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?

Dees Illustration

William Hogeland

“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.

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.

“Is this still my country?” That’s been a question from day one, asked by Americans of widely diverging views in response to government crackdowns on protest. Objecting to military violence against protesting citizens may be inherently American. The urge to crack down can look inherently American too.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories ‘Declaration‘ and ‘The Whiskey Rebellion‘ and a collection of essays, ‘Inventing American History.’

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