The Militarization of Police: But Why?

Since the beginning of the year, several stories in high-profile mainstream media publications have examined the increasing militarization of police forces in North America.

  • In March, The Economist wrote a feature on the phenomenon noting that the use of tactical units, which are often armed with military-style weaponry such as so-called flash-bag grenades and tear gas, has spiked in the United States. Some cities are now using tactical units for routine patrol. The Economist suggested that civil forfeiture laws, under which no criminal conviction is required for people to lose large assets, are actually making it profitable to seize alleged proceeds of crime.
  • In June, The New York Times reported that during the Obama years, police forces in the United States have received “thousands of machine guns” along with”armoured cars and aircraft.” The Times asked whether the events of September 11, 2001 have blurred the lines between soldier and police officer.
  • And on August 15, the Toronto Star published an in-depth look at the militarization of law enforcement both in Canada and in the United States, noting Toronto’s notorious G20 Summit as a domestic example. The story also pulls from a report by the American Civil Liberties Association that claims 62% of tactical deployments were for drug searches and thus, “inappropriate.”

There has been much written about the who, the what, the where and the how of police militarization but little delving into the why. In this post, I explore three possible, and arguably intersecting reasons for the why: (a) Following Giorgio Agamben, that security and the overstepping of the law by governments in order to save the constitution is a long-held practice and is now a paradigm of North American governance. (b) That the state continues to show itself as terrified of marginalized groups and is using violence to coerce co-operation or at least peace from those groups when they express anger. And, (c) That neoliberalism, or the trend of governments toward market solutions and the retreat by the state from social programs is necessarily resulting in the increased use of the state’s security apparatus to quell opposition to such a trend.

This analysis assumes the police are an enforcement arm of the state. 

While Agamben freely admits there is no singular definition of the state of exception, he argues that it constitutes “the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension.”[1] This, he claims, is a modern paradigm of governance. In other words, the state of exception is the situation in which the law is suspended to uphold the constitution of a particular society and that situation has become normalized and institutionalized as a driving pattern of governance. “In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of a state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system”, he tells us.[2] That is, the constitution can be suspended in order to save it. This state of exception has been taking root since the First World War, gained traction through National Socialism and has achieved its largest deployment today.[3] The state must have the tools necessary and at its disposal to continue to govern in a continuous state of exception, and thus, the militarization of the police, which function as its enforcement arm most often in times of crisis and suspension of liberties. The police are often the only coercion agency of the state funded at the local, state/provincial and federal levels of government, allowing multiple states of exception to exist — but also for a co-ordinated police effort during a singular state of exception to be possible. A good example of this cross-jurisdictional state of exception is the use of local[4], provincial[5] and federal[6] police officers during the Toronto G20 summit in 2010, during which the civil liberties of protesters were widely suspended and the largest mass arrest of Canadians occurred.[7]

The state of exception is also clearly being used to perpetuate and reproduce historic racism. But, the state of exception as a paradigm of government cannot be used to explain the cracking down on historically marginalized groups, such as Black North Americans and First Nations people. There is a deeper history there and I see it as being about the devaluing of human life via a structural racism that is woven into the fabric of North American governance. Black Americans and First Nations people have been subject to hyper-exploitation and attempts at genocide to the extent that the experiences of the oppressors — that is, overwhelmingly North Americans of European decent — have, I believe, formed an unfinished project of marginalization that continues to the present day. In situations such as these, and others, the state’s actions are not broadly based and sweeping but target specific groups because of antiquated notions about superiority or merely a depraved indifference to the lives and well-being of those who have endured despite attempts to kill them politically and biologically. The militarization of the police is necessary here for the state insofar as those who have fought and continue to fight against oppression do so while concurrently challenging the racist state’s fundamental legitimacy. As W. E. B. Du Bois puts it in Black Reconstruction in America: “[I]f the poor, unlettered toilers are given no political power, and are kept by exploitation in poverty, they will remain submerged unless rescued by revolution; and a philosophy will prevail, teaching that the submergence of the mass is inevitable and is on the whole best, not only for them, but for the ruling classes.”[8]. The state’s coercive response, as seen in situations such as demonstrations in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Mike Brown by a police officer in August 2014 and at the Elsipogtog First Nation in October 2013, are both attempts to assert a racist sovereignty and a superiority of the established ruling classes against the respective marginalized groups. Pam Palmater summed up the enforcement by the state of a sovereignty poisoned by racism in a post about the clash between Mi’kmaw activists and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Elsipogtog in a post only days afterward: “This heavy-handed deployment of heavily armed RCMP cops against women and children shows Canada’s complete disregard for our fundamental human rights and freedoms, and their ongoing disdain for Indigenous peoples. One RCMP officer’s comments summarized government position perfectly: ‘Crown land belongs to government, not to fucking natives.'”[9]

Finally, the nature of neoliberalism may be inherently coercive. As I have written here about neoliberalism in Ontario, some scholarly authorities see neoliberalism revealing increased authoritarianism. Concurrent with the neoliberal period generally and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 specifically has been an intensified securitization inside states, York University professor Greg Albo tells us. “In Canada this combination of economic and geopolitical interests has produced an internal realignment of the state, with military and security structures absorbing new funds and resources,” he notes.[10] If the police, again the department most often called to put down opposition to neoliberalism’s goals, are to be successful, they need the tools used to quell chaos. Such tools have been developed and deployed by the West during its ongoing wars on terrorism since 9/11 and logically, the fruits of those labours are spilling down to policing departments as such wars — take Afghanistan and Iraq for examples — wind down and focus shifts to domestic disturbances.

Whatever the “why”, and this analysis does not purport to be the final word, the militarization of the police is an ongoing phenomenon. Here, I have attempted to explore the state of exception, structural racism and neoliberalism as three possibilities for why the police in North America have become increasingly militarized. Any society that permits the expansion of the state’s coercion will inevitably have to deal with the counter pressure of civil rights activists. What is crucial to consider is the difference between a real crisis for the state and one that is a fictitious crisis in which civil and social rights are trumped so that the constitution may remain in place. What is left then, if the constitution survives such a battering by the state itself?


[1] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Trans. Kevin Attell, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 86-87.

[4] Graham Slaughter, “45-day jail sentence for Toronto police officer who beat G20 protester,” Toronto Star, December 9, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2013/12/09/45day_jail_sentence_for_toronto_police_officer_who_beat_g20_protester.html (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[5] Adrian Morrow and Daniel Leblanc, “Toronto police, OPP called the shots on G20 response, report says,” The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/toronto-police-opp-called-the-shots-on-g20-response-report-says/article4178745/ (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[6] Josh Visser, “RCMP abandoned policy when it participated in G20 ‘kettling,’ report says,” National Post, May 14, 2012, http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/14/rcmp-abandoned-policy-when-it-participated-in-g20-kettling-report-says/ (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[7] Canadian Civil Liberties Association, What Happened During the G20?, http://ccla.org/our-work/focus-areas/g8-and-g20/two-months-after-the-g20/ (accessed August 24, 2014).

[8] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, https://archive.org/details/blackreconstruc00dubo, 206 (accessed August 24, 2014).

[9] Pam Palmater, Feathers verus Guns: The Throne Speech and Canada’s War with the Mi’kmaw Nation at Elsipogtog, http://indigenousnationhood.blogspot.ca/2013/10/throne-speech-in-action-canada-is-at.html (accessed August 24, 2014).

[10] Greg Albo, “Fewer Illusions: Canadian Foreign Policy since 2001,” Empire’s Ally: Canada and the Afghanistan War, eds. G. Albo and J. Klassen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 253.

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