Drone Aviary

The Drone Aviary reveals fleeting glimpses of the city from the perspective of drones. It explores a world where the ‘network’ begins to gain physical autonomy. Drones become protagonists, moving through the city, making decisions about the world and influencing our lives in often opaque yet profound ways.
This film is part of The Drone Aviary Project, by Superflux, which investigates the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. It has been awarded the Grants for the Arts from the Arts Council England. To find out more about the project visit: superflux.in/blog/the-drone-aviary

Interview with Bard’s Drone Center here.

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Review of Grégoire Chamayou’s “Drone Theory” and Adam Rothstein’s “Drone”

Antipode have published my review essay of Grégoire Chamayou’s “Drone Theory” and Adam Rothstein’s “Drone,” both published in 2015. I’ve copied the text of the review below:

Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory (translated by Janet Lloyd), London: Penguin, 2015. ISBN: 9780241970348 (paper); ISBN: 9780241970355 (ebook)

Adam Rothstein, Drone, London: Bloomsbury, 2015. ISBN: 9781628926323 (paper); ISBN: 9781628925258 (ebook)


Drone Theory?

Reading Adam Rothstein’s Drone and Grégoire Chamayou’s Drone Theory alongside each other is a good idea. Where the first lacks a detailed theoretical intervention (although it’s certainly thought-provoking), the other lacks a nuts-and-bolts overview of all things drone. Together, then, Drone and Drone Theory are excellent primers for thinking deeply about our emerging Droneworld (Shaw 2012). Yet as important as they are, both books are haunted by a common absence: a sustained exploration of how drone technology emerges from a history of US empire and global violence–particularly during the Cold War. Both an over-theorization of the drone as an engine of metaphysics, or an under-theorization of the drone as a vessel of our cultural narratives, risks bypassing how the drone has excelled in militarizing vast swathes of the planet.

This is perhaps an obvious point to make, and one that itself risks steamrolling over the diversity of applications these flying robots are capable of, but I do want to begin by signaling the military genesis of drones. Whether we’re talking about Predators, Reapers, Ravens or Global Hawks, these objects are part of a vast military assemblage that spreads geographically and historically. The difficulty that anybody faces in dealing with the drone is to find some kind of balance between treating the object as an actor imbued with agency, or as a mere tool of violence employed by war managers. Neither of these viewpoints can adequately grapple with the drone problematic, which suggests something of a synthesis, or even a paradox, embodied within the steely flesh of the machine itself.

Rothstein’s Drone is part of a series called “Object Lessons”, which advertises itself as a collection “about the hidden lives of ordinary things”.[1] His book is a rich collection of vignettes about how to imagine and comprehend the drone. For him, drone theory is not simply an investigation into an artificial object, but a wider consideration of who we are, the type of society we live in, and the kind of future we want to build. While the bulk of Drone is designed to get the unfamiliar up to speed, and therefore of limited interest to those acquainted with our unmanned condition, Rothstein does keep the book moving at a fair clip, aided by precise prose that keeps asking the reader questions.

At the outset of the book there is a recognition that the drone is not an easy thing to theorize. Instead, “it is a heavy object, full of undiagnosed complications” (p.ix). Indeed, Rothstein’s book really excels in tackling the multiple meanings, symbols, and narratives attached to drones, all of which provide a bird’s eye view (drone’s eye view?) of the terrain of contemporary debate. If the drone is important, it is not simply because of its geopolitical uses and abuses, but because “the story of drone technology is a story about us” (p.xv). This kind of introspection is a real strength of the book–something that Rothstein loops back to in closing chapters, and especially in Chapter 10, “Our Selves and the Drone”. There, he writes, “Humans, in how they relate to technology, are analogous to drones in many ways. Our images of ourselves are bricolages. We construct our lives out of a variety of meaningful components, adding them and taking them out as they evolve and serve the system of our lives better or worse” (p.119).

If the closing chapters are attuned to these types of existential changes heralded by drones, then most of the book tracks a more conventional route. Starting with “The Military Drone” in Chapter 2, Rothstein notes how drones were forged in the fiery cauldron of the US military-industrial complex. This origin has subsequently colored (or tainted) how we think about and imagine drones. The rise of the Predator, in particular, “remains the quintessential image of the drone in the minds of the public” (p.32). The next chapter looks at the under-studied commercial applications of drones, and provides an overview of how the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is coming to regulate a sky full of robots. Chapter 6, “The Non-Drone”, begins to unravel what exactly it is about the drone that makes it an object of such frenzied public discourse. As Rothstein observes, there are plenty of robots, machines, and surveillance technologies out there, but few attract our attention in quite the same way as the drone. It’s ability to fly, unsurprisingly, is what makes it an object of such fascination: “The drone was the first robot that obviously surpassed us. Not a heavy industrial machine, or a top-heavy, trundling thing; rather, the drone buzzing over our head, within someone’s control, but just out of our reach” (p.86).

While Rothstein’s text seeks breadth rather than depth, and while it deliberately imagines the drone as a phenomenon bigger than military drones, I did find the lack of detail on, say, the use of US drones during the War on Terror, or the CIA’s campaign of targeted killings in Pakistan, a notable absence. But, in fairness, this is just one aspect of the drone, which, under Rothstein’s treatment, becomes an elusive cultural figure, a monster meshing together science-fiction nightmares and corporate dreams. The drone is not something exterior to us then, but bound to our past and future. “Drone culture is growing in our society, not just through a preoccupation with what we should or should not do with drones, but because every day we act more like drones in the way that we use technology” (p.123). While I would not necessarily recommend Drone to those academics and students familiar with issues related to drones, for those beginning a research project, or just the curious, this small book packs a big punch.

Chamayou’s 2015 book, Drone Theory, advances his previous thoughts in Manhunts (2012). In that work, he described how the hunting of humans–from slaves and heretics to criminals and migrants–has been, and continues to be, internalized in the functioning of modern sovereign power. The task of Drone Theory is thus to describe the most sophisticated tool of manhunting yet: the drone. Chamayou’s prose is sharp, stark, and well crafted. There isn’t a sentence that goes to waste in this book, and the result is a series of well-executed (if you’ll excuse the macabre pun) philosophical provocations on the practice of modern drone warfare. Overall, his argument is that drone warfare needs to be understood as a form of one-sided killing, since the drone–as a technology of remote killing–removes the very possibility for “reciprocity”. If war has been historically based on a mutual and shared risk of death (i.e. a “duel”), then the modern dronification of state violence (Shaw and Akhter 2014) doesn’t simply “transform” war; it bypasses the logic of conflict altogether, becoming the unilateral delivery of death.

Make no mistake about it: this is a book that is designed to “weaponize” philosophy, producing something of an activist counter-discourse to the mainstream view of drone warfare as precise, surgical, and clean. “More than ever, philosophy is a battlefield. It is time to enter the fray. What I have to say is openly polemical, for, over and above the possible analytical contribution this book may make, its objective is to provide discursive weapons for the use of those men and women who wish to oppose the policy served by the drones” (p.16). A real strength of this book is its rich intellectual armada, deftly handled by Chamayou. The book certainly keeps its promise of subjecting the drone to philosophical investigation, even if this comes at the expense of overlooking the history of drone technology, surveillance, and warfare, together with its modern global deployments. For example, Chapter 2, “The Genealogy of a Predator”, provides only a cursory, four-page sketch of the history of the Predator drone. The material infrastructures behind targeted killings, including a worldwide grid of fibre optic cables, satellite systems, computer networks, weapons contractors, and even the technical features of drone itself, are rendered invisible in Chamayou’s account. The result is that the drone takes on an almost mythical status, a specter that shakes the world.

I am sympathetic to this “bracketing”, of course (not every book can cover every aspect of drone warfare), but the result is that that the technical and the political, or, rather, the technical and the philosophical, are at times severed and cast adrift. Here, Chamayou is ambiguous. “Go look at the weapons, study their specific characteristics. Become a technician, in a way. But only in a way, for the aim here is an understanding that is not so much technical as political” (p.15). Put very simply, while this book may signal a materialist awareness (and at times it acknowledges why the drone is an important remote vector of state power), it is by no means a materialist philosophy. The grit, blood, gears, and steel of the war machine is simply not as important to Chamayou as how drone warfare is challenging our ethical universe.

Indeed, above all, this is a book about ethics–about what it means for the state to kill in the 21st century. The later chapters of the book deal with a series of “crises” in military ethics. Concepts such as “heroism”, “courage”, “sacrifice” and others like them–stained with thousands of years of bloodshed–are all evaporating with drone warfare. Without US soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield, these ideas lose their old meanings. How can a drone pilot sacrifice himself sitting in a cubical at the other side of the earth? The result is a new desire to re-engineer virtue and heroism around “preserving the American wary of life”. The pilot–now structurally reduced to the figure of the executioner (p.103)–is nonetheless an ethical actor because his “dronized homicide” is part of a renewed patriotism. Saving American soldiers from the frontline, rather than risking American soldiers (as with the case of the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, etc.) is an inverted form of ethics–a “necro-ethics”–that seeks to establish itself in the minds of US war managers and publics alike. The rise of this ethic is what Chamayou calls “a nationalism of the most ferocious kind” (p.152).

Drone Theory is a thought-provoking work of political geography. Drone warfare is creating a new kind of cartography of killing, based not on isolated battlefields, but a unified battlespace, in which state violence is emergent and borderless. As he argues, “What is emerging is the idea of an invasive power based not so much on the rights of conquest as on the rights of pursuit: a right of universal intrusion or encroachment that would authorize charging after the prey wherever it found refuge, thereby trampling underfoot the principle of territorial integrity classically attached to state sovereignty” (p.53). Hunting is a global pursuit, and this means that the world is becoming a global hunting ground. However, there is a crucial wrinkle in this geographic formulation. Assassination from the skies is focused on individuals, which means that, “as a hunter-state sees it, armed violence is no longer defined within the boundaries of a demarcated zone but simply by the presence of an enemy-prey who, so to speak, carries with it its own little mobile zone of hostility” (p.52).

In other words, the expansion of state violence is predicated on a contraction of the target. And so, the idea of a homogeneous battlespace needs to be rethought. Chamayou replaces it with a modified version of the kill-box (the military’s designation for a target space), what he calls the “kill-cube”. While retaining the kill-box’s notion of a “temporary autonomous zone of slaughter” (p.55), the kill-cube rethinks the space of slaughter as a nonlinear and mobile volume. “Depending on the contingencies of the moment, temporary lethal microcubes could be opened up anywhere in the world if an individual who qualifies as a legitimate target has been located there ” (p.56). Chamayou’s book demands that we take the drone seriously: he argues that it is a metaphysical actor creating new relationships between state and society, new geographies of killing, and new systems of ethics.

What, then, in the final analysis, is the drone? Is it the cause of a new way of killing or the effect of thousands of years of human slaughter? Both books raise these types of fundamental questions, marshaling theory and weaponizing philosophy, going beyond the drone in order to comprehend the drone. Are we any closer to finding a definitive answer in our search? Or does the drone embody these kinds of contradictions, both concretizing a history of empire and baptizing a brave new Droneworld all at once?


Chamayou G (2012) Manhunts: A Philosophical History (trans S Rendall). Princeton: Princeton University Press

Shaw I (2012) From baseworld to droneworld. Antipode intervention, http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/08/14/intervention-from-baseworld-to-droneworld/

Shaw I and Akhter M (2014) The dronification of state violence. Critical Asian Studies 46(2):211-23

[1]          See http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/series/object-lessons/

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Silence was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages (a book on U.S. counter-insurgency and the Phoenix Program)

Stuart A. Herrington, Silence was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages, 1982, New York: Ivy Books

Silence was a WeaponThis book provides an intimate, village-level understanding of the final years of U.S involvement in the Vietnam War. By focusing the reader’s attention to the scale of the village, the wider war reveals itself in a way that most historical accounts of Vietnam risk missing. Herrington served as a district military intelligence advisor in Duc Hue, which had a population of approximately 29,000 people, spread across four villages. The larger Hau Nghia province is flanked by the “parrot’s beak” of Cambodia, approximately 8km to its west.

The intelligence gathering operation in South Vietnam that Herrington served as part of was known as the Phoenix Program. It aimed to gather and share intelligence on the Vietcong, or National Liberation Front (NLF). “Our job as Phoenix advisors was to assist the Vietnamese intelligence services (our counterparts) in identifying the members of the ‘Vietcong infrastructure’ (VCI) and in planning the operations to ‘neutralize’ them. Neutralize was a euphemism that actually meant kill, capture, or convince to surrender” (p.6).

Most of the early book revolves around the fate of Tan My, a village Herrington is informed is overrun with the NLF’s “shadow government” or civilian infrastructure. He is warned that Tan My is a “model revolutionary village.” Of course, as Herrington notes, the idea of a “shadow government” stretches all the way back to the French reoccupation of Vietnam, beginning in the late 1940s (and up to 1954), during which time Vietminh leaders and the wider resistance movement began to operate “underground.” After the failure of the Geneva Accords in 1956, the model of village-based resistance and militia would be exploited by the communist NLF, which inherited much of the political apparatus of the nationalist Vietminh: it was therefore able to rapidly organize the “Provisional Revolutionary Government.” This meant that at the hamlet level, the revolution was almost impossible to efface. “The Vietcong’s organization was thus the major device by which the revolution insured the silence of the people–and this silence was sufficient to frustrate our efforts” (52-53).

A more important recruiting tool for the Vietcong, however, were South Vietnamese policies–and the Diem regime in particular–whose “Strategic Hamlets” relocation program (which removed people from their ancestral homes), Decree 1059 law (which criminalized all members of the Viet Minh), and regressive land reform (which hampered the poor)–all of which proved widely unpopular (p.36-7). Indeed, throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, these government blunders put tremendous pressure on village life. “As the people’s attitudes shifted, Communist guerilla units were reborn in the hamlets and government became less and less visible in the village” (p.38).

Rather than focus on the war with a bird’s eye view then, Herrington shows the intimate politics and frustrations that ultimately led to U.S. and South Vietnamese defeat and the success of the People’s Army of North Vietnam. In particular, what strikes the reader is that most peasants simply didn’t care one way or another for revolutionary or government forces. This wasn’t necessarily born of apathy either, just a survival instinct–or pragmatism– ingrained over generations of conflict. Loyalties switched with the shifting sands of war, and communities had to play a difficult balancing act between the NLF and South Vietnamese government forces, both of which could be integrated into village life at any one time. “For most Americans in Vietnam, the dynamics of the Vietnamese villager’s dilemma were impossible to grasp” (p.53).

Herrington initially finds the Duc Hue Phoenix program languishing in a bureaucratic malaise: South Vietnamese officials were reluctant to rock the military boat, preferring a tacit agreement between the government and the NLF. So while there was an “impressive maze of colored file cards and folders that were all aimed at the goal of establishing ‘target folders’ on identified Vietcong politicians” (p.15), the paperwork did not translate into meaningful action.

Herrington states that Phoenix made good sense conceptually: an intelligence office was opened across each of South Vietnam’s 247 districts, and any organization that collected information on the NLF insurgency could then pool it together into a central program. Targets could thus be generated from a variety of sources, and crosschecked. “The goal was simple. If the Vietcong agent was a ‘legal cadre,’ one who carried a government identity card and lived overtly, the Phoenix office would mount a police operation to arrest him. If the Vietcong was a n ‘illegal cadre,’ one who lived in a bunker by day and operated covertly at night, then the Phoenix office would plan a military operation to kill or capture him” (p.18). Other important practices of Phoenix include the distribution of “Most Wanted” posters, the establishment of “Blacklists” in each village, and the classification of Vietcong cadre from most dangerous (A) to mere sympathizers with the revolution (C).

Above all, however, no matter how well intentioned U.S. forces may have been, they were not, and could never be, Vietnamese. This meant that local U.S. intelligence efforts were nearly always up against a shared cultural reticence to help outsiders. District chiefs, for example, often just paid lip service to counter-insurgency, fearing for their own lives, and the peace of the villages they oversaw. As a consequence, the Phoenix Program in Duc Hue never really functioned as a policing operation, and instead became a bureaucratic dead-end, since South Vietnamese officials were themselves trapped in the same kind of balancing act played out across the villages in which they ostensibly policed. Frustrated, Herrington leaves the Phoenix office after just two weeks.

While remaining at Duc Hue, he becomes a military advisor on a series of projects involving extracting information from Vietcong and NVA “ralliers,” those who have deserted their former cadres for Saigon. From these characters, Herrington chronicles a series of life histories that have led young men into fighting for causes that were indoctrinated into them at early ages. Often, it was these ralliers who were vital to U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence operation in the province.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Herrington offers a series of reflections on his experiences of his time as a military intelligence advisor. The first was the “near universal cynicism” of the people towards the South Vietnamese government, which suffered from endemic corruption (which the NLF played upon). Second, because of the perceived ineptitude of Saigon, it often created a political vacuum in the everyday lives of villagers which meant “a small number of Communist sympathizers in South Vietnam’s villages had managed to carry a big stick, and the insurgency had wielded power and influence that was vastly out of proportion to its true base of support” (p.252). Third, the American presence provided a crucial recruiting tool to the anti-colonial narrative of Hanoi and the NLF. Fourth, the linguistic and cultural barrier proved insurmountable, with translators often misleading and hindering communication. Fifth, the Phoenix Program was a failure: rivalry between different police, government, military, and intelligence agencies hampered information sharing– and “There was an almost universal lack of enthusiasm for Phoenix on the part of most Vietnamese district chiefs” (p.257). And this was hardly surprising–the more successful Phoenix was, the more a district chief would himself become a target of reprisal. Herrington does note, however, that tens of thousands of NLF agents were neutralized by Phoenix. While noting there were some abuses of power, he argues that Phoenix was not “an indiscriminate counterterror weapon that was ruthless employed by us and the South Vietnamese against a defenseless peasantry” (p.259).

Despite some of the successes displayed by the South Vietnamese counterinsurgency and Phoenix programs, Herrington admits that the one thing that neither Saigon nor Washington had was time. Time was the ultimate weapon that Hanoi wielded from the north; its hammer blow felt by Herrington in 1975 as he was evacuated from the U.S. embassy by helicopter.

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“An Electronic Archipelago of Domestic Surveillance”

Hina Shamsi and Mark Harwood report, over at TomDispatch, on the various domestic watchlists that the U.S. government uses to keep track of “suspicious” persons, including the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR program). They reveal a growing and Kafkaesque system of global and domestic monitoring.

The SARs program and the consolidated terrorism watchlist are just two domestic government databases of suspicion. Many more exist. Taken together, they should be seen as a new form of national ID for a growing group of people accused of no crime, who may have done nothing wrong, but are nevertheless secretly labeled by the government as suspicious or worse. Innocent until proven guilty has been replaced with suspicious until determined otherwise.

Think of it as a new shadow system of national identification for a shadow government that is increasingly averse to operating in the light. It’s an ID its “owners” don’t carry around with them, yet it’s imposed on them whenever they interact with government agents or agencies. It can alter their lives in disastrous ways, often without their knowledge.

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A History of Militarized U.S. Policing: Ferguson and Beyond

[This essay is a shortened version taken from a book project I’m working on called The Predator Empire]

A History of Militarized U.S. Policing


American policing was shaped by colonial contact with the British. Without evidence of criminal activity, British soldiers in New England searched through homes under a general warrant known as a “writ of assistance.” And under the Quartering Act of 1765 and 1774, colonists were required to house and feed British soldiers. This came despite Britain’s own aversion to the “quartering” of soldiers in its towns and cities—a practice banned under the English Bill of Rights in 1689. As Radley Balko explains in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop, “Bostonians were British subjects, but they were being treated like enemies of the state” (p.14). And so, the early founders were profoundly aware of the toxicity of militarism. The aversion to quartering and general warrants was enshrined in the Third and Fourth Amendments of the U.S Constitution. And at the heart of the entire edifice was the so-called “Castle Doctrine.” This holds that an individual’s home is sacred. Police cannot enter without a court warrant and must announce themselves by knocking on the door. But how long could memory serve as a buttress against government overreach in the new republic?

For much of its early history the United States respected the firewall between the police and military. There were ebbs and flows of course: the 1792 Militia Acts, and the 1807 Insurrection Act allowed the president to call up militias in response to lawlessness and “rebellion.” After the Civil War, for example, federal agents were used to enforce the Reconstruction Acts from 1870 onwards in the Confederate South. The legislation—which formally prohibited slavery—was difficult to impose in the slave-owning South, and troops helped suppress a backlash of mob violence and lynching. Congress later passed the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act to prevent domestic law enforcement officials from using troops to bolster their power. And so, posse comitatus has since become a symbol against militarism, even if its roots suggest it was partly a result of sympathy for the Confederacy.

The 20th century ushered in a terminal decline in the great American firewall. At its dawn, the Militia Act of 1903 was passed, replacing the 1792 Militia Acts and creating the modern National Guard. Significant to this history is the flashpoint event of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end racial segregation in schools, nine black students attempted to attend class at Central High School. A mob awaited their arrival.


But it wasn’t just angry Southerners stood at the front doors. Governor Orval Faubus had blocked the students’ entrance with National Guard troops. In response, President Eisenhower ordered soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. Little Rock is an infamous example of direct military intervention in modern civil society. But the 20th century witnessed something far more insidious. The 1960s Civil Rights movement unleashed the indirect militarization of U.S. policing.

*   *   *

Ferguson riots

“A riot,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr, “is the language of the unheard.” Years of animosity between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s black population underscored the Watts race riots of 1965. Amongst violent scenes of unrest, 1,000 people were injured and 34 killed. White America watched in horror as a “criminal class” took to the streets. In many ways, this social war was a long time coming, and not just because of endemic socio-spatial apartheid.

At the beginning of the century modern American policing began to “professionalize.” After widespread corruption, efforts were made to “rationalize” policing through bureaucratic control and scientific management, moving policing away from the influence of city- and machine-politics. “There was of course an important downside to this new force,” writes Steve Herbert in his book Policing Space: “its detachment from the community made it less responsive than many political leaders wished to the ongoing complaints about racist uses of excessive force” (p.60). Chief William Parker, who served between 1949 and 1966, was a huge advocate of this style of policing and began to professionalize the LAPD in the 1950s. Although the LAPD would become a nationwide model of “professional policing,” it came at the expense of shoe-leather community policing. The LAPD was transformed as a sealed, hierarchical, and authoritarian agency, with “cops indifferent to the areas they patrolled” and inculcated to believe “they were all that stood between order and anarchy” (Balko, pp.34-35)

The seeds of a racialized battleground were sewn. Herbert argues that: “The image of the Los Angeles Police Department as an agency designed to protect white citizens from the influx of dark-skinned immigrants was avidly embraced by Chief Parker during the 1950s and 1960s” (p.81). This philosophy was shared by Parker’s protégé and successor, Chief Daryl Gates, who served from 1979 to 1992. If Parker believed that policing was a moral crusade against “wicked men with evil hearts who sustain themselves by preying upon society,” then Gates was no different. “Society,” he wrote, “flinches from the truth: we do our very best to find psychological and sociological reasons to excuse behavior that our minds won’t accept for what it is. You walk into court and you have all these attorneys explaining away all of the things that you can sum up in one simple world: Evil.”

1373640014_1443_tumblrParker hired Gates to oversee the Watts riots, who called in 13,500 California National Guard troops to reinforce the LAPD (Balko, p.52). But Gates’ legacy extended beyond Watts. In 1969, he created the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) police unit. The first ever SWAT raid was on the LA headquarters of the Black Panthers. And it was a disaster. But no matter: it set in motion a ruinous lurch towards a machismo-infused military policing in the U.S.

The “war on drugs” provided the vehicle for the “swatification” of the police. Richard Nixon seized the opportunity presented by the riots to launch a new social war in America. Nixon’s “war on drugs” was baptized in a June 17, 1971 speech. He declared, “Narcotics addiction is a problem which afflicts both the body and the soul of America,” and the government must “wage an effective war against heroin addiction.” So began the crusade. Nixon launched the federal Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE)—an agency designed for manufacturing consent for the drug war. Between 1972 and 1973, ODALE strike forces conducted 1,439 raids, some of which ended tragically (Balko, p.121). And a growing list of states began to adopt Nixon-style antidrug legislation to “pacify” the population.


But militarism hadn’t quite strangled policing yet. That coup d’état belonged to the next president. President Ronald Reagan oversaw the 1981 “Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act” that paved the way for future combined military-police operations, particularly in counter-narcotics. In 1986, he signed National Security Decision Directive 221, which named the drug trade as a “national security threat,” thus inviting the military to police the global trafficking of narcotics. Regan also enabled police to confiscate criminal assets and use them to fund SWAT teams, creating a precedent for today’s controversial civil forfeiture programs. And with federal grants like the Justice Department’s “Byrne Grant Program,” cash was surging into SWAT teams. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came in 1987, when the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Attorney General were legally required to notify law enforcement about any surplus military equipment. Congress engineered a system in which weapons from the battlefield could be transferred to “American streets, in American neighborhoods, against American citizens (Balko, p.158). By the close of the decade nearly every city with a population over 100,000 had a SWAT team.

Nancy_Reagan(1)Reagan’s sentencing reforms, and mandatory minimum sentences in particular, fuelled an explosion in the incarcerated population. Complicated socio-economic issues were simply locked behind bars. African-Americans were disproportionately targeted, and the great U.S. middle-class was being hollowed by neoliberal reform. The system remains deeply sick: 62 percent of SWAT deployments are for drug searches and not the emergency scenarios they were envisaged for in the 1960s. And too many individuals in prison are serving life sentences for marijuana possession. The U.S. spends over $51 billion a year on the battle against narcotics users, and in 2012 alone, 1.55 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges. This feeds a prison-industrial complex that holds 1 in every 108 Americans.

The 1990s continued the slide into madness. Building on the 1987 precedent, in 1990 the 101st Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 1208 of this bill, “Transfer of Excess Personal Property,” formalized the transfer of excess military gear to law enforcement for counter-drug activities. This act was broadened in the 1997 NDAA under Section 1033, which created what is widely known as the “1033 Program.” The hardware transferred ranges from grenade launchers to armored personnel carriers. Over 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies participate in 1033 Program, which is overseen by the Law Enforcement Support Office. Their motto is “from warfighter to crimefighter.” Over $4.3 billion worth of war gear has been given to U.S. police since the program started. And police wouldn’t have to wait long to baptize their tools of the trade on the street.

The 1992 Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles—precipitated by the acquittal of the LAPD cops who were videotaped beating Rodney King a year earlier—saw 2,000 people injured, 53 killed, and property damage in excess of one billion dollars.

Rodney King RiotsThe outnumbered and overwhelmed LAPD were reinforced by 13,500 troops from the California National Guard, the Third Battalion First Marine, and the Fortieth Infantry Division and the Seventh Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.If the Watts riots of 1965 made Gates’ career, then the 1992 riots ended it. What had effectively become an urban war zone, with tens of thousands of angry citizens taking to the streets, could not be broken until the National Guard showed up. Indeed, the National Guard came to play an increasing prominent role in U.S. policing: in 1992 alone it assisted in 20,000 arrests and searched 120,000 vehicles. The 1990s closed with the so-called “Battle for Seattle” in 1999. Peaceful protestors came under fire as Seattle law enforcement hurled pepper spray, tear gas, stun grenades, and even rubber bullets at Americans exercising their Fourth Amendment rights. From civil unrest to democratic protest, the street was being enclosed by a zero-tolerance or “siege” model of policing.

21st century militarized policing was reinforced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided new incentives for swatifying police departments. By the end of 2011, the DHS had given out at least $34 billion in counter-terrorism grants. And by the time President Obama took office, funding for the “Byrne Grant Program” alone topped $2 billion annually. Tens of thousands of SWAT raids are now taking place ever year, and the U.S. employs 120,000 federal law enforcement officers. Given these immense financial incentives, it is unsurprising “civilians” are re-imagined as “enemies” and the street as a “battlefield.” As one police trainer wrote, “We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector.” The irony is that the job of a cop has been getting safer for a generation. But so long as there is a war out there—against crime, drugs, or terrorism—American policing will keep on manufacturing soldiers.

Ferguson, Part 1: August 2014

Ferguson riots 4

Mine-resistant vehicles and camouflaged police officers occupied the road intersection. Smoke hung in the air. And the skies above were declared a “no-fly zone.” On the 18th of August 2014, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed executive order 14-09, calling into service an “organized militia” to help quell “civil unrest occurring in the City of Ferguson.” By now, the image of National Guard troops patrolling U.S. streets with military gear was no rarity. But the 2014 clashes still managed to capture the world’s attention. On the 9th of August 2014, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot six times by police officer Darren Wilson. The shooting stoked fierce emotional responses from a black community that was policed by an almost entirely white force. Some labeled Ferguson as a “war zone” and the name “Fergustan” circulated in the media.

But the idea that Ferguson had become a “battlefield” masks the uneven exercise of power. Protesters chanted, “hands up, don’t shoot!” while police pointed assault rifles. Tear gas was widely used on demonstrators, and cops carried fighting knives, 12 gauge shotguns, and some arrived in trucks mounted with “Acoustic Riot Control Devices.”

The 1033 program came under renewed attention. Since 2006, 93,000 machine guns, together with 533 planes and helicopters, have been distributed to police. The 1033 program was briefly halted in 2013 after “misguided” appropriations made the headlines. Maricopa County, in Arizona, for example, purchased a tank with a 360-degree rotating machine gun turret that spits out .50-caliber bullets. It was called “The Peacemaker.” St Louis County law enforcement received lots of federal funding. Between 2003 and 2012 the area received $81 million “Urban Areas Security Initiative” funds from FEMA for emergency preparedness. Officially, the St Louis area only received night vision sights, trucks, a bomb disposal robot, rifles, and pistols as part of the 1033 program. But police in Ferguson were photographed in a strange-looking armored car not mentioned in any list. As it turns out, it was probably a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP). According to the ACLU, the Pentagon spent $50 billion to produce 27,000 MRAPS for deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq. As these wars ebbed, the blast-resistant vehicles flowed back to an estimated 500 law enforcement agencies. Perhaps surprisingly, this includes the police force at Ohio State University. As Glenn Greenwald observes, “Americans are now so accustomed to seeing police officers decked in camouflage and Robocop-style costumes, riding in armored vehicles and carrying automatic weapons first introduced during the U.S. occupation of Baghdad, that it has become normalized.”

Ferguson cops

Governor Jay Nixon was “thunderstruck” by the images of MRAPs in the streets and rifles pointed at kids, and decried the “over-militarization” of the police force. Many politicians weighed in. Senator Patrick Leahy, from Vermont, said, “Equipping police officers with the tools of war does nothing to repair a torn community.” Senator Ron Paul called for the police to be demilitarized, directly criticizing the 1033 program: “When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties an due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.” Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich aired a similar opinion: “With the military equipment came the mind-set of policing becoming warfighters, in a hostile environment – in one’s own community.” The problem with military hardware, as Balko succinctly writes, is that “when you’re carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (p.133).

But the issue is bigger than the hammers looking for nails. The small army that occupied Ferguson is the result of decades of empire and militarism abroad. “Ultimately,” writes Greenwald, “police militarization is part of a broader and truly dangerous trend: the importation of War on Terror tactics from foreign war zones onto American soil.”

* * *

“When the war machine runs out of places to occupy abroad,” writes Gilbert Mercier, “it mutates into an occupying force at home, starting in Black or Latino neighborhoods, and it manifests itself as police violence, curfews and a state of emergency.” The U.S. has a long history of aggressively policing black communities. “It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds,” writes Kara Danksy. “Now it’s armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades.” And as Kopper and Kaba argue, “For blacks, the ‘war on terror’ hasn’t ‘come home.’ It’s always been here.”

By narrowly focusing on Ferguson then, the wider system it rests upon is masked. As Nopper and Kaba continue, “Amid this, we are left with the difficulty to name both the spectacle and the quotidian violence blacks in the United States experience day after day, from the police and the racially deputized. What do we call this incessant violence? How do we describe it beyond the “spectacular event”? Occupation? War? Genocide? Life? Death?”

The real terror is thus far more pervasive (and quotidian). Every day at least one person is killed by a U.S. police officer—and that figure cannot be linked to the 1033 program alone.

Entire segments of society have been abandoned, oppressed, and enrolled in a pervasive social war. The robocops of Ferguson and beyond are just the latest warriors in a profound domestic conflict.


See also: Militarization of U.S. police forces in Ferguson and beyond – LINKS (updated)

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New Briefing: ‘Into the Fire: The dangers of redeploying British armed drones after Afghanistan’

Originally posted on Drone Wars UK:

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As NATO military operations come to an end in Afghanistan and the MoD faces a judicial review over its refusal to detail where UK drones will next be sent, Drone Wars UK is publishing a new briefing on the dangers of re-deploying UK armed drones.

The UK has used armed drones to undertake airstrikes since 2004, either in conjunction with the US or utilizing its own fleet of armed Reapers acquired in 2007.  And increasingly it seems the UK is  relying on its Reaper drones to undertake airstrikes, with Ministry of Defence figures showing the percentage of British airstrikes in Afghanistan undertaken by drones rising from 52% in 2009/10 to 82% in 2013/14.

Although the UK has committed to continue to operate its Reaper drones, due to air safety regulations they would simply not be allowed to fly in British airspace. So far the MoD have refused to reveal where their long-term home…

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U.S. Special Command outsourced $13 billion in contracts since 2009

A report by The Remote Control Project explores the billions of dollars’ worth of procurements by the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command. Unsurprisingly, the military-industrial complex is fully integrated in “off-the-radar” missions.

Corporations are integrated into some of the most sensitive aspects of these activities: flying drones and overseeing target acquisition, facilitating communications between forward operating locations and central command hubs, interrogating prisoners and translating captured material, and managing the flow of information from regional populations to the U.S.military presence and back again.
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