The militarization of law enforcement in the United States began in earnest in 1990 when Congress enacted Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization A(“Act”) which authorized the nation’s Defense Department to transfer surplus military equipment (such as small arms and ammunition) to police departments around the country. The 1208 provision lasted for seven years.
Military Equipment Used in War on Drugs
The Act was amended in 1997 with Section 1033. This section effectively stated that the transfer of surplus military equipment would be for “counter-terrorism.” Police departments, however, saw Section 1033 as the perfect vehicle to expand their “war on drugs.” The types of equipment transferred from the military to the police included mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAPs) vehicles, fixed wing and rotary aircraft, boats, sniper gear, and M-16s.
According to 2012 Census Bureau statistics, there are roughly 285 cities in the U.S. with a population of 100,000 or more. That means there are 285 independent, free-standing militarized police forces in this country whose primary purpose is to control, not protect and serve, the community.
Political Protest v. Law Enforcement
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all people, citizens and non-citizens, the right to peacefully assemble and present their grievances to local, state and federal governments. The police have never been friendly to this First Amendment guarantee, as exampled by the mass arrests of women in 1917 protesting for the right to vote and the brutal beatings of African American protestors in the 1950-60s seeking equal rights.
The use of militarized police to suppress First Amendment protests is now more violent and widespread as evidenced by the 2011 assaults on the Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York City, on the Michael Brown shooting protestors in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and on the Donald Trump protestors in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona.
The most recent example of militarized police suppression of a First Amendment protest occurred on August 4 when Portland police declared a right-wing Patriot Prayer march a “civil disturbance” and used “flash bangs” to disperse the marchers and counter-protestors. David Rogers, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, issued this statement after the violence:
“The Portland Police Bureau’s response to protest is completely unacceptable in a free society. The repeated use of excessive force, and the targeting of demonstrators based on political beliefs are a danger to the First Amendment rights of all people. We call on the Portland Police Bureau, Mayor Wheeler, and Chief Outlaw to immediately end the use of weapons, munitions, and explosives against protestors.”
Right to Peaceful Assembly
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly recognized the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to conduct a peaceful public assembly. And while the government may set time, place, and manner of assembly, and while legislatures may enact laws that prohibit people from staging violent assemblies, law enforcement in this country cannot, or should not, use third-world military tactics to suppress the expression of political beliefs. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, President Barak Obama had this to say:
“There is never an excuse for violence against the police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights. And here in the United States of America, police not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”
Deployment of Military Equipment
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder followed the president’s lead by telling the American public that “at a time when we must seek to rebuilt trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
The current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, appears to consider the militarized police forces as his own private army that should quell all civil disobedience against him and labels journalists the “enemy of the people” for exposing his corruption, his betrayals of the nation’s national security interests, and his proclivity for maintaining “enemies’ lists.” The president and his loyalists recognize only one amendment to the Constitution: the Second Amendment. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer steadfastly believes he is “above the rule of law” and thereby sets the example for all of the nation’s militarized police to follow: the right to kill at will.
This nation has entered unprecedented dangerous, perilous times when the very rule of law and its democratic institutions are at risk. The president’s verbal assaults on the First Amendment and the physical assaults on the amendment by the militarized police threaten the very democratic fabric that has held this nation together for past 227 years—all in the name of “make America great again.”
Those four words may be etched on the tombstone of American Democracy.