The Militarization of American Streets

05/05/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

In the part of Baltimore hardest hit by the recent riots and arson, more than a third of families live in poverty, median income is $24,000, the unemployment rate is over 50 percent, some areas burnt out in the riots of 1968 have never been rebuilt, incarceration rates are sky high, 33 percent of the homes are vacant (thanks to an ongoing foreclosure crisis), and water service is being shut off for people who can't afford to pay rising water rates. Residents, mainly black, live in what is really an unofficially segregated, hollowed-out Rust Belt city that just happens to be located on the East Coast.

As Max Blumenthal pointed out when the city's mayor started denouncing "outside agitators," more than 70 percent of Baltimore's police force lives beyond the city limits, at least 10 percent of them out-of-state. The Baltimore PD is also notorious for its brutality, for the numbers of (black) residents it seems to gun down, and for its give-not-an-inch "broken windows" policing policies. In a city that is 62 percent black and 28 percent white, police officers are still 46 percent white and 80 percent outsiders heading into neighborhoods that are almost totally black. Unlike the residents of such neighborhoods, Baltimore's police lack for little. Thanks in part to Pentagon and other government programs, the force is armed to the teeth in the increasingly military fashion that has become the post-9/11 state of things (and that TomDispatch has been covering since 2004.) It acts as if it were, that is, an occupying army, not a neighborhood protector. In this sense, "community policing" is now a joke in the U.S.

When the CVS stores go up in flames and local stores are looted, politicians denounce what's happened and demand an instant return to law and order, while calling on police departments to wear body cameras and rethink their attitudes. But there's another reality that has to be faced. Give some credit to Hillary Clinton. In her recent speech on the police killings of black men from Ferguson to Baltimore, she included this single on-the-mark sentence: "We can start [building on what works] by making sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets." Put another way, you can't arm and militarize the police, as both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing since 9/11, and send them into impoverished communities as if for war, sporting a mind-set from the global war on terror, without getting what you've functionally wished for. In a sense, in the arms race that is America today, you might say that you are what you "carry."

Among the illusions of our age, there's this: the idea that the U.S. can fight wars in whatever fashion it pleases, year after year, in distant lands without changing our society as well. In fact, those wars have been coming home for a long time in myriad ways, and never more obviously than with American police forces and their practices. It's not just that the police (and SWAT units) are now filled with vets from the war on terror, or that they are armed with weaponry directly off its battlefields, but that the mentality that has made those wars such disasters has come home with the troops and weaponry.

As Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of the new book The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, suggests in "The Wars Come Home," thoroughly militarized, surveillance-heavy forces are bringing counterinsurgency thinking from Iraq and Afghanistan back to this country. The record of such thinking abroad brings to mind a question first raised by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren about Washington's new war in Iraq: What could possibly go wrong?