Soldiers in the war at home

February 11, 2015

Helen Redmond explains how the "war on drugs" put police departments on the path toward viewing themselves as occupying armies in Black and Latino communities.

DURING LAST summer's protests against the police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, millions of Americans were stunned to see a heavily armed and violent army of RoboCops attacking peaceful protesters.

Snipers were perched on top of armored tanks that blocked roads, and teargas canisters were lobbed at demonstrators and the media. The city of Ferguson looked like a war zone.

One image in particular shocked people all over the world. It was a photo of a lone Black man on a sidewalk with his hands up, confronted by six heavily armed police officers. The police are clad in camouflage, wearing Kevlar vests and black helmets with gas masks attached and aiming high-powered rifles with scopes at close range at the unarmed man.

This frightening image--which looks for all the world like U.S. Marines fighting in Afghanistan--sums up the reality of policing in America today.

But the truth is that many of the pictures from Ferguson were old news for Black people who live in communities that are targeted and in some cases are virtually occupied by paramilitary-style police forces.

A SWAT officer poses in the back of an armored vehicle

Why does Ferguson--a small city of 21,000 with a crime rate close to average--have cops who look and act like soldiers ready for combat? The answer is the "war on drugs."

For decades, police departments in every state quietly became militarized in the name of fighting the drug war. How were the authorities able to justify this? By portraying drug users and people involved in drug trafficking as violent, dangerous criminals who threatened law and order.

Politicians in both parties have made drugs public enemy number one. Over the last two decades, Congress passed an astounding number of "tough-on-crime" bills that offer only punishment and long prison sentences for drug law offenses. The mainstream media have chimed in with drug panics based on lies or half-truths that demonize drugs, scapegoat drug users for social problems, and call for more police to crack down.

In this hysterical fearmongering atmosphere, police departments were transformed into paramilitary police units in order to stop the "scourge" of drugs and keep communities "safe."

THE TURN to a battlefield approach to drug law enforcement began under President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, but dramatically escalated during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. in the 1980s and early 1990s.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Republicans went drug-war-crazy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed converting unused army centers into mass detention centers for drug-law violators. William Bennett, a former "drug czar," floated the idea of declaring martial law in Washington, D.C., and enforcing it with the National Guard. Bennett told radio talk-show host Larry King on the air that he was in favor of beheading drug dealers.

When he was Bush Sr.'s Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney made the connection between drugs and defense clear when he wrote in a departmental publication: "The detection and countering of production, trafficking and use of illegal drugs is a high-priority national security mission at the Department of Defense."

No one in Congress tried to stop Reagan, least of all the Democrats led by Joe Biden and Charles Rangel, who accused Reagan and Bush Sr. of not passing enough draconian drug laws. A 1989 Ebony magazine article dubbed Rangel "The Front-Line General in the War on Drugs."

During the Reagan years, a series of laws were passed that brought the roles of the military and the police closer together.

The 1981 Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act amended the Posse Comitatus Act to allow the military to train civilian police in the use of military equipment and give them access to military bases.

In 1986, National Security Decision Directive 221 designated drugs a threat to U.S. national security and sanctioned joint operations between the military and local police.

In 1987, the National Defense Appropriations Act allowed the National Guard to work with local and federal law enforcement agencies in drug investigations.

The Democratic administration of Bill Clinton further blurred the lines between cops and military. In 1996, the Defense Department began the 1033 program, which gave law enforcement agencies military-grade weapons, surveillance technology, tanks with battering rams and body armor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that thanks to 1033, 500 law enforcement agencies own Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles--at no charge.

A "troops-to-cops" program called Community Orientated Policing Services (COPS) was created under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, subsidized by the Pentagon with $15 million in funding to hire returning veterans. According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Fred Pang:

Entering the law enforcement profession after military service enables separating men and women to continue serving their country by utilizing the skills and experiences that they acquired while in the Armed Forces. They leave the military with the self-discipline, physical fitness and ability to think on their feet necessary to be outstanding police officers.

Of course, Pang left out that one of the main skills taught by the military is the ability to kill.

THE DRUG war escalated in the Reagan years by targeting predominantly white marijuana growers in California and mainly Black crack cocaine users in major cities.

Humboldt County in northern California was the country's marijuana capital in this era. Pot growers, many of them veterans of the 1960s counterculture, defied the law against cannabis cultivation. The drug eradication operation mounted against them was dubbed Campaign Against Marijuana Production (CAMP), and it was Reagan's revenge against the dissenters he despised. The remote terrain and the Redwood forests of Humboldt County became theaters of war.

U-2 spy planes flew over the area in search of pot plants. Roadblocks went up, and people were pulled out of cars and held at gunpoint while their vehicles were searched. From Black Hawk helicopters hovering overhead, National Guard troops and DEA agents rappelled to the ground, smashed in doors, destroyed personal property and terrorized occupants in the search for marijuana. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units armed with M-16s invaded the fields of people suspected of growing pot.

Allison Osbourne described one drug raid to author Arnold Treback:

It seems that we are in Vietnam or Nicaragua. The helicopters chased [two 12-year-old-girls] up Perry Meadow Road, for about 20 minutes. When my daughter and her friend would hide under the bushes, the helicopters would lift up; when the girls would try to run to the nearest house, the 'copters would come again and frighten them...They saw guns, and thought they were going to be shot!

Radley Balko's book Rise of the Warrior Cop chronicles how CAMP went national. By 1984, 20,000 raids had been conducted, 5,000 people had been arrested, and 13 million marijuana plants had been destroyed. All these raids barely made a dent in marijuana cultivation and consumption, though, since pot farmers simply moved growing operations indoors.

In 1990, George Bush unleashed Operation Green Sweep. Two hundred soldiers armed with M-16 rifles, riding in military convoys and accompanied by low-flying Blackhawk helicopters, invaded South Humboldt. The soldiers were members of the Seventh Infantry Division who had recently been deployed to depose Panama's formerly U.S.-backed dictator Manuel Noreiga.

It was the first time in U.S. history that active-duty troops participated in a marijuana eradication campaign. Residents erupted in protest. "What's going on here isn't about marijuana," one protester told a reporter. "It's so Bush can show that he's fighting drugs here in America and then take his troops into foreign countries to do the same thing."

WHILE POT growers were terrorized, attacked and given long prison sentences under mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Los Angeles was ground zero in the urban crack wars.

From 1978 to 1992, infamous Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates presided over a full-scale military buildup of law enforcement. Gates is credited with creating the original SWAT unit. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he was one of the first police chiefs to bring modern warfare to major cities, with the "war on drugs" as a pretext.

Gates despised drug users. He once told a Senate committee that casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot." He was also obsessed with procuring military weapons to use against perceived enemies in the "war on drugs." In one drug raid on a suspected crack house, Gates rode in a tank with a battering ram attached to the front. The ram smashed a huge hole into the side of a house, but during the search, no crack was found.

Gates' SWAT teams were occupying armies in LA neighborhoods like Compton and South Central. Carrying assault weapons and wearing black ski masks, cops swooped down in helicopters, kicked in doors and threw flash-bang grenades to stun the occupants. They beat, shot and imprisoned thousands of Black youth suspected of drug use or dealing.

Gates' invasion of minority communities received little public scrutiny or condemnation, and police who injured or killed people in the raids were never prosecuted. When Black people died as a result of police chokeholds, Gates commented, "It seems to me that...we may be finding in some blacks when it [chokehold] is applied, the veins or the arteries don't open as fast as they do on normal people."

The war on marijuana ramped up under Bill Clinton, who as a presidential candidate confessed that he had smoked marijuana (but didn't inhale). Clinton opened a new front in the drug war by taking aim at patients who used medical marijuana.

Clinton's "drug czar" Barry McCaffrey was infuriated in 1996 when voters in California passed a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana for medical use. "There is not a shred of evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed," McCaffrey declared. "This is not science. This is not medicine. This is a cruel hoax."

Thousands of medical marijuana dispensaries have been shut down in paramilitary style, no-knock raids. Sick people have been arrested, sometimes in their beds. Suzanne Pfeil, a paraplegic, was asleep in her assisted living hospice when more than 20 armed federal agents stormed the building and held an assault rifle to her head.

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the process of police militarization accelerated. Now, the adoption of military tactics wouldn't be questioned if it was related even remotely to homeland security. The "war on terror" would provide cover for law enforcement to acquire additional battle gear and create more elite SWAT units for use in the "war on drugs."

The election of Barack Obama gave hope to many that the drug war would finally end or at least ease up. Obama promised to treat drug use as a public health issue and stop the raids on medical marijuana growers and dispensaries.

But like his predecessors, Democrat or Republican, Obama had to prove he was tough on drugs. Under his watch, the crackdown on medical marijuana escalated--the Feds raided more pot dispensaries than Bush did. "There's no question that Obama is the worst president on medical marijuana," Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Rolling Stone. "He's gone from first to worst."

Obama's crackdowns are quite hypocritical given the president's candid admission of his own pot smoking as a teenager.

Aggressive enforcement of the "war on drugs" continues with use of SWAT teams to execute drug warrants in low-level drug investigations. In a comprehensive report by the ACLU titled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing, researchers found that between 2011 and 2012, 62 percent of SWAT deployments were to search for drugs. The study documented that in 65 percent of these investigations the police used a battering ram or other breaching device to gain entry.

There are extreme racial disparities in who gets targeted by SWAT raids. According to the report, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment were Black and 12 percent were Latino. The vast majority of these raids were for drug cases. These raids continue to kill innocent people, too. In 2011, Eurie Stamp, an African-American grandfather of 12, was shot and killed during a SWAT drug raid. Stamp wasn't the target--his stepson, who wasn't home at the time, was.

The routine use of militarized police was subjected to the harsh light of public view during the Ferguson protests. The overwhelming aggression used against demonstrators was criticized by local politicians, clergy and human rights organizations. For the first time in its history, Amnesty International sent a team of observers to monitor protests in the U.S.

After the ensuing calls to demilitarize police departments, even the White House expressed concern. President Obama ordered a review of federal programs that supply local police forces with surplus military equipment.

But after a three-month investigation, the White House released a report that didn't recommend ending or even scaling back the programs. The report instead perpetuated the lie that the misuse of military equipment by law enforcement is a "training" and oversight issue, not a choice to be deliberately violent or confrontational. The major recommendation was for police to wear body cameras.

Obama and other politicians won't demilitarize American police forces or end the "war on drugs" without mass pressure from below. Organizations in the Black Lives Matter movement are rightly starting to call for the elimination of the 1033 program; the transfer of resources from law enforcement to schools; housing and jobs for the Black community; and, above all, the end of the drug war.

These grassroots organizations that mobilized thousands of people in protests across the country have the potential to win these demands and end the madness of treating drug use with tanks and machine guns.

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