The issue of police violence and brutality remains ubiquitous in the United States, particularly with regard to police killings of unarmed people of colour that resulted in such widespread protests late last year, most notably in Ferguson.
The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, now so well publicised, are, sadly, just two tragic examples of an unsettling combination of incredible militarisation and institutionalised racism in the police force. Militarisation of the police force has continued apace since 9/11, as civilian police adopt military-style weaponry, armoured vehicles and tactics. Meanwhile, a culture of racism is pervasive across the police force and reflects an inherently prejudiced and discriminatory justice system. In 2015 alone, by the 13th of March killedbypolice.net had recorded 217 people killed by law enforcement officers, while it is estimated that over 5,000 civilians have been killed by the police since 9/11 – more than the number of American troops who have lost their lives in Iraq. The police routinely and disproportionately target African-Americans, which is indicative of broader societal issues within America.
To put it bluntly, racism is alive and well in twenty-first century America; it is inherent in the police force and wider American society. For any progress to be achieved, it must first be acknowledged that America is far from a colour-blind country and that white supremacy is a significant contributor to incidents such as the killing of Michael Brown last August. Emails exchanged between officers in the Ferguson police department reveal an ingrained culture of racism that demonstrably influences the officers’ prejudiced behaviour towards black people, in the form of incommensurate stops and arrests.
From 2010-14, in all cases of police dog use and bites in Ferguson, the person was black. Former Attorney General, Eric Holder said ‘these constitutional violations have become routine’ as it was found that policing practices disproportionately harm African-American residents. Unfortunately, these problems of racial discrimination are not unique to Ferguson, or even to the police force, but reflect a nationwide issue that has been at the heart of American society for decades.
Between 2010 and 2012, police were twenty-one times more likely to shoot and kill black teens than white teens. In 2012, 35 per cent of blacks were in poverty, compared to 13 per cent of whites, while the black unemployment rate has never been less than 60 per cent – higher than the white unemployment rate since records began in 1972.
A report by the Sentencing Project, highlighting staggering racial disparities in the criminal justice system, found that, if current trends continue, one in three black males born today will be incarcerated at some point in their life. These statistics paint a picture of an astoundingly unequal system in which black people are given far less opportunity to succeed than their white counterparts and are unjustly and unconstitutionally subjected to mass incarceration and discrimination. In a recent article in the Daytona Times, Dr Benjamin F. Chavis sums up the problem: ‘black Americans and other people of colour in the United States continue to endure long-term patterns of racial injustice not just in the so-called “criminal justice system” but also in systems of health care, employment, education, and finance’.
The other major issue that the events in Ferguson have brought to light is the militarisation of the police force. The 1033 Program was introduced in 1997 to transfer excess military equipment to domestic law enforcement agencies. In recent years, as military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, this transfer has dramatically increased, to an estimated $5.1 billion worth of equipment. Since 2006, almost 100,000 machine guns and over 400 mine-resistant armoured vehicles have been given to domestic police forces. The result is military equipment being used in civilian neighbourhoods, and battlefield techniques deployed to control popular domestic unrest. This pronounced escalation means that military-style equipment and weaponry are in the hands of police officers who have insufficient training to capably use them.
A valuable report by the ACLU details the potential dangers of such a situation, citing a greater prospect of violence in chaotic situations, and a growing public mistrust of the police forces that are supposed to be serving them, but increasingly resemble an occupying militia. SWAT deployments have also risen significantly (by 1,400 per cent between 1980 and 2000), now numbering 45,000 each year, and are rarely used for the purpose they were meant for. Instead of aiding police in riots and hostage situations, they now predominantly raid private homes in search of drugs, and have caused the deaths of at least seven civilians, including children, often by throwing grenades into houses they are about to enter. Unsurprisingly, the militarisation of the police predominantly affects black people. According to Kara Dansky of the ACLU, ‘communities of colour bare the brunt of most military policing’. Glenn Greenwald in the Nation writes that ‘the use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of colour’.
As more military equipment filters through to police forces, and underlying issues of systemic racism remain unaddressed, it is likely that these issues will continue and intensify. There will be more Mike Browns, Eric Garners and Tamir Rices; there will be more Fergusons. The government has clearly prepared for further protests by supplying the police with the means for lethal response.
There are already deep-rooted issues of racism in America. It is now becoming a police state as well. The only solution is constant and unrelenting protest against the system, and immutable demands for justice for the men, women and children that have been killed by the police, and for the many more who will die as a result of police militarisation and seemingly unabated racism.