Last March, when some 500 activists arrived at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in northern Virginia to protest the abusive treatment that Pfc. Bradley Manning, the accused leaker of secret government documents to the Wikileaks website, was being subjected to while incarcerated there, they were confronted by a heavily-armed, riot-geared phalanx of dozens of state and local police, many of them on horseback for added measure.
I was there and wondered what in the world was going on.
These police in their black Darth Vader-like gear weren’t exactly facing a gun-wielding horde, or guerrillas with grenade launchers or a mob threatening to storm the base. Instead, they were confronting unarmed, nonviolent protesters who included older military veterans, recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, government workers, the ever-active antiwar women (and men) of Code Pink, members of various anti-war and anti-torture groups, lawyer observers and a smattering of reporters mainly from alternative media. Did the police think this assembly was going to charge into a heavily-fortified military base, overpower well-armed and well-trained Marines, and spring Manning from solitary confinement?
Since then I found out police often dress like Darth Vader at protest rallies. It’s a tactic to discourage dissent, with battlefield equipment supplied by the Pentagon and other equipment paid for in part with Homeland Security funds.
Increasingly around the country, noted civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley told Nieman Watchdog this summer, "What we have had is a militarization of the police response to nonviolent demonstrations. You attend one of those rallies and you could get the impression that it's unpatriotic to protest, that you're doing something wrong, that you're some sort of security threat."
Compared to the Vietnam war era, Quigley said, police around the country use more intimidating tactics these days, which likely discourages or scares off some people who might otherwise want to participate in protests. During the Vietnam war, he said, there was "pushback" – often violent – by police at demonstrations, but the police then were not decked out in full-blown military regalia and carrying the often heavy weaponry that can be the case today.
The militarization of the nation’s police forces is one of the most under-reported stories in the mainstream U.S. press. The issue sometimes surfaces in connection with SWAT teams conducting drug raids, particularly when police or Drug Enforcement Administration agents bust down the wrong door and frighten innocent occupants half to death and even injure them and destroy property. But rarely are there news stories questioning the propriety of these police forces becoming, in effect, little domestic armies. And the increase in anti-terrorism fear-mongering to justify the use of heavily-armed, riot-geared police at political demonstrations has the added dimension of providing a chilling effect on people’s exercise of their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and to petition their government.
It’s time reporters on all news organizations begin going to their local and state police departments and asking: How much of this crap do you have, and why do you need it?
Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and director of the law clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans, has served as counsel to a number of public interest organizations on civil liberties, constitutional rights and civil disobedience issues. In that capacity and until recently as the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, he frequently monitors demonstrations. Quigley said that around the country, protests, both small and large, are often overseen by a "heavy-duty police presence," replete with "those Ninja-Turtle-type outfits, special batons, shields, kneepads, surveillance cameras," etc. Police are sometimes on horseback (as they were at Quantico), astride "animals that are specially trained for crowd control" and that can be especially daunting to older and disabled people who aren't so nimble on their feet. Police also often try to orchestrate the protests, imposing new rules as they go along (as was the case at Quantico) – and, in some cases, using sound trucks to issue orders to control marchers.
While monitoring protests in various communities, Quigley said he has often asked state and local police why they turn out in their military gear for protests involving several hundred people engaging in a peaceful march or rally. Speaking as if from the same playbook, the answer they always give, Quigley said, is that it's not the peaceful demonstrators they are worried about but the fear that militants bent on violence will infiltrate and turn a peaceable demonstration into street fighting and property destruction.
To Quigley and others who have attended protests, this is pure bunkum.
"When they come dressed like that, they are not there to protect and defend our constitutional rights to peaceably assemble," Quigley said. "They are there to intimidate. Every demonstration is like a practice-run for state and local police to try out their new equipment and devices. They're all getting the federal anti-terrorist money, so if you go to a peaceful protest in Georgia, or Pittsburgh or New York or other places, you'll likely see the police using that as a pretext for a military-like response."
Overall, Quigley said, since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "it is absolutely true that people's ability to protest, as well as the response of the government to those protests, is different than it was before. It's tougher to organize and hold a protest" these days with police and city officials setting harsh terms for demonstrations – in effect, creating penned-in “free-speech zones,” arbitrary boundaries within which protesters must stay or face arrest. The police desire for crowd control and security takes precedence over the Constitution.
At Quantico, even after the police had closed the roads off to traffic for miles, they still ordered marchers to stay on the side of the road and not go into the street. When a designated contingent of six protesters, including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, asked to be allowed as a sign of respect to put flowers on a replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial outside the base on federal property, the police at first agreed and then reneged. They told Ellsberg and the others that Quantico officials wouldn’t allow them to go right up to the World War II memorial – which is normally open to the public – but they could stand behind the police barrier 10 feet or more away and throw the flowers at the memorial. For absolute arbitrariness and callousness, the police and military orchestration of what was meant to be a solemn moment at a monument that honors Marines who died in battle is hard to top. Did they think the protesters were going to deface the memorial? That the 80-year-old Ellsberg was going to make a dash onto the base? The sheer authoritarianism embodied in this situation is symptomatic of the tragic diminishment of civil liberties since 9/11, when homeland security and the be-afraid, be-very-afraid syndrome took over.
Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears – in a well-done story that was a rare instance of that newspaper actually covering a protest by progressive activists – quoted former Army colonel and State Department official Ann Wright as saying: “They wouldn't even let us get up to the memorial...It was disrespectful.”
Fears reported this led the “fed up” Wright, Ellsberg and 28 others to sit down in the middle of Jefferson Davis Highway in an “impromptu sit-in” that “led to a tense standoff between demonstrators and Manassas, Prince William County and Virginia state police, who were in riot gear and on horseback, with some carrying automatic assault weapons.” Some 30 protesters, including Wright and Ellsberg, were arrested.
I wondered that day, and since, if the oh-so-grim assembled contingent of Virginia’s finest would actually use such assault weapons if they determined the protesters had somehow gotten further “out of line.” What if that peaceable sit-in on the road – a road which, as noted, by then had been closed off for miles by police, so the sit-down obstructed absolutely no traffic – had become a little more tense? Would the men in black have considered opening fire with their automatic weapons? It’s like the “Chekhov gun” principle for the theater: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Likewise with the police in real life. (Or the Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State and the Mississippi State Police at Jackson State in 1970.) Otherwise, what’s the point of all that weaponry against unarmed, nonviolent people?
The last time I had seen such a menacing gathering of firepower in the midst of civilians was in Guatemala City in 1971, when that country’s repressive, U.S.-backed government had declared a state of siege and soldiers with machine guns were stationed on street corners. And I wasn’t the only one at Quantico that day who had anxious thoughts about the police.
As reported on independent journalist Peter Tucker’s website, The FightBack, one gutsy 27-year-old Army veteran of the Iraq war – who knows his way around weapons, and who was in uniform that day and wearing some of the medals he had been awarded – verbally confronted the police about their armed-to-the-teeth appearance:
“Zach Choate, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans For Peace, went down the line asking one black-clad officer after another, ‘Can you look at me in the eyes?’ Behind their shields and under their heavy armor, only the officers’ eyes revealed their vulnerability, their youth. Each of the officers averted his gaze, unable to maintain eye contact with Choate.
“How do you feel about what’s going on today, [about] the fact that peaceful protesters right now are about to get arrested for telling the truth?” asked Choate of the officers. “Nobody is armed [yet] I see [your] weapons. I see gas masks, handcuffs, all ready to take violence on all us peaceful protesters.”
(View this dramatic video by Washington-based political and human rights video producer Eddie Becker to see the riot-clad police, the police efforts to orchestrate the protest, Zach Choate’s challenge to the police, some of the arrests, interviews and excerpts from speeches at that Quantico rally.)
Despite the arms race of police departments around the country, very little is written or said in the press about this militarization, whose negative effects fall primarily on African-American, Latino and other minority communities in raids in the infamous “war on drugs.” Radley Balko, senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post, has written more extensively and authoritatively than anyone about the dangers of police militarization, which has picked up even more steam in the last decade as cities and towns get arms and equipment under the guise of preparing to fight terrorism.
As Balko wrote recently on the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, “The problem with this mingling of domestic policing with military operations is that the two institutions have starkly different missions. The military's job is to annihilate a foreign enemy. Cops are charged with keeping the peace, and with protecting the constitutional rights of American citizens and residents. It's dangerous to conflate the two. As former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb once put it, ‘Soldiers are trained to vaporize, not Mirandize.’...”
Balko observed that after 9/11, in addition to the high-tech weaponry, “police departments in some cities, including Washington, D.C., also switched to battle dress uniforms (BDUs) instead of the traditional police uniform. Critics say even subtle changes like a more militarized uniform can change both public perception of the police and how police see their own role in the community.” In this regard, Balko quoted from a letter that retired police sergeant Bill Donelly wrote to the editor of the Washington Post: “One tends to throw caution to the wind when wearing ‘commando-chic’ regalia, a bulletproof vest with the word ‘POLICE’ emblazoned on both sides, and when one is armed with high tech weaponry."
Balko traces the trend toward militarization of police forces to the early years of the Reagan administration when the president “and a compliant Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which allowed and encouraged the military to give local, state, and federal police access to military bases, research, and equipment.” This measure, he wrote, “authorized the military to train civilian police officers to use the newly available equipment, instructed the military to share drug-war–related information with civilian police and authorized the military to take an active role in preventing drugs from entering the country.” This involvement of the military in domestic drug matters came despite the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the government from using the U.S. military in domestic policing.
Nevertheless, Balko wrote, every president and congress since Reagan – Republican and Democratic, alike – “have continued to carve holes in that law, or at least find ways around it, mostly in the name of the drug war.” And while these new policies did establish new ways to involve the military in domestic policing matters, “the much more widespread and problematic trend has been to make our domestic police departments more like the military,” he wrote.
Especially accelerating this trend toward militarization of police agencies, Balko said, was a 1994 law authorizing the Pentagon to donate surplus military equipment to local police departments. From 1994-1997 alone, National Review reported, police forces across the country received from the Pentagon 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers, and 112 armored personnel carriers, as well as bayonets, tanks, helicopters and even airplanes.
In the 17 years since 1994, Balko wrote, “literally millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on a foreign battlefield have been handed over for use on U.S. streets, against U.S. citizens.”
The 9/11 attacks, Balko said, “provided a new and seemingly urgent justification for further militarization of America's police departments: the need to protect the country from terrorism.” In 2006 alone, he noted that a Pentagon spokesman told the Worcester, Massachusetts, Telegram & Gazette that the Department of Defense "distributed vehicles worth $15.4 million, aircraft worth $8.9 million, boats worth $6.7 million, weapons worth $1 million and 'other' items worth $110.6 million" to local police agencies.
The “global war on terror” also brought the Department of Homeland Security into the militarization of police forces picture. In recent years, Balko wrote, the DHS has “given anti-terrorism grants to police agencies across the country to purchase armored personnel carriers, including such unlikely terrorism targets as Winnebago County, Wisconsin; Longview, Texas; Tuscaloosa County, Alabama; Canyon County, Idaho; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Adrian, Michigan, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.” Typically, police agencies use the grants “to purchase the Lenco Bearcat, a modified armored personnel carrier that sells for $200,000 to $300,000,” which Balko wrote “has become something of a status symbol in some police departments.”
Balko said the 2009 stimulus spending package also added to police militarization, with departments requesting funds “for armored vehicles, SWAT armor, machine guns, surveillance drones, helicopters, and all manner of other tactical gear and equipment.”
This is the kind of equipment used at Quantico and, frequently, at other political protests. At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008, heavily-armed police were decked out in their best intimidating military riot gear as they used concussion grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, snow plows, horses and dump trucks as part of their controversial crowd-control efforts. These included what can only be called arbitrary, authoritarian, street-clearing arrests of hundreds of protesters. See especially this dramatic – and I would have to say, frightening – video, of unprovoked arrests of scores of people. And this, involving the unprovoked arrests of Amy Goodman and two producers of Pacifica’s “Democracy Now.”
Large numbers of reporters, broadcasters and photographers, as well as protesters and other citizens, were swept up in the arrests, which were denounced by civil libertarians and resulted in lawsuits filed by Goodman and her two producers. They recently won a $100,000 settlement from the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Secret Service. Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice said at the time of the convention mass arrests that both St. Paul and Denver, the site of the Democratic National Convention that year, had each received $50 million for new police equipment and other security assistance from Homeland Security. Cagan said that, after the two conventions were over, “We shudder to think about how the influx of new weapons and armed vehicles and everything else will be used in the neighborhoods of St. Paul and Denver...”
More recently, in August, riot-geared San Francisco and Bay Area Radio Transit (BART) police confronted demonstrators (see here and here) protesting a BART police shooting of a homeless man, a situation exacerbated when BART turned off cellphone access in its stations to block activists from coordinating the protests.
Thus far in the ongoing Wall Street protests in New York, police have not made use of military gear or high-tech weapons, although they have used pepper spray and been accused of brutality in some of the 1,000 arrests of protesters. Likewise, police in Washington, D.C., handled the recent two weeks of White House protests over the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline without using any high-tech equipment or riot gear. Mounted U.S. Park Police horses were present, but were not used in crowd control.
Former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges recently wrote on Truthdig about “the widening use of militarized police units” that “have in the last few decades amassed small strike forces that employ high-powered assault rifles, armored personnel carriers, tanks, elaborate command and control centers and attack helicopters.” With the proliferation of SWAT team and other paramilitary unit assaults – an estimated 60,000 annually – Hedges observed that “in the eyes of the state we are increasingly no longer citizens with constitutional rights but enemy combatants.”