As smoke hangs over the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, it’s important to understand its source. Some of this understanding will require us to reassess the history of police militarization in the United States. This will mean acknowledging its origins in the aftermath of the Watts Riots (1965) and the birth of the SWAT team shortly thereafter. It will mean noting the conservative reaction to the Warren Court’s civil libertarian protections in the 1950s and 60s to President Nixon’s launching of the drug war at the end of that same tumultuous decade. It will mean harping on President Reagan’s wholehearted embrace of racial policing and mass incarceration in the 1980s. It will mean interrogating the devastating effects of the 1208 Program (1990), which became the 1033 Program (1996), both of which authorized the transfer of military hardware to domestic precincts, a practice that has only accelerated in the wake of the Battle of Seattle (1999) and the attacks of September 11, 2001. The basic contours of this trajectory can be found in Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013). As Tamara K. Nopper and Mariame Kaba argue in Jacobin, however, any serious reckoning must account for the ongoing dehumanization of black people, tout court.
One small way to measure the police violence against black people in Ferguson is to attend to its details. It is in that spirit that I present this simple catalog.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
There is a growing chorus of military veterans who have chimed in on the absurdity of photographs like this one. Let me join the parade. What we’re seeing here is a gaggle of cops wearing more elite killing gear than your average squad leader leading a foot patrol through the most hostile sands or hills of Afghanistan. They are equipped with Kevlar helmets, assault-friendly gas masks, combat gloves and knee pads (all four of them), woodland Marine Pattern utility trousers, tactical body armor vests, about 120 to 180 rounds for each shooter, semiautomatic pistols attached to their thighs, disposable handcuff restraints hanging from their vests, close-quarter-battle receivers for their M4 carbine rifles and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights. In other words, they’re itching for a fight. A big one. It’s a well-known horror that the US military greets foreign peoples in this fashion as our politicians preach freedom, democracy and peace. It’s an abomination that the police greet black communities in the States with the same trigger-happy posture. Especially on the occasion of an unarmed teen’s death by cop.
Smoke Grenade and Smoke Bomb
There’s at least one line every Marine knows. It’s ingrained at boot camp or Officer Candidate School and follows us to the front lines and back home again. It’s a simple command and it’s the second of the four weapons-safety rules. It says, “Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.” The St. Louis County Police Department apparently never received the memo. Either that or they intend to shoot. Although their tactical flashlights might be assisting them in spying on (and blinding) their targets, I suspect their air-purifying respirators and the smoke and CS gas they’ve released might be getting in the way of said objective. It’s unclear whether it was cheap fuse-operated smoke bombs (think fireworks) or more expensive pin-operated smoke grenades that are responsible for the fog. Both tools have been reported onsite. For what it’s worth, such smokescreens are usually executed during flanking attacks, retreats, close air support missions or casualty evacuations. All of these situations are presumed to take place under real or potential conditions of heavy enemy fire. Make of this what you will. My guess is that they’ve got a surplus of toys to play with, and a powerless demographic to experiment on.