OWS, Police Miltarization, the Spread of Dissent

We’ve had several weeks of jaw-dropping news of jackbooted police brutality around the country. A young veteran in shot in the head with a rubber bullet and hospitalized with brain injuries. An 84 year old woman and a pregnant girl are pepper sprayed in Seattle. A NYC Councilman is beaten and arrested in a violent crackdown on OWS protests in Zucotti Park. Journalists are arrested and beaten the same night, and a free press is curtailed through official order.

Honestly, the United States seem more like second tier countries like Egypt, Syria, Sudan, and China every day. Telling is the lack of substantive comment from elected officials. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the events of the past month should be cause for outrage.

But yet… nothing.

Last night, NYU students protesting tuition hikes and the ballooning influence of private money on University administration clashed with police as they tried to burst in to a trustees meeting. Police used batons to push the students out of the building and to beat them into submission. 15 people were arrested and a police officer was hospitalized for chest pains.

If NYU is any indication, the escalating military style violence of police is hardening citizen protesters and emboldening people to speak out.

A series of articles appeared right after the event at UC Davis, most decrying the saddening trend of police militarization around the United States. UC Davis faculty member Bob Osterberg wrote an on-the-ground criticism of the UC Davis police and on the disturbing technological and organization upgrade of police power at all levels of law enforcement. Even former Seattle police check Norm Stamper, who was in charge during the famous Seattle WTO protests which involved tens of thousands, has spoken out against this frightening trend in law-enforcement.

The Academy has long taken note of this trend, from this paper in 1998 (before the war on terror), to this list of a number of papers on the militaristic incursion of law enforcement into poor and minority communities. Here is an excellent article outlining the evolution of the gradual organizational upgrade of US police, specifically pointing to an important 1994 bill which authorized the US military to donate old equipment to local law enforcement:

The main culprit was a 1994 law authorizing the Pentagon to donate surplus military equipment to local police departments. In the 17 years since, literally millions of pieces of equipment designed for use on a foreign battlefield have been handed over for use on U.S. streets, against U.S. citizens. Another law passed in 1997 further streamlined the process. As National Journal reported in 2000, in the first three years after the 1994 law alone, the Pentagon distributed 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers, and 112 armored personnel carriers to civilian police agencies across America. Domestic police agencies also got bayonets, tanks, helicopters and even airplanes.

The CATO Institute produced a frightening 2006 whitepaper on the move from traditional law-enforcement models to strategies which differ little from those of militaries fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Libertarians espouse the need for then entire American populace to be armed, though if this paper is any indication, that strategy is futile. Police, in response to wide availability of guns and mass advances in popular gun technology, simply respond by upgrading their own. It is no surprise, then, that a heavily reactionary and organized police force will use heavy handed means to suppress any perceived threat to security.

Personally, I find disturbing the combination of state control, advances in weapons technology and military strategy (defense and weapons industry), a culture of surveillance, and the perceived need to suppress “dangerous elements” (drug dealers, terrorists and poor people) and the dehumanization and willingness to do violence against members of these groups (torture, “enhanced” interrogation) to be a self-sustaining, escalating cycle. Note, the important role of technology and training in maintaining South African apartheid, for example, or the important role of new crowd suppression technologies being implemented in Egypt, for example.

Regardless of one’s political bent, the increasing power of federal, state and local governments to suppress political dissent and protect private interests should give one pause to consider what kind of future we create for ourselves. Fortunately, though, the populace appears unfazed, as the brave level of restraint by UC Davis protesters shows. It is debatable, however, how long this restraint will last.

Update: The pregnant woman who was pepper sprayed in Seattle appears to have miscarried.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “OWS, Police Miltarization, the Spread of Dissent”

  1. Fernando desu says :

    But you see that is the freedom of choice. There needs to be gun factories because they create jobs. Then guns need to be sold to help the economy and to grant the right of self-defense that arises because people can buy the guns that create jobs and help the economy. Then surplus guns used to kill somewhere else can be use to kill domestically. Anyways, the freedom for business is always well defended, so check the shares of gun companies, since their profits are guaranteed and in the race for life what matters is to get ahead of somebody else, not to move ahead.

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