You Better Sit Again, Citizen
Radley Balko, author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop was on Democracy Now! last Friday talking about the increased militarization of police departments across the US. One part of his interview really stood out to me, where he discusses a commercial for the armored personnel carriers we’ve been seeing on the news, the BearCat manufactured by Lenco. (The photo above shows a Lenco BearCat in action last week, in suburban Boise, Idaho, via KTVB.)
…a few years ago, I wrote about a town in New Hampshire that sort of rebelled against this. Their town was going to buy a BearCat with one of these [Department of Homeland Security] grants. And what I thought was fascinating was I interviewed somebody from the Lenco company and asked him about this, and he said this is all overblown, that if a BearCat shows up on the scene, it’s much more likely to be filled with crisis negotiators and psychiatrists than it is with, you know, militarized cops.
And I found a video that Lenco sends to police departments across the country to market the BearCats. This is what they send them so that they’ll want to buy a BearCat with this DHS money. And the video shows camouflage-clad police officers piled into the BearCat. It shows up. They get out. They start shooting things. At one point it pokes a hole into a building and injects tear gas. And it was all set to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You know, these are not images and sounds of crisis negotiators or de-escalation experts. This was all about militarism. This was all about conflicts and aggression. And that’s how the company markets this piece of equipment to police departments, which I think says a lot.
So I went online and found Lenco’s “commercial” for the BearCat, myself, check it out, this is Officer Friendly’s wet dream of what he wants to do to you:
WE ARE GOING TO PROTECT AND SERVE THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF YOU
Scary, right? Isn’t there a law against this? Coitus interruptus or something?
Balko talks, too, about the cops’ uniforms and the state of mind they create/reflect:
When police officers are wearing camouflage, it sends a very clear message to the community that they’re supposed to be serving. It also affects the mindset of the police officer himself. You know, the idea that when we take domestic police officers and we train them like soldiers and we give them military gear and we dress them up like soldiers and we tell them they’re fighting a war—you know, war on crime or war on terror—they’re going to start to see themselves as soldiers. And that’s just a mindset that’s not—that really isn’t appropriate for domestic policing. And I think you saw that in the way that they responded to protests—not just in Ferguson, but also, you know, a lot of the crackdowns on the Occupy protesters, on the crackdowns at the political conventions over the years. I mean, this has become our default response to protest in the U.S., and it’s something that, you know, I think could be very antagonistic toward the very idea of free speech and the First Amendment.
He is right, too, that “this has become our default response to protest in the U.S.” I have been part of a lot of street protests over the past 15 years. Things really changed after the Seattle WTO protests of November 1999. (9/11 just accelerated and justified changes that were already afoot by then.) I didn’t make it to Seattle, but one of the most vivid, earliest experiences I had with a militarized police force was less than a year after Seattle, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, in August 2023, where I was protesting our “two-party” farce.
The LA DNC of 2023 was the first time I was aware of an official “free speech zone,” or “protest pit,” in the United States. Prior to that, most of us thought that the First Amendment applied everywhere, that the whole US was a “Free Speech Zone.” Nope. Cops would set us straight before the convention was over.
Off to the side of the Staples Center, where no delegates or “important people” would have to smell or even see the ugly protestors (aka their “constituents”), the City of Los Angeles had cordoned off one section of parking lot with concrete barriers that held up a chain-link fence. Someone had spray-painted “Checkpoint Charlie” on one stretch of concrete barriers, after the famous checkpoint on the Berlin Wall. Young punks loved climbing that fence to wave black flags from the top.
One evening during the convention, there was an Ozomatli and Rage Against the Machine concert scheduled for the protest pit. I got there good and early. Anti-abortion protestors stood at the edge of the protest pit with giant, blown-up, graphic photos of aborted fetuses. Riot cops wearing helmets with reflective face-shields down, holding batons and pepper-spray guns and so heavily armored that not an inch of skin showed, making them resemble robots more than humans, were lined up in rows, five-deep, along every street for blocks. Police snipers peered down their scopes from all the rooftops. Horse cops menaced and intimidated from the perimeter, while two police choppers hovered so low above the stage that they effectively drowned out Rage Against the Machine-which is no easy task-while providing a refreshing breeze, at least.
Against this backdrop on the side of the Hotel Figueroa, loomed a giant, whole side-of-a-building-sized billboard for Apple/Macintosh bearing images of JFK, MLK, Gandhi, Einstein and a host of other iconic faces. In the center of the billboard with the Apple logo and the well-known catch phrase, “Think Different.”
Mmhm. LAPD would show us what happens to people who dare to “think different” before the night was over, just as St. Louis County Police is showing the good people in Ferguson that there are limits to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
And then, predictably, when cops on horses rushed the crowd, a riot broke out.
Anyway, check out Newsweek on the history of the militarization of police in the US. (War on Drugs. War on Crime. War on Poverty. Etc.)
If that makes you sad, “How we’d cover Ferguson if it happened abroad” might lighten the mood a bit, though it is so accurate it’s painful.
Here, listen to some Wilco while you read Nick Cooper’s article about anti-anti-war protestors.
Or how about some Gang Starr? See if you can place this article’s title.