
Concealing Information, Controlling the Narrative
The police and city of Orlando have gone to extreme lengths to conceal information about the mass shooting from the public, rejecting public records requests from roughly two dozen media outlets—including AlterNet—for 911 and radio communications. This lack of transparency was criticized by Mindy Marques, president of the Florida Society of News Editors, who told the Tampa Bay Times: “There are many important questions raised in the wake of this tragedy, and it's our responsibility to try to find answers. The state needs to live up to the law."
While keeping these records from journalists, police have actively shaped a narrative of the massacre through anonymous leaks and official statements. Within hours of the shooting, police told the media that the killer, Omar Mateen, had sworn fealty to ISIS. And an anonymous officer told the Daily Beast's Michael Daly that Mateen was seeking to protest the U.S. bombing in Iraq and Syria. A narrative of “Islamic terrorism” quickly dominated the news coverage, even as other salient factors came to light, including Mateen’s obvious confusion about the array of militant organizations he allegedly swore loyalty to. This singular media focus continued even after the heads of the CIA and FBI admitted there were no signs of material links between Mateen and militant organizations outside of the United States.
At the same time, police hit the cable news circuit to champion the bravery of the police force, with Orlando Police Chief John Mina telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “The most important thing to remember is that those first officers on the scene and our SWAT officers, they saved many, many lives.”
Many troubling questions remain about the police response. Mina could not rule out whether some of his officers may have shot Pulse patrons in the hail of gunfire against Mateen. When asked at a news conference if there is a chance that innocent people were struck by the crossfire, Mina replied: “I will say that is all part of the investigation. But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, their backdrop was a concrete wall. And they were being fired upon, so that is all part of the investigation.”
In addition, according to Mina’s account, there was a roughly three-hour gap between when officers first engaged Mateen and when they stormed Pulse with explosives and a BearCat vehicle. Many have criticized the delay, including former police officers. Chris Grollnek, described by the Associated Press as “an expert on active-shooter tactics and a retired police officer and SWAT team member," reportedly stated, "How have we failed so poorly that we did not learn our lesson... when we see SWAT teams respond and not making entry creates victims. Period. End of story."
Survivor Angel Colon, who was shot five times, told Fox’s Good Day New York, "I was yelling at the cops. I didn't understand why they didn't go in. There is no reason why they should be standing there with all these gunshots going off. I have videos of me yelling at the cops to go in there.”
Attorney Flint Taylor, one of the founding partners of the People’s Law Office in Chicago who has been working on police violence and torture cases in Chicago and around the country since 1969, told AlterNet: “Why won’t they release the full 911 tape if they are going to talk about it? If there is a legitimate reason not to release it, they shouldn’t be leaking it selectively. If they’re selectively releasing it, they should release the full thing. Reactionary forces are utilizing it selectively and it makes you skeptical and suspicious of what the motive is.”
History of Repressing LGBTQ Communities of Color
Amid the vacuum of information about what exactly happened at Pulse, any political push for expanded police powers depends on the public's trust in law enforcement agencies.
But Hermelinda CortÃ©s, an organizer with the queer liberation organization Southerners on New Ground, told AlterNet that police have failed to earn the confidence of the very communities whose pain and loss is being invoked to justify widening powers.
“Increased armament of law enforcement does not make us feel safer. For queer and transgender folks of color, that increased police presence does not provide us with security, especially for communities already targeted by police on a daily basis," said CortÃ©s. "Distrust has been longstanding. We’re talking about from the Stonewall Riots until now.”
June Pride celebrations originated to mark the Stonewall Riots on 1969, in which primarily Black and Latina LGBTQ patrons of a gay club in New York’s Greenwich village rebelled against a discriminatory and violent police raid.
Police departments across the country have a long history of violently repressing LGBTQ communities, including in recent years when numerous law enforcement agencies have been sued by gay bars that suffered violent, SWAT-style police raids over “lewd behavior” and alleged violations of alcohol licenses. In 2009, more than 20 police officers wearing SWAT gear raided the Atlanta Eagle gay bar an, according to an investigation, forcing patrons to lie down in broken glass while hurling homophobic slurs at them.
As author Radley Balko pointed out in the Washington Post, police have a troubled relationship with communities of color in Orlando. The Orange County sheriff’s office was sued by owners and customers of numerous Black and Latino barbershops in the Orlando area in 2014 for violently raiding the establishments with “ballistic vests and masks, and with guns drawn” demanding to see their barber’s licenses.
According to CortÃ©s, the call for police militarization grows alongside “increased Islamophobia, increased whitewashing and erasure that it was a hate crime against queer and transgender people.” CortÃ©s emphasized: “It feels like so many of our folks haven’t even been able to grieve because we knew this was going to happen.”