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Militarized police are now a fact of life nationwide.
Sometimes a single story has a way of standing in for everything you need to know. In the case of the up-arming, up-armoring, and militarization of police forces across the country, there is such a story. Not the police, mind you, but the campus cops at Ohio State University now possess an MRAP; that is, a $500,000, 18-ton, mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle of a sort used in the Afghan War and, as Hunter Stuart of the Huffington Post reported, built to withstand “ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IEDs, and nuclear, biological, and chemical environments.” Sounds like just the thing for bouts of binge drinking and post-football-game shenanigans.
That MRAP came, like so much other equipment police departments are stocking up on — from tactical military vests, assault rifles, and grenade launchers to actual tanks and helicopters — as a freebie via a Pentagon-organized surplus military equipment program. As it happens, police departments across the country are getting MRAPs like OSU’s, including the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota. It’s received one of 18 such decommissioned military vehicles already being distributed around that state. So has Warren County which, like a number of counties in New York state, some quite rural, is now deploying Afghan War-grade vehicles. (Nationwide, rural counties have received a disproportionate percentage of the billions of dollars worth of surplus military equipment that has gone to the police in these years.)
When questioned on the utility of its new MRAP, Warren County Sheriff Bud York suggested, according to the Post-Star, the local newspaper, that “in an era of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and mass killings in schools, police agencies need to be ready for whatever comes their way… The vehicle will also serve as a deterrent to drug dealers or others who might be contemplating a show of force.” So, breathe a sigh of relief, Warren County is ready for the next al-Qaeda-style show of force and, for those fretting about how to deal with such things, there are now 165 18-ton “deterrents” in the hands of local law enforcement around the country, with hundreds of requests still pending.
You can imagine just how useful an MRAP is likely to be if the next Adam Lanza busts into a school in Warren County, assault rifle in hand, or takes over a building at Ohio State University. But keep in mind that we all love bargains and that Warren County vehicle cost the department less than $10. (Yes, you read that right!) A cornucopia of such Pentagon “bargains” has, in the post-9/11 years, played its part in transforming the way the police imagine their jobs and in militarizing the very idea of policing in this country.
Just thinking about that MRAP at OSU makes me feel like I grew up in Neolithic America. After all, when I went to college in the early 1960s, campus cops were mooks in suits. Gun-less, they were there to enforce such crucial matters as “parietal hours.” (If you’re too young to know what they were, look it up.) At their worst, they faced what in those still civilianized (and sexist) days were called “panty raids,” but today would undoubtedly be seen as potential manifestations of a terrorist mentality. Now, if there is a sit-in or sit-down on campus, as infamously at the University of California, Davis, during the Occupy movement, expect that the demonstrators will be treated like enemies of the state and pepper-sprayed or perhaps Tased. And if there’s a bona fide student riot in town, the cops will now roll out an armored vehicle (as they did recently in Seattle).
By the way, don’t think it’s just the weaponry that’s militarizing the police. It’s a mentality as well that, like those weapons, is migrating home from our distant wars. It’s a sense that the U.S., too, is a “battlefield” and that, for instance, those highly militarized SWAT teams spreading to just about any community you want to mention are made up of “operators” (a “term of art” from the special operations community) ready to deal with threats to American life.
Embedding itself chillingly in our civilian world, that battlefield is proving mobile indeed. As Chase Madar wrote for TomDispatch the last time around, it leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court. Today, Madar returns to explain just how this particular nightmare is spreading into every crevice of American life. Tom
The Over-Policing of America
Police Overkill Has Entered the DNA of Social Policy
By Chase Madar
If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves “solving” social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.