August 15, 2014

To Protect and Serve?

The fact you can’t distinguish between the Army and the police is very disturbing.

Over the last several days, the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, has been ground zero in racial strife, bringing back bad memories of bygone eras and places like Watts, Detroit and Newark. After the fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in what Barack Obama called “heartbreaking and tragic circumstances,” the streets in the region have turned violent with rampant arson and looting, including reports of Molotov cocktails being thrown at police.

> Update: Brown was the prime suspect in a convenience store robbery, but that wasn’t the reason for his encounter with police.

Yet while the scenes of devastation to businesses are troubling, just as disturbing are the images of large numbers of police tactical units looking more like they were entering Fallujah than Ferguson. While much of the racial strife of the 1960s (as well as the 1992 Los Angeles riots) took place with the backdrop of war, historically military involvement only occurred when National Guard troops were called in to restore order. But now, police have armaments and firepower similar to that of the National Guard, a fact not lost on either local citizens or outside observers.

In terms of equipment and tactics, the merger of police and military began in earnest during the “War on Drugs” in the late 1980s, with Section 1208 in the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act formally allowing the transfer of “personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is … suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and … excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” With military efforts winding down in Afghanistan and done-but-not-done in Iraq, there is plenty of surplus equipment such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to give to local police departments – to better present an intimidating image. So far, $4.3 billion in equipment has been transferred.

This tactic of intimidation provoked a strong reaction from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who wrote in a TIME op-ed, “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies – where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.”

So a situation that was already tense thanks to the imbalance between the racial composition of the city and its police department, as well as reportedly unfair enforcement, was made worse by the paramilitary police response. Yet while Obama appealed for calm and “an open and transparent process to see that justice is done,” he didn’t mention the militarization of the police. Of course Democratic Party is all about government power.

Missouri Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon has moved to place the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge of security around the Ferguson area to replace the St. Louis County personnel who have handled the crisis since its inception. Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, a black native of Ferguson, is now in charge as the state seeks to de-escalate the situation.

But some in the race-baiting crowd don’t think this goes far enough. Witness the call by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a frequent exploiter of racial strife, for Barack Obama to “declare martial law” and “federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect people as they protest.” Instead of local police bearing repurposed military equipment to maintain order, Lewis wants the National Guard to stand against police. Yeah, that’ll fix it.

We may never know exactly what happened between the Ferguson police officer and Michael Brown, as reports seem to vary depending on the witness. It’s been a tragedy that has affected far more than the family of the deceased, though, as businesses have been looted and vandalized, affecting workers and customers alike.

But regardless of that outcome, the growing American police state has been on display in Ferguson, and all advocates of Liberty should have reservations about the militarization of local police departments across the nation. While most law enforcement officials at the local, state and federal level abide, first and foremost, by their oaths “to Support and Defend” our Constitution and the Liberty it enshrines, a few have forgotten who they are obligated to “protect and serve.”

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