John Whitehead's Commentary
Battlefield America Is the New Normal: We’re Not in Mayberry Anymore
“If we’re training cops as soldiers, giving them equipment like soldiers, dressing them up as soldiers, when are they going to pick up the mentality of soldiers? If you look at the police department, their creed is to protect and to serve. A soldier’s mission is to engage his enemy in close combat and kill him. Do we want police officers to have that mentality? Of course not.”— Arthur Rizer, former police officer and member of the military
America, you’ve been fooled again.
While the nation has been distracted by a media maelstrom dominated by news of white supremacists, Powerball jackpots, Hurricane Harvey, and a Mayweather v. McGregor fight, the American Police State has been carving its own path of devastation and destruction through what’s left of the Constitution.
We got sucker punched.
First, Congress overwhelmingly passed—and President Trump approved—a law allowing warrantless searches of private property for the purpose of “making inspections, investigations, examinations, and testing.”
For now, the scope of the law is geographically limited to property near the Washington DC Metro system, but mark my words, this is just a way of testing the waters. Under the pretext of ensuring public safety by “inspecting” property in the vicinity of anything that could be remotely classified as impacting public safety, the government could gain access to almost any private property in the country.
Then President Trump, aided and abetted by his trusty Department of Justice henchman Jeff Sessions and to the delight of the nation’s powerful police unions, rolled back restrictions on the government’s military recycling program.
What this means is that police agencies, only minimally deterred by the Obama administration’s cosmetic ban on certain types of military gear, can now go hog-wild.
Clearly, we’re not in Mayberry anymore.
Or if this is Mayberry, it’s Mayberry in The Twilight Zone.
As journalist Benjamin Carlson stresses, “In today’s Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife could be using grenade launchers and a tank to keep the peace.”
You remember The Andy Griffith Show, don’t you?
Set in the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., The Andy Griffith Show portrays the two stars of the show—Sheriff Andy Taylor and his bumbling deputy Barney Fife—as peace officers in the truest sense of the word as opposed to law enforcers.
Both Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife dress in khaki uniforms, a far cry from the black, militarized Stormtrooper getups worn by police today. Andy refuses to wear a gun and only allows Barney to wear his gun on the proviso that he keep his single bullet out of the chamber and in his shirt pocket. Most of all, the two lawmen relate to those under their protection as equals, rather than as enemy combatants or inferiors.
Contrast the idyllic Mayberry with the American police state of today, where local police—clad in jackboots, helmets and shields and wielding batons, pepper-spray, stun guns, and assault rifles—have increasingly come to resemble occupying forces in communities across the country.
As Alyssa Rosenberg writes for The Washington Post, “[The Andy Griffith Show] expressed an ideal that has leached out of American pop culture and public policy, to dangerous effect: that the police were part of the communities that they served and shared their fellow citizens’ interests. They were of their towns and cities, not at war with them.”
That’s really what this is about: a war on the American citizenry waged by local law enforcement armed to the teeth with weapons previously only seen on the battlefield
If you thought the militarized police response to Ferguson and Baltimore was bad, brace yourselves.
As investigative journalists Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz reveal, “Many police, including beat cops, now routinely carry assault rifles. Combined with body armor and other apparel, many officers look more and more like combat troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Thanks to Trump, this transformation of America into a battlefield is only going to get worse.
To be fair, Trump did not create this totalitarian nightmare. However, he has legitimized it and, in so doing, has also accelerated the pace at which we fall deeper into the clutches of outright tyranny.
Everything America’s founders warned against—a standing army that would view and treat American citizens as combatants—is fast becoming the norm. Certainly, this lopsided, top-heavy, authoritarian state of affairs is not the balance of power the founders intended for “we the people.”
Yet in the hands of government agents, whether they are members of the military, law enforcement or some other government agency, these weapons of war have become accepted instruments of tyranny, routine parts of America’s day-to-day life, a byproduct of the rapid militarization of law enforcement over the past several decades.
As Becker and Schulz document in their insightful piece, “Local Cops Ready for War With Homeland Security-Funded Military Weapons”:
In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff’s department owns a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone, like those used to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Augusta, Maine, with fewer than 20,000 people and where an officer hasn’t died from gunfire in the line of duty in more than 125 years, police bought eight $1,500 tactical vests. Police in Des Moines, Iowa, bought two $180,000 bomb-disarming robots, while an Arizona sheriff is now the proud owner of a surplus Army tank.
Under this recycling program, small counties and cities throughout the country have been “gifted” with 20-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.
MRAPs are built to withstand roadside bombs, a function which seems unnecessary for any form of domestic policing, yet police in Jefferson County, New York, Boise and Nampa, Idaho, as well as High Springs, Florida, have all acquired MRAPs. Police in West Lafayette, Indiana also have an MRAP, valued at half a million dollars.
Universities are getting in on the program as well.
The Ohio State University Department of Public Safety acquired an MRAP, which a university spokesperson said will be used for “officer rescue, hostage scenarios, bomb evaluation,” situations which are not common on OSU’s campus. In fact, it will be used for crowd control at football games.
Almost 13,000 agencies in all 50 states and four U.S. territories participate in the military “recycling” program, and the share of equipment and weaponry gifted each year continues to expand.
In 2011, $500 million worth of military equipment was distributed to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. That number jumped to $546 million in 2012.
Since 1990, $4.2 billion worth of equipment has been transferred from the Defense Department to domestic police agencies through the 1033 program, in addition to various other programs supposedly aimed at fighting the so-called War on Drugs and War on Terror. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has delivered roughly $34 billion to police departments throughout the country since 9/11, ostensibly to purchase more gear for their steady growing arsenals of military weapons and equipment.
Police departments are also receiving grants to create microcosms of the extensive surveillance systems put in place by the federal government in the years since 9/11.
For example, using a $2.6 million grant from the DHS, police in Seattle purchased and setup a “mesh network” throughout the city capable of tracking every Wi-Fi enabled device within range. Police claim it won’t be used for surveillance, but the devices are capable of determining “the IP address, device type, downloaded applications, current location, and historical location of any device that searches for a Wi-Fi signal.”
Now ask yourself: why does a police department which hasn’t had an officer killed in the line of duty in over 125 years in a town of less than 20,000 people need tactical military vests like those used by soldiers in Afghanistan?
Why does a police department in a city of 35,000 people need a military-grade helicopter?
For that matter, what possible use could police at Ohio State University have for acquiring a heavily-armored vehicle intended to withstand IED blasts?
It’s a modern-day Trojan Horse.
Although these federal programs that allow the military to “gift” battlefield-appropriate weapons, vehicles and equipment to domestic police departments at taxpayer expense are being sold to communities as a benefit, the real purpose is to keep the defense industry churning out profits, bring police departments in line with the military, and establish a standing army.
It’s a militarized approach to make-work programs, except in this case, instead of unnecessary busy work to keep people employed, communities across America are finding themselves “gifted” with unnecessary drones, tanks, grenade launchers and other military equipment better suited to the battlefield in order to fatten the bank accounts of the military industrial complex.
Not surprisingly, this trend towards the militarization of domestic police forces has also opened up a new market for military contractors.
You know who gets stuck with the bill for all of this unnecessary military gear, don’t you?
“We the taxpayers,” of course.
First, taxpayers are forced to pay millions of dollars for equipment which the Defense Department purchases from megacorporations only to abandon after a few years. Then taxpayers get saddled with the bill to maintain the costly equipment once it has been acquired by the local police.
It’s like the old adage: “never look a gift horse in the mouth.” The catch is that this gift horse is an expensive and deadly boondoggle.
For instance, although the Tupelo, Miss., police department was “gifted” with a free military helicopter, residents quickly learned that it required “$100,000 worth of upgrades and $20,000 each year in maintenance.”
In addition to being an astounding waste of taxpayer money, this equipping of police with military-grade equipment and weapons also gives rise to a dangerous mindset in which police adopt a warrior-like, more aggressive approach to policing.
The results are deadly.
As a study by researchers at Stanford University makes clear, “When law enforcement receives more military materials — weapons, vehicles and tools — it becomes … more likely to jump into high-risk situations. Militarization makes every problem — even a car of teenagers driving away from a party — look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer.”
The danger of giving police high-power toys and weapons is that they will feel compelled to use it in all kinds of situations that would never normally warrant battlefield gear, weapons or tactics.
This “if we have it, we might as well use it” mindset, by the way, is also used to justify assigning SWAT teams to carry out routine law enforcement work such as delivering a warrant. That’s how you end up with SWAT tactics being employed when police are tasked with searching for a stolen koi fish and enforcing barber licensing laws.
Suffice it to say, we’re long past the days of Mayberry when cops were peace officers and recognized their role as public servants, a marked contrast to the climate of entitlement that has cops today acting like overlords and authoritarians.
Change will not come easily.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the police unions are a powerful force and they will not relinquish their power easily. Connect the dots and you’ll find that most, if not all, attempts to cover up police misconduct or sidestep accountability can be traced back to police unions and the police lobby.
Just look at Trump: he’s been on the police unions’ payroll from the moment they endorsed him for president, and he’s paid them back generously by ensuring that police can kill, shoot, taser, abuse and steal from American citizens with impunity.
Still, the responsibility rests with “we the people.”
As author Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us:
The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.