Over the past few decades we’ve all sadly grown accustomed to the extreme militarization of local police departments, with ordinary officers of even smallish municipalities adorned in bulky black armor and brandishing threatening weaponry, all while while cruising around in military-style armored vehicles. Part of this militarization has been an outgrowth of the so-called “War on terror,” with the common justification that since potential terrorists and even ordinary criminals can equip themselves with high-tech weaponry, the police cannot be placed into a situation where they are outgunned.
In the context of the response to civil protests, however, the exaggerated “Robo-cop“ appearance of these armed-to-the-teeth public servants takes on a menacing character that is far more evocative of vicious goon squads and riot police in military dictatorship than of so-called “officers of the peace.” So equipped, the effect of these militarized demonstrations of power by police is to threaten and intimidate rather than to serve and protect.
And it isn’t just the equipment. As reported by Nick Baumann, writing for The Atlantic, research has shown that outfitting the police in such military-style armor and weaponry actually changes the mentality of police officers, prompting them to act more aggressively and more in accordance with what one would normally expect from active-duty soldiers. Baumann interviewed Arthur Rizer, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who trained special forces in Iraq. Rizer, now a policing expert at the conservative, libertarian R-Street Institute, explains how this transformation occurs:
“You create this world where you’re not just militarizing the police—you equip the police like soldiers, you train the police like soldiers. Why are you surprised when they act like soldiers?” Rizer, a former police officer and soldier, said. “The mission of the police is to protect and serve. But the premise of the soldier is to engage the enemy in close combat and destroy them. When you blur those lines together with statements like that … It’s an absolute breakdown of civil society.”
Baumann notes that following the initial protests the Minneapolis Department of Public Safety immediately took the tack of referring to the protests as a form of “urban warfare:”
“The situation on the ground in Minneapolis & St. Paul has shifted & the response tonight will be different as a result,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety tweeted as businesses boarded up their windows and the Saturday sun sank low over the Twin Cities. The National Guard and law-enforcement presence would “triple in size,” the state agency warned, “to address a sophisticated network of urban warfare.”
This, according to Baumann, is “what escalation looks like.” It is the type of language that justifies the escalation not just of the physical police presence, but the menacing character of their weaponry, tactics, and ultimately, their attitude towards civilians such as people protesting the police murder of George Floyd Again, what we saw in Minneapolis and are seeing repeated by various police departments throughout of the country are variations of this “urban warfare” mentality being played out. From Baumann’s article:
American police officers generally believe that carrying military equipment and wearing military gear makes them feel like they can do more, and that it makes them scarier, Rizer’s research has found. Officers even acknowledge that acting and dressing like soldiers could change how the public feels about them. But “they don’t care,” he said. Most of the time, heavily armed police units such as SWAT teams are used not for the hostage and active-shooter scenarios for which they are ostensibly designed, but instead for work like executing search warrants, a 2014 study found. And agencies that use military equipment kill civilians at much higher rates than agencies that don’t, according to a 2017 study.
Which brings us to the city of Camden, New Jersey. Camden, a city of some 80,000, sits across the Delaware river from Philadelphia. The city has been plagued by poverty, crime and corruption for decades and is not a destination point for many who live in Philadelphia, or for anyone on the East Coast, for that matter. With an overwhelmingly poor, largely African-American population, the city contains few if any trappings of wealth. If someone burns down a store or shopping center in Camden, there will be no one rushing to rebuild it.
You might expect such an environment to be a veritable tinderbox for the types of protests that have erupted across the country, as in fact they have in neighboring Philadelphia.
But you would be wrong. Here was the scene in Camden, New Jersey on Saturday, as the town’s white police chief linked arms with those protesting the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd.
— Camden County Police (@CamdenCountyPD) May 31, 2020
Nor was it only the police chief. As shown in the Tweet below, the protesters were joined by several Camden police officers, many of them white, and none of them dressed in anything but their normal uniforms. There was no threatening, no intimidation. And there was no violence.
— Emma Stith (@Emma_Stith) May 30, 2020
Yesterday in New Jersey, protestors marched side by side with law enforcement, in peaceful demonstration against systemic racism and police violence.
We can – we MUST – march toward justice together. https://t.co/u09HrQvt03
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) May 31, 2020
Camden Freeholder Louis Capelli said that the outcome here was a result of “years of direct interaction, relationship building and community policing.”
In other words, the very opposite of threats, intimidation, and frightening demonstrations of military hardware.