If the US cops attacking Black Lives Matters protesters look as if they’ve been kitted out like soldiers, it’s because they have.
Police dressed up like stormtroopers have confronted unarmed protesters with armoured vehicles, flashbang grenades and assault rifles that fire heavy, hard wooden and plastic bullets.
Much of that equipment has come directly from the US military.
The transfer of such weaponry is linked to increasing police violence.
One study published in 2017, and another in 2018, both found that the more military equipment a police department received, the more civilians it killed.
One condition on the transfer of equipment—that the force must use the equipment its sent within a year or return it—essentially encourages this.
The gas mask wearing, automatic rifle wielding, body armour clad cops is what happens when US imperialism meets racist policing.
Since 1989, US police forces have been able to pick up equipment from the military pretty much for free, thanks to the “1033” programme.
Made permanent in 1997 under Democratic president Bill Clinton, 1033 was part of the “war on drugs”—a policy that disproportionately incarcerated black people for minor offences.
But it was after the US’s wars in the Middle East began that military equipment really started flooding into police departments.
The US ramped up its military spending in the first decade of the 21st century for its invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. But after both ended in defeat, the US began trying to leave the region.
The military found itself with more gear than even it knew what to do with. So it went to the cops.
Surplus military equipment transferred to police increased gradually from the mid to late 2000s—then sharply after 2010.
In addition to that, since 2001 the US’s Department of Homeland Security paid out billions of pounds worth of grant money to police forces to buy military equipment elsewhere.
Since the 1033 programme launched, it has transferred at least £6 billion worth of equipment to roughly 8,000 police departments.
Some of the details of what ended up where would be almost funny if they weren’t so frightening.
The police department in Maricopa County, Arizona, has a .50 calibre machine gun that can blast through buildings.
The department in Johnston, Rhode Island, got ten tactical trucks, 35 assault rifles, more than 100 infrared gun sights and 44 bayonets. It has less than 100 officers.
The worst of it has gone to areas with high black and Hispanic populations.
A study published in the journal of the American Society of Criminology in 2018 found the larger the black and ethnic population, the greater the value of equipment transferred to the police force.
Armoured vehicles were unveiled at 2014 protest
Police militarisation and the 1033 programme first really hit the headlines in a major way after another wave of riots against police violence in 2014
Protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri after police shot dead black teenager Michael Brown.On the second day of protests, cops showed up in armoured vehicles brandishing shotguns and M4 rifles. People began investigating just where the gear had come from.
The case of the Los Angeles School Police Department caused particular shock and outrage when picked up by the press.
Reluctantly, it decided to give its three grenade launchers back to the military.
Under pressure, the then president Barack Obama passed some limitations on what cops could pick up through 1033.
No more grenade launchers, bayonets or weaponised aircraft.
But he didn’t mind the assault rifles, ammunition and armoured vehicles
And in any case, Donald Trump repealed the restrictions in 2017.
Process driven by racism
On the face of it, it can seem as if 1033 is the root of the problem.
Campaigners, journalists and academics argue that the influx of military equipment encourages a military mindset among the police.
That leads to a more violent, racist style of policing.
But the problem is much more than a matter of training and equipment.
During the war on drugs and the war on terror, the number of police departments with Swat— special weapons and tactics—teams increased, and so did their use.
By some estimates, Swat teams are now deployed some 160 times across the US.
That process began in the 80s long before 1033, and is linked to the war on drugs and later the war on terror. Swat—which began as a semi-military response to riots in the 1960s—became part of routine policing, particularly of poor black people.
Both it and 1033 are symptoms—not the cause—of a system that views them as a dangerous enemy.
Where better to learn how to behave as an occupying military force than Israel?
Many US police chiefs and departments have received training from the Israeli military on crowd control, use of force and surveillance.
Cops from Baltimore, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington state as well as the DC Capitol police have all travelled to Israel for training.
An army that grew up on US military aid now trains US cops.
It’s another way that the US’s imperialism is brought back onto its own streets.
Iraq war vehicles on streets
The Mrap—Mine Resistant Ambush Protected—armoured vehicle has almost become the symbol of the US’s militarised police.
These giant armoured in vehicles have been seen in Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.
But they owe their existence to the Iraq war.
After the invasion in 2003, the US faced armed resistance it didn’t know how to deal with.
The Mrap was designed to protect its soldiers from roadside bombs.
It didn’t stop that resistance forcing the US into a humiliating retreat. And now the Mrap is used against resistance at home.