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

  1. Pingback: Ferguson and beyond – some resources of critique | AntipodeFoundation.org

  2. Rina Ghose says:

    Thanks for posting this.

  3. Meghan says:

    Thank you for this insightful integration of the Ferguson riots into the historical narrative.

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