When residents of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets to protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, they were met with assault weapons, armored vehicles, tear gas and police decked out in full riot-gear. A community already suffering the loss of one of its own found their town occupied by what appeared to be a paramilitary force.
If the police looked ready to fight a war, it’s because that’s what their equipment was designed for. Much of it came courtesy of the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which sends “surplus military equipment” to police departments. Since 1033 was introduced in the late 1990s, the federal government has sent $4.3 billion worth of military hardware to local and state police forces. The program has a particularly brutal effect on communities of color, as it is used primarily to execute the disastrous and racist “war on drugs.” While the images in Ferguson have just recently become familiar to many, police have long used SWAT teams outfitted in military gear to serve warrants for arrests for minor drug crimes, terrorizing whole communities and sometimes injuring or even killing people in the process.
This fall when Congress is back in session, Representative Hank Johnson will introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, which would end the federal government’s policy of sending military equipment to local communities. Write to your representatives and demand that they fight to end the militarization of the police. Then, to help people in Ferguson right now, donate to one of a number of worthy causes: you can help the Brown family collect the funds needed to pursue justice for their son, contribute to the bail or legal fees of protesters who have been arrested or pay for food for children of Ferguson who may go hungry while school remains canceled. There’s also a campaign to fund independent journalistic coverage of what is happening on the ground in Ferguson and CREDO is raising funds to keep up the progressive livestream it has launched with WeActRadio. You can also call the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and demand that he take action against Officer Darren Wilson. (The good folks at Bolder Giving compiled much of this information on an excellent resource page.)
At The Nation, Alex S. Vitale argues that at the root of militarized policing is “a cynical politics of race that has perverted criminal justice policies” that focuses on “the management of poor and non-white populations through ever-more-punitive practices.”
While it is crucial that we demilitarize the police, law enforcement doesn’t need tanks and body armor to terrorize communities of color. On her show on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry reminds us how familiar Michael Brown’s story is, as she gives voice to nine black men recently gunned down by police officers and points out that between 2006 and 2013, white police officers killed a black person at least two times a week.