By Sophie Squire
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2904

How the United States militarised its police

Equipment that US soldiers aren’t using is given to police
Issue 2904
LAPD Swat team

Los Angeles Police Department Swat team (Picture/ Flickr: Marc Cooper)

The police invasion of Emory University in Georgia, in the United States, to break up pro-Palestinian protests was like being in a “war zone”. “There were the police and their weapons, the rubber bullets. We were pushed away. I held onto one of my students,” Emil’ Keme, a ­professor on the Atlanta campus, said.

It’s no surprise students and workers feel like they are at war. They face cops decked out with weaponry and armoured vehicles that have been tried and tested in actual wars. Billions of dollars’ worth of surplus armoured vehicles, ammunition and even clothes that US soldiers aren’t using are shipped to police ­departments instead. 

In 1989 president George H W Bush signed the National Defense Authorisation Act, opening up the floodgates for the sale of military equipment to police departments. Bush’s supposed ­justification was that the cops needed to be better equipped to fight terrorism and the war on drugs. 

Over the last three ­decades, the act has enabled the sale of more than £6 ­billion worth of military equipment to police departments. At the University of California (UCLA) last week the police used tear gas and flash bang grenades against students. 

The Los Angeles police classify both weapons as “military equipment”—and both have been used in ­imperialist terror. Tear gas ­incapacitates people by causing irritation to the eyes and by making it difficult to breathe. It was used by the US against the Vietnamese ­resistance during the war.

But since the early 1990s, several international conventions have banned tear gas for use in warfare. So, instead of using tear gas against its international enemies, the US state uses it against protesters on home turf. Flash bang grenades produce an ear-piercing bang and a flash of white light when detonated. They temporarily blind and deafen people.

The US military has used these weapons widely, ­usually in urban warfare. At The University of Texas in Austin students protesting for Palestine have fought against some of the most brutal police repression. 

The cops decided to stock up on military equipment a week before the students set up their encampment. On 19 April, Redwood City Council approved the sale of military equipment to them. The sale included 40mm 4-projectile tactical launchers, designed for use against crowds. This is another weapon cops describe as “non-lethal”.

This phrase is used by the state to play down the harm such weapons can do. The projectile launcher, for example, launches “sponge grenades”. The name makes them sound harmless. But the grenades can cause broken bones, head wounds and damage to the eyes.

These are the kinds of weapons that the Austin Police Department have at their disposal to use against protesters. And there are links between the terror the US police spread on university campuses and the brutality Israel commits against the Palestinians. 

The same New York Police Department that threw students down stone stairs at Columbia University sends its police officers to train in Israel. New York district attorney Miriam Rocah tweeted last year that a 32-member delegation travelled to Israel last October for “international terrorism and antisemitism training”.

And this training goes both ways. The Los Angeles Police Department has maintained a close relationship with Israeli armed forces since the 1980s, trading delegations back and forth to learn from each other. The links between the US police and military and Israel shows how the US state works to crush resistance to imperialism wherever it rears its head.

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