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It’s Past Time for Congress to Permanently Demilitarize Our Police

Our communities are not looking to simply revert back to the Obama-era. We don’t want people to live in fear in their own neighborhoods.

By Representative Hank Johnson and Yasmine Taeb

March 15, 2021

State patrol officers during a protest over the police killing of George Floyd.(Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images)

In the months following George Floyd’s murder last May, Americans once again watched in alarm as local and state law enforcement deployed military vehicles to patrol US streets from Minneapolis to Portland and D.C. to Atlanta, and watched in horror as military-equipped police officers tear-gassed and used excessive force against peaceful protesters.

These all-too-familiar scenes of militarized response to peaceful protests have been made possible by an obscure Pentagon program that has funneled billions of dollars in weapons of war to domestic law enforcement agencies.

The two of us have been working to shut down these military equipment transfers since the scale of the problem became more evident in 2014 in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Walking the streets of Ferguson after Brown’s murder, we saw firsthand how weapons of war were used to police and terrorize communities of color.

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One of us was raised in Iran in the midst of a war and witnessed the trauma and long-term effects of a militarized society on ordinary citizens, and the other in Washington, D.C., before the militarization of police departments. We share the painful experience that in Black communities across America, the military warrior mentality has replaced the protect-and-serve model of law enforcement applied in white communities.

Since its inception in the 1990s in connection with the ill-fated War on Drugs, the 1033 Program has enabled the transfer of more than $7.4 billion in surplus military equipment to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies around the country.

In the last few years, the transfer of surplus military-grade weaponry from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the streets of America has flourished. The militarization of domestic law enforcement perpetuates institutionalized racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia and contributes to the maintenance of a society where the lives of Black and brown people don’t matter. Moreover, studies have shown that the militarization of police departments is not only unsafe for communities but also ineffective in reducing crime or improving police safety. Not surprisingly, evidence has shown that law enforcement agencies that receive military equipment are more prone to violence against the communities they are sworn to protect.

Recognizing this reality, President Obama issued an executive order that ended the transfer of certain types of military-grade weaponry under the 1033 Program, but that order was immediately reversed by President Trump, allowing the free-for-all to continue unchecked.

During the Trump administration, the 1033 Program expanded to engulf our southern border, with federal agencies like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection receiving enormous amounts of surplus military-grade weaponry for the purpose of controlling asylum seekers and families seeking refuge at our border.

It’s high time for Congress to end the transfer of military weaponry under the 1033 Program. What is holding lawmakers back from fulfilling the wishes of their constituents and tens of millions of Americans across the country?

In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, 100 organizations sent a letter to members of Congress calling for the abolition of the weapons transfer program. And a bipartisan coalition with support from across the ideological spectrum, from Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks to Demand Progress and March For Our Lives, came together to lobby lawmakers to end the militarization of our communities.

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Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) led the fight in the Senate last year and received a bipartisan majority on his amendment to the annual defense authorization bill that would have halted the transfer of certain military equipment under the 1033 Program, but the 60-vote threshold requirement of the filibuster rule prevented his amendment from garnering enough votes to pass.

Last year in the House of Representatives, the influence of key police unions derailed efforts to dramatically curtail the 1033 Program. Seeing so many politicians cave to police union pressure in this way was incredibly disappointing and out of step with the demands of the protests sweeping the nation.

Even when President Joe Biden fulfills his campaign promise to not only reinstitute but strengthen the Obama executive order, it will not be enough. Our communities are not looking to simply revert back to the Obama era. We don’t want people to live in fear in their own neighborhoods.

The Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2021, which was reintroduced last week, is a bipartisan bill that would ensure an end to the indiscriminate transfer of surplus military-grade weaponry through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program directly to state and local law enforcement agencies and onto the streets of our communities.

Representative Hank JohnsonRepresentative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) is a member of the House Judiciary and Transportation & Infrastructure Committees.


Yasmine TaebYasmine Taeb is a human rights lawyer and progressive activist.


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