The August 19 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the protests that followed have focused attention on the militarization of police in the United States. Police overreach, especially in African-American neighborhoods, is nothing new: it was Marquette Frye’s confrontation with California Highway Patrol officers on Aug. 11, 1965, that sparked the Watts Riots in Los Angeles almost half a century ago. But much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s: American police are a lot more militarized than they were back then, and many of the checks and balances that made the U.S. a democratic republic have been eroded by both courts and politicians. Here are 10 events of recent decades that have encouraged the growth of a police state in the U.S. and promoted the type of toxic environment in which unarmed Brown was shot six times.
1. Ronald Reagan Escalates the War on Drugs
Although the war on drugs started under President Richard Nixon and continued under the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, it was expanded considerably during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president. Reagan proved to be much more draconian than Nixon, aggressively promoting militarized no-knock drug raids, asset forfeiture laws and mandatory minimum sentences, especially for crack cocaine. The drug war has greatly increased the prison population and placed a heavy burden on taxpayers, as well as imperiled many innocent Americans. Since the 1980s, there have been countless examples of narcotics officers targeting the wrong house or apartment for a no-knock SWAT raid, brandishing assault weapons and killing or injuring innocent people who had nothing to do with drugs. And when that happens, the officers hardly ever face incarceration or even civil charges.
2. Rodney King Beating of 1991
History repeats itself, and in 1992, 27 years after the Watts Riots, the acquittal of four white police officers who had viciously beaten Rodney King (an African-American motorist who led them on a high-speed chase) was followed by rioting that brought more deaths than the 1965 riots. King, by his own admission, was no saint, but a video of the March 3, 1991 beating clearly demonstrated that the officers crossed the line from legitimately subduing him (which they had every right to do) to being downright sadistic and acting in a spirit of revenge. Said then LA mayor Tom Bradley (a former LAPD lieutenant), “The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” Bradley’s comments were hardly anti-law enforcement; he was proud of the years he had spent on the force. Rather, Bradley’s point was that instead of letting King have his day in court, the officers acted as judge and jury. And their acquittal encouraged a climate of authoritarianism in the United States.
3. 9/11 Terrorist Attacks
With the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda was hoping to destabilize the U.S. and weaken its standing in the world. And the George W. Bush administration played right into al-Qaeda’s hands, promoting a climate of fear and intimidation with the blessing of a Republican-dominated Congress. The Bush years brought a variety of authoritarian, anti-Fourth Amendment measures, from the Patriot Act of 2001 to no-fly lists to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead of defying al-Qaeda by celebrating the U.S.’ long tradition of constitutional law, the Bush administration made the war on terror a war on American democracy.
4. Waterboarding and Torture at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base
After 9/11, the U.S. crossed a dangerous line when the CIA, with the blessing of the George W. Bush administration, openly supported the use of waterboarding on detainees at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. During the Cold War, the U.S. allied itself with a long list of fascist regimes that practiced torture. But it wasn’t until the post-9/11 era that an American vice president, Dick Cheney, came right out and flaunted the use of torture by the U.S. government itself.
5. Growth and Expansion of Asset Forfeiture Laws
During the Ronald Reagan years, asset forfeiture laws were aggressively promoted as part of the war on drugs. But abuses in the name of asset forfeiture have become much more widespread since the 1980s, and there have been countless examples of police seizing property under the pretense that some type of crime might have been committed. If a motorist pulled over by police for having a broken taillight is carrying $600 in cash, the officer can confiscate that cash and claim there was reason to believe the money was being used in connection with a crime. Even if there is no arrest or evidence of wrongdoing and no charges are filed, the person still has to hire a lawyer to try getting the money back. The property is guilty until proven innocent. Civil forfeiture laws are an assault on the Fourth Amendment and in effect, turn American police departments into common thieves.
6. National Defense Authorization Act and Erosion of Habeas Corpus
Historically, one of the many positive things about the U.S. was its recognition of habeas corpus, the right to be spared indefinite detention without a trial. But the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Dec. 31, 2011, gives the U.S. military the right to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely without trial. If a U.S. citizen is declared an enemy combatant, indefinite detention without trial is possible. Journalists Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky have both been part of an anti-NDAA lawsuit, arguing that the NDAA is an attack on Americans’ right to habeas corpus.
7. Department of Homeland Security Promoting Militarization of Local Police Departments
The militarization of American police departments escalated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Department of Homeland Security launched a program that provides military surplus equipment to American police departments (including the type of weapons used by the U.S. soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Police departments in Des Moines, Iowa or Fargo, North Dakota now have the type of military weapons they didn’t have access to in the past. This disturbing trend has continued in the Barack Obama era; in 2011, the Department of Homeland Security gave $2 billion in grants for local police departments to obtain military weapons.
8. Growth of the Prison/Industrial Complex
Anti-drug laws and prosecutions became much more draconian in the 1980s and ’90s, turning imprisonment into a huge industry. From manufacturers of prison uniforms to companies that sell food to prisons, the prison-industrial complex has an interest in locking up as many people as possible. The U.S. incarcerates, per capita, more adults than any another country in the world (716 per 100,000 people in 2012 compared to only 79 per 100,000 in Germany or 82 per 100,000 in the Netherlands, according to the Center for Prison Studies in London). Especially disturbing are the growth of privately owned prisons, which the American Civil Liberties Union has vehemently opposed. In 2010, the ACLU sued the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (the U.S.’ largest private prison company) because of extremely violent conditions in one of its prisons, the Idaho Correctional Center. That year, ACLU senior attorney Stephen Pevar was quoted as saying that in his 39 years of suing prisons and jails, he had “never confronted a more disgraceful, revolting and inexcusable case of mass abuse and federal rights violations than this one.” In 2013, a federal judge held the CCA in contempt of court for understaffing the Idaho Correctional Center.
9. NYPD Assault On Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street was (and still is) a peaceful movement that used nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to protest against the bailouts of large banks and the financial sector’s assault on the American middle class. But the response of the New York Police Department to the Occupy protests of 2011 and 2012 was far from nonviolent, and the NYPD’s heavy-handed treatment of the protestors sent out a message that challenging corporate power can be dangerous. Gerald Celente spoke the truth when he said that the NYPD had become, in effect, “enforcers for the crime bosses” (the crime bosses being the banksters and Wall Street). And the banksters enjoyed a major victory when Occupy activist Cecily McMillan was, in effect, incarcerated for challenging corporate power. McMillan was arrested on March 17, 2012 during a demonstration at New York City’s Zuccotti Park, where she said that NYPD plainclothes officer Grantley Bovel forcefully grabbed her right breast from behind, and McMillan, not knowing he was a cop, responded by elbowing him in the face. McMillan was charged with assaulting a police officer, convicted and sentenced to three months at Rikers Island. The message was clear: protest Wall Street’s criminality, and the consequences will be severe.