Tuesday, October 11, 2011

John Hanrahan: Local police forces are now little armies. Why?

Local police forces are now little armies. Why?
By John Hanrahan
Reader Supported News

Last March, when some 500 activists arrived at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in northern Virginia to protest the abusive treatment that Pfc. Bradley Manning, the accused leaker of secret government documents to the Wikileaks website, was being subjected to while incarcerated there, they were confronted by a heavily-armed, riot-geared phalanx of dozens of state and local police, many of them on horseback for added measure.

I was there and wondered what in the world was going on.

These police in their black Darth Vader-like gear weren’t exactly facing a gun-wielding horde, or guerrillas with grenade launchers or a mob threatening to storm the base. Instead, they were confronting unarmed, nonviolent protesters who included older military veterans, recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, government workers, the ever-active antiwar women (and men) of Code Pink, members of various anti-war and anti-torture groups, lawyer observers and a smattering of reporters mainly from alternative media. Did the police think this assembly was going to charge into a heavily-fortified military base, overpower well-armed and well-trained Marines, and spring Manning from solitary confinement?

Since then I found out police often dress like Darth Vader at protest rallies. It’s a tactic to discourage dissent, with battlefield equipment supplied by the Pentagon and other equipment paid for in part with Homeland Security funds.

Increasingly around the country, noted civil liberties attorney Bill Quigley told Nieman Watchdog this summer, "What we have had is a militarization of the police response to nonviolent demonstrations. You attend one of those rallies and you could get the impression that it's unpatriotic to protest, that you're doing something wrong, that you're some sort of security threat."

Compared to the Vietnam war era, Quigley said, police around the country use more intimidating tactics these days, which likely discourages or scares off some people who might otherwise want to participate in protests. During the Vietnam war, he said, there was "pushback" – often violent – by police at demonstrations, but the police then were not decked out in full-blown military regalia and carrying the often heavy weaponry that can be the case today.

The militarization of the nation’s police forces is one of the most under-reported stories in the mainstream U.S. press. The issue sometimes surfaces in connection with SWAT teams conducting drug raids, particularly when police or Drug Enforcement Administration agents bust down the wrong door and frighten innocent occupants half to death and even injure them and destroy property. But rarely are there news stories questioning the propriety of these police forces becoming, in effect, little domestic armies. And the increase in anti-terrorism fear-mongering to justify the use of heavily-armed, riot-geared police at political demonstrations has the added dimension of providing a chilling effect on people’s exercise of their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and to petition their government.

It’s time reporters on all news organizations begin going to their local and state police departments and asking: How much of this crap do you have, and why do you need it?

Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and director of the law clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans, has served as counsel to a number of public interest organizations on civil liberties, constitutional rights and civil disobedience issues. In that capacity and until recently as the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, he frequently monitors demonstrations. Quigley said that around the country, protests, both small and large, are often overseen by a "heavy-duty police presence," replete with "those Ninja-Turtle-type outfits, special batons, shields, kneepads, surveillance cameras," etc. Police are sometimes on horseback (as they were at Quantico), astride "animals that are specially trained for crowd control" and that can be especially daunting to older and disabled people who aren't so nimble on their feet. Police also often try to orchestrate the protests, imposing new rules as they go along (as was the case at Quantico) – and, in some cases, using sound trucks to issue orders to control marchers.

While monitoring protests in various communities, Quigley said he has often asked state and local police why they turn out in their military gear for protests involving several hundred people engaging in a peaceful march or rally. Speaking as if from the same playbook, the answer they always give, Quigley said, is that it's not the peaceful demonstrators they are worried about but the fear that militants bent on violence will infiltrate and turn a peaceable demonstration into street fighting and property destruction.

To Quigley and others who have attended protests, this is pure bunkum.

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