How Our Bloated Military Strengthens the Police State

The violent U.S. domination of people of color overseas is inextricably linked to the oppression of people of color at home.

Shireen Al-Adeimi and Sarah Lazare

Armed National Guard soldiers patrol on Hollywood Blvd, June 1, 2020 in Hollywood, California amid Black Lives Matter protests. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Nationwide uprisings over the police killing of George Floyd have forced a long overdue discussion about the injustices of U.S. policing — an institution that has consistently harassed and terrorized and, in the words of organizer, writer and educator Mariame Kaba, remains a consistent force of violence against Black people.” As demands to abolish the police are thrust into mainstream discourse, promising — if uncertain and mixedpolitical changes are being debated and implemented every day. We are seeing a rigorous interrogation of the systems that uphold and compound the brutality of policing: prisons, austerity, and racial housing segregation.

Black and Brown activists in the United States have, for decades, described domestic police departments as occupying forces.

The U.S. military, by far the most well-funded in the world, with roughly 800 bases scattered across the globe, must factor heavily into this conversation. The United States already acts as the police force of the world, enforcing violent domination through drone wars, proxy battles, land grabs, meddling and military prisons. This violent system, in turn, reinforces racist policing at home, from the unleashing of counterinsurgency tactics on Black and Brown communities to the use of the Patriot Act to expand the drug war. We cannot talk about reparations for the harms wrought by U.S. police without taking aim at the military — the U.S. government’s global, more than $700 billion police force.

This is not to say U.S. policing is the same as U.S. global militarism, or a call to prioritize critiques of empire over those opposing domestic policing, but rather, to recognize that there is a connection, a feedback loop fueled by racism, surveillance tech and a system that, by its very nature, chooses militarism over social welfare, and domination over democracy. Those in power understand the connection: They routinely exchange tactics, hardware, and systems of social control. Those on the business end of this collective system of oppression should as well.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the ways in which U.S. militarism fortifies the very police injustices inspiring people to take to the streets today.

Patriot Act used to expand drug war

The Patriot Act was rammed through Congress with remarkably little debate 45 days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and signed less than a month after the United States invaded Afghanistan. It was a product of a war-mongering climate, in which then-President George W. Bush emphasized the need to crack down on terrorism.”

This goal itself is troubling, given that the United States used this pretext to wreak terror around the world, and in the United States through a crackdown on civil liberties. But the Patriot Act wasn’t limited to terrorism”: It broadly expanded law enforcement powers to search, surveil, investigate and indefinitely detain people. Among its effects, the Patriot Act has been used to expand the racist war on drugs.

Section 213 of the Patriot Act allows law enforcement, in some cases, to conduct searches without giving advance notice to the individual being searched, in what’s known as sneak and peek” searches. According to an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in 2013, the vast majority of such warrants were granted for drug searches. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism,” says the EFF. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.” Mark Cooke from the ACLU-Washington argued in a 2011 article that the thousands of sneak and peek” drug searches granted under the Patriot Act are a classic case” of mission creep” — i.e. powers granted for one purpose being used for another.” 

Section 213 isn’t the only drug war measure. In 2006, the Patriot Act implemented another provision that created a new category of crime: narco-terrorism. A New Yorker article published in 2015 found that a number of prosecutions under this law entirely relied on the D.E.A. to make the link between drug trafficking and terrorism, and that, with each successful” prosecution under this provision, the D.E.A. has lobbied Congress to increase its funding.” This means that Patriot Act prosecutions have been used to expand a key purveyor of the drug war, which has disproportionately harmed Black people.

National Guard used to crack down on Black-led uprisings

U.S. police and sheriffs’ departments aren’t the only law enforcement bodies in the United States. The National Guard, the reserve force for the Army and Air Force, has not only been used to fight wars abroad, but to police communities here at home. The Guard, which emerged from state militias that waged brutal onslaughts against Native Americans, has been used to break strikes, massacre workers and police communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. It is subject to the dual authority of states and the federal government. When President Trump unleashed racist fear-mongering against a caravan” of migrants traveling from Central America in October 2018, more than 2,000 members of the National Guard were deployed to assist the border patrol with intelligence and surveillance. The massive U.S. military budget, which accounts for 38% of all global military spending, not only allows the United States to brutally police the rest of the world, but also adds military might to domestic policing.

In recent days we have seen this military might used to repress Black-led, multiracial uprisings against racist policing. On June 2, the Guard said nearly 41,500 National Guard members were activated in 33 states and Washington, D.C., to respond to civil unrest.” (The Guard has since withdrawn from some of those places.) The National Guard has been involved in at least two shootings related to that deployment. In one of them, Louisville police and Kentucky National Guard members shot live ammunition into a crowd in the city’s West End, a majority-Black neighborhood, killing David McAtee, a 53-year-old Black man. In Washington, D.C., National Guard troops helped police violently quell a protest on June 1 so that Trump could participate in a photo op at St. John’s Church. As author, educator and artist Benji Hart told In These Times for a previous article, The deployment of the National Guard should absolutely be viewed as a military occupation of Black and Brown communities.”

Counterinsurgency tactics used in policing

According to the Counterinsurgency Guide published in 2009 by the U.S. Department of State, COIN — a military acronym for counterinsurgency — is defined as comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes.” These tactics aim to establish government control through integrating political, economic, security and informational functions that aim to marginalize insurgents.” While the Guide notes that COIN always involves loss of life,” overtly violent strategies like detaining and killing insurgents and soft power ones such as establishing influence and control through aid provision have been undertaken in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, alongside brutal invasions, occupations and massacres. COIN’s use with police forces has also been prevalent. Reflecting the two sides of COIN — hard” and soft” approaches — the Guide is co-signed by Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates (then Secretaries of State and Defense, respectively), as well as Henrietta Fore, then-USAID Administrator and current UNICEF Executive Director.

In describing the need for counterinsurgency approaches domestically, the guide notes, COIN situations often arise because the police are incapable of maintaining order (whether through lack of capacity, lack of capability, corruption or active bias) and so military intervention is often necessary.” While this passage references non-U.S. police forces, the characterization highlights the U.S. military’s view that it has the right to intervene in domestic policing when they assess police forces to be unable to carry out their duties.

In recent years, military-developed counterinsurgency tactics have been used by U.S. police departments to target internal groups. Examples of COIN tactics include political and information functions used on alleged street gangs in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2013, and information” tactics that led to the widespread spying on Muslims in New York City beginning in 2002. The domestic application of these tactics is rooted in the idea that it is necessary to pacify any group deemed to challenge a government’s authority. These tactics aim to establish domination and control, and they erode self-determination, whether unleashed in the United States or abroad.

Spying on Muslims

In the years following 9/11, Muslims in the United States were surveilled by various police departments, including the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, which profiled and surveilled Muslim communities without suspicion. According to the ACLU, the NYPD’s spying methods included creating intelligence databases, mapping neighborhoods with 28 ancestries of interests,” video and photo surveillance of anyone attending mosques, and utilizing police informants to initiate and report conversations about terrorism.

In 2018, the NYPD reached a settlement in the first of three lawsuits filed by Muslim Americans challenging the department’s suspicionless surveillance program. Among those who received damages were the Council of Imams in New Jersey, who represent several historically Black mosques that were subject to surveillance. A couple who ran a Black girls’ school that was surveilled by police received $2,500 in the settlement.

These, and other policies, such as stop-and-frisk, which was later ruled unconstitutional, were largely carried out during Mike Bloomberg’s tenure as New York City Mayor. During his presidential bid earlier this year, Bloomberg eventually acknowledged that stop-and-frisk disproportionately affected Black and Brown New Yorkers, but continued to defend his surveillance of Muslims, going so far as to falsely claim, The police only went in, when the mosque, when the imam, asked us to go in.”

Exchanges between police and military

Signed in 1878, the Posse Comitatus Act limits the U.S. military’s role in domestic law enforcement. To circumvent this prohibition, however, First Lieutenant Steven C. Dowell Jr. argues in an article published in Joint Force Quarterly, we are superseding the original intent of the Posse Comitatus Act by simply transitioning military styles, skills, technology, and tactics to civilian police officers.” Despite a prohibition of the use of the Army and Air Force for domestic functions, Dowell notes that military aircraft and crew were enlisted to search Maryland and Virginia during the October 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. This was later found to not violate the Posse Comitatus Act.

Whether through formal joint trainings between military and civilian police or through the use of military-grade weapons to suppress protests over the police murder of George Floyd, the increasing militarization of the police is widespread. Companies such as Combined Tactical Systems, a leading producer of tear gas, sell their weapons to both domestic law enforcement agencies and military forces.

There is reason to believe that mass protests can chip away at these harmful alliances. Urban Shield used to be an annual anti-terror, law enforcement training in Oakland that brought together SWAT teams and military contractors from around the world. The trainings provoked mass protests. What Urban Shield represents to us is the epitome of state repression that has been impacting communities of color and immigrant communities for decades,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, said in 2013. The training was finally cancelled due to mass protests, but, as the War Resisters League notes, similar militaristic conferences like it are spreading to other locations.

The revolving door of training,” information sharing” and anti-terrorist tactics” between U.S. police departments and the Israel Defense Force — the U.S. military’s number-one ally, — has troubled both anti-police and anti-war activists for years. There is an ongoing effort, supported by ostensible civil rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League, to, in the words of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), bring together police, ICE, border patrol, and FBI from the US with soldiers, police, border agents, etc. from Israel.” These deadly exchanges,” as JVP calls these overseas training programs, encourage the sharing of repressive, racist, and lethal policing tactics across the U.S. and Israel. And the training program uses these shared tactics to build a common sense of geopolitical affinity, giving both countries greater political cover on the global stage to continue their ruthlessness.

Society that emphasizes security state, not vital social goods

On the political level, the bloated U.S. military budget, the largest in the world by far, and bloated police budgets, share the same ideological underpinnings: the idea that the role of the state is to provide security” — a euphemism for violent domination — rather than to provide care. No matter how many people are hungry, jobless or impoverished, there always seems to be enough money for the security state, while it’s the welfare state that is on the chopping block.

We see this dynamic reflected in police budgets today. According to a data analysis by the The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project 100, police in major urban areas across the United States receive an astronomical percentage of discretionary funds compared to resources that actually keep communities safe,” like mental health clinics and well-funded schools. Police budgets continue to be consistent across diverse geographies and cities in the United States,” the analysis finds, with up to 20% to 45% of discretionary funds allocated to the violent system.”

In many cases, there is a direct line between U.S. militarism abroad and expanded policing programs at home. A Countering Violent Extremism program was started by Obama’s Department of Justice in 2011 as part of War on Terror efforts to target supposedly violent ideologies. In practice, it has been primarily used to surveil Muslim communities, and encourage Muslims to spy on each other. While legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security predates September 11, 2001, when this agency was formally created in 2002, it was framed as a response to 9/11. DHS has set up fusion centers in collaboration with the FBI and local police that have been used to spy on protest movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. The 1033 Program, established under the George H.W. Bush administration, transfers surplus military equipment, like humvees and grenade launchers, to civilian police departments. While the Obama administration partially curtailed this program, Trump reversed that decision in 2017, and the 1033 Program is intact today.

Black and Brown activists in the United States have, for decades, described domestic police departments as occupying forces. It logically follows that a country occupying, subjugating — and assisting client states in occupying and subjugating their noncompliant populations, from Afghanistan to Yemen to Palestine — would enforce social control against oppressed and exploited classes at home. The military and police accomplish this by exchanging tactics, training, psychological operations, and other means of pacification.

As the call to defund and abolish the police rings out from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, it’s vital to recognize just how deep the connection between U.S. militarism and policing goes. This is something the Movement for Black Lives emphasized in its 2016 policy platform, which says, America is an empire that uses war to extend territory and power. American wars are unjust, destructive to Black communities globally and do not keep Black people safe locally.” With National Guard troops deployed in U.S. streets alongside cops, it’s no stretch to make the connection. But even when those Guard members go home, we will still confront a militarized security state — one that prioritizes violent domination over meeting basic human needs. 

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Shireen Al-Adeimi is an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University. Having lived through two civil wars in her country of birth, Yemen, she has played an active role in raising awareness about the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led war on Yemen since 2015. Through her work, she aims to encourage political action among fellow Americans to bring about an end to U.S. intervention in Yemen. Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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