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 June 17, 2020

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 911, 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 911. 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. 

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.
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