Tip of the Iceberg: Police Militarisation in the BLM Movement

Illustration by Felice Tang

By Justin Cheng
Published on November 28th, 2020

To say that the widely documented death of George Floyd has given rise to a maelstrom of acrimony, enmity and hostility is a vast understatement. Ascendant sentiments have compelled millions across not only the United States but the world to take to the streets, at an awe-striking magnitude. This can best be epitomized in Neal Carren’s speech, who is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s, stating that “I’ve never seen self-reports of protest participation that high for a specific issue over such a short period.” Even if the most conservative estimate is used and assuming only half surveyees actually protested, it is suggested that more than seven million people have participated, a number that outstrips even the Women’s March of 2017 (which had around 3 to 5 million people, albeit on a single day).

Ironically and depressingly, these resurgent protests about police brutality have been met with wave after wave of police brutality. In Washington DC, a video of Australian journalist Tim Myers being hit by a riot shield has spread like wildfire. In Buffalo, two officers shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground, letting his blood spill on the sidewalk; he is now reported to be gravely ill. In Philadelphia, an officer was captured to have used a baton to hit a man, before he was pinned to the ground by the officer and another official. In Los Angeles, rubber bullets (which have been researched to cause permanent injury to around 15% of those being hit) were widely utilised because police departments across the country had stockpiled on them, mostly from the military. It is also crucial to note that for every high-profile story that makes its way onto the global spotlight, countless others are pushed to the sidelines as they are embroiled in endemic lack of awareness. To this day, African Americans are disproportionately arrested and beaten up by police officials and suffer from the brunt of excessive, intolerable violence; especially when 72% of full-time, sworn officers in the U.S. are white, which itself could have an impact on police brutality.

However, this issue’s roots lie in the 1980s, when crime rates were rising starkly and drug-related crime was rampant. In an effort to calm the populace, garner political support as well as to gain an edge, President Ronald Reagan adopted a ‘hard-on-crime’ strategy which involved the integration amongst the military and the police. Apart from numerous training drills, the now infamous 1033 Program (otherwise known as the Law Enforcement Support Office program) authorised the transfer of leftover military equipment to the police, granting them access to grenades and assault rifles and grenade launchers. Even though the Program was suspended under President Barack Obama’s administration where he issued an executive order in 2015, after the merciless killing of a black life in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri became national news, the fact that vast amounts of equipment had already been purchased before the Executive Order already meant that police militarisation was ‘over the tipping point’, further exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s reversal of the policy. This means that more and more weapons have ended up in countless police bureaus across the States, further strengthening their capacity and widening polarisation.

This could just be the tip of the iceberg as to why police brutality is so proliferant: an insight would be how police officers have been stuck in an echo chamber, constantly bombarded by pro-police rhetoric. In 1998, after a violent altercation from a white man named Andrew Brannan for spreading, Kyle Dinkheller was shot to death, an incident that is widely known amongst police as the “Dinkheller video”. Ever since its occurrence, police academies across the United States have used it, with one even adopting it into a video game-style simulation where the officer’s demise can be averted if they killed Brannan instead. This flight-or-fight mentality not only over exacerbates the possibility of violent confrontations, radicalising the police; it also advocates the use of violence in such scenarios and glorifies it. As the narrative continues to circulate to this day within American police stations, where oversight is limited and sentiments are skyrocketing, this could be a cause for why St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile in 2016 after having been exposed to the Dinkheller video when he was in police training, resulting in a grisly death that prompted national outrage.

While it is indisputable that selective cases have been shown to succeed, such as one or two elusive raids that have restored law and order, it has been proven that this could be detrimental to the social fabric of local communities. Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the racial justice project of the ACLU of Michigan, said that the approach to military equipment was counterintuitive to developing one-one-one contacts with their communities.“That becomes very difficult if they are rolling through neighborhoods in a tank or goggles where you can’t see their eyes, heavy armor, high-powered rifles,” he argued.” Rather than community-based policing, Fancher said officers are viewed and see themselves as “warriors.” He adds, “Law enforcement culture encourages the exact opposite of de escalation,”. This only adds to the aforementioned fears and insecurities that have been embedded into innumerable officers across the United States, pushing them to either utilise their highly destructive weapons, or resort to batons and rubber bullets. This is accentuated by President Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments, stating that ‘if the looting starts, the shooting starts’. Not only is this vastly unrepresentative of the vast majority of American protests who regard the BLM movement as peaceful and non-aggressive- it simplifies ideas further down to a black-white paradigm, where the police have a propensity to view themselves as galant heroes fighting against a tide of injustice. It is the waves of desensitization and repetitive goose-feeding of such rhetoric that ultimately pushes some police officials in the States to the edge, causing almost irreversible damage to community relationships as well as their integrity and trust.

On the other hand, peace has been shown to be the way to go, even when protests sometimes are provoked to violence. The Madison Method, named after a violent dispute which surprisingly ended well in the area of Madison, Wisconsin, the United States, acts as a glimmering beacon of hope for non-aggression. After the Ohio National Guard shot nonproocative college students in Kent State University in 1970, killing four and injuring nine, tensions were high: students were throwing rocks at police. David Couper, the police chief, however, told officers not to return fire, nor even to violently. Resist. He instructed them to wear blue blazers to blend in with the protesters and talk to them, weapons concealed, and to pass out handouts stating that they were there to accompany the protest and to regulate traffic. Even though this came at the cost of internal backlash- some officers even tried to get him fired- his crowd-control tactics have not only served Madison for 21 years under Mr Couper’s authority, but also have posed as a relevant strategy to curtail violence.

While institutional racism and police brutality has been ongoing for almost the entire history of the United States, despite significant strides to reduce such discrepancies and to hold the police accountable, it is simply upsetting to see its extent even today, best symbolised in the massive backlash among society. While long-term measures such as reforming the police force from within through better accountability measures, removing sensationalist videos and pushing for diversification are definitely goals to strive for, one could argue that the prevalence of police militarisation is the most urgent problem to date in this issue; it upends societies, fans violence and exacerbates animosity. With the critical mass accumulated from weeks of protest, the solution is clear as day. Remove their weapons. Talk to protestors. Educate officers about non-aggression. Only by doing so that the situation in the United States can start to stabilise and that societies can begin to heal, and finally make a right step in the quagmire of 2020.

Works Cited

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Hartocollis, Anemona, and Yamiche Alcindor. “Women's March Highlights as Huge Crowds Protest Trump: 'We're Not Going Away'.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 21, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/womens-march.html.

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Bjorhus, Jennifer. “Officer Who Shot Castile Attended 'Bulletproof Warrior' Training.” Star Tribune. Star Tribune, July 14, 2016. https://www.startribune.com/officer-in-castile-case-attended-bulletproof-warrior-training/386717431/.

racosta1@mlive.com, Roberto Acosta |. “Military Gear May Hurt Police Image More than Help Public Safety.” mlive, July 4, 2020. https://www.mlive.com/news/2020/07/military-gear-may-hurt-police-image-more-than-help-public-safety.html.

Shabad, Rebecca. “Where Does the Phrase 'When the Looting Starts, the Shooting Starts' Come from?” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, May 29, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/where-does-phrase-when-looting-starts-shooting-starts-come-n1217676.

Yu, Alan. “Can Science Offer Police a Better Way to Handle Protests?” WHYY. WHYY, November 15, 2019. https://whyy.org/segments/can-science-offer-police-a-better-way-to-handle-protests/.

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