Last week, President Barack Obama announced that he would end the federal government’s policy of giving some kinds of used military equipment to local police forces. This move was in response to criticism that law enforcement officers had used military equipment to quiet civil unrest in several American cities, most notably Baltimore, Md.
Sadly, Obama’s actions are just another example of the president’s too-little-too-late approach to governance. The truth is, Obama is not the wild-eyed radical the hard right paints him as. In reality, he’s about as radical as a cup of warm water.
Now, I’m not going to dwell on what the right-wing bloggers think about this latest move by the president. To be honest, I have about as much use for the noise generated by Breitbart and their ilk as I do for the mainstream media, which routinely fails to accurately report the problems with modern-day American policing. It’s just not worth it to delve into that cesspool of stupid.
After all, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the rhetoric of people who spend half their time talking about the need to maintain a stockpile of weapons in their homes to defend against an invasion of federal forces and the other half passionately defending the 145 automatic weapons that Charleston County police forces have purchased from the federal government over the last few decades.
It’s also not terribly important to dwell on those who try to pin the militarization of the police on George W. Bush. If you remember, Bush merely expanded the program authorized by Bill Clinton in 1997, which itself was a continuation of a program dating back to the end of World War II. Both parties are guilty of bringing about increasingly militarized police forces across the nation.
What is important, however, is the alarming fact that our police officers look more and more like occupying armies in the communities they ostensibly protect and serve. It’s important to note that Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said that his force returned a military style vehicle not because it was an affront to the Constitution, but, rather, because “it just wasn’t practical.”
Now, I’m sure there might be some instances where the police are honestly “outnumbered and outgunned,” but it seems that when those instances occur, as they did recently in Waco, Texas, when armed bikers opened fire on each other and police, the response is often, shall we say, mild. Then again, the violence in Waco has been described by the media as a “brawl” or “rumble” for some reason. I can’t imagine what the headlines would have been if this had taken place in Baltimore or Ferguson or Chicago.
Yet there’s still a larger issue here besides the possibility that the police react differently to threats involving one group of citizens over another. The simple fact is that, under the pretexts of security and safety, America has allowed itself to become protected, on the inside as much as it is on the outside, by heavily armed men and women in large vehicles with questionable amounts of training who follow bad policies.
What we need now, as I have said in regards to body cameras for police, is not adding or subtracting gear and equipment to our police forces. If we truly believe in a world where a nation of Officer Friendlys regularly sit down with young men at small-town lunch counters, we need to do a better job of asking our local governments to do a better job of determining who they hand a gun and badge to. Otherwise, we’re left with a situation that might be worse than an out-of-control populace burning and looting buildings. We might actually find ourselves occupied by a domestic army who are as heavily armed as the military and can act with complete impunity.
Then again, some of our fellow citizens have been living under similar conditions for quite some time now. Just consider the words of James Baldwin, who in 1968 wrote in The Nation, “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”
Any American truly concerned about freedom and liberty might do well to heed these words and consider whether or not we can continue to allow our police departments to look and act just like our military.
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