Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By Glen Ford
The corporate media, reflecting their owners’ anxiety at the failure of Black people to revert to a state of passivity in Ferguson, Missouri, have arrived at a general consensus on two counts: the need to “demilitarize” the police (fewer bullets, smaller armored vehicles?) and, more immediately, to re-establish some semblance of “calm” (as in comatose) in the neighborhood and beyond.
Corporate-attuned Black powerbrokers and politicians deliver essentially the same message, counseling (quiet) introspection and a search for “solutions” (diversions) to the historical oppression in which they are deeply complicit.
But first, tensions must be reduced, to diffuse the confrontation – which, we are told, serves no one’s interests but the “agitators and instigators” (who, apparently, have millions of dollars in derivatives wagers riding on urban chaos).
Fortunately, the “street” ignores the misleaders. If Ferguson had remained “calm” in the face of Michael Brown’s murder, nobody outside greater St. Louis would know the place existed.
De-militarize the police? After 50 years of seamlessly integrating the local constabulary into the National Security State and its War on Drugs, War on Terror, myriad and unending foreign wars, and of funneling millions of Black prisoners into the world’s largest system of incarceration, where would the process of demilitarization begin?
What, exactly, does it mean to be militarized?
Is it defined by the equipment the troops/cops carry?
Or, by the mission they are assigned?
If the mission of police forces in the United States is to contain, suppress, hyper-surveil and incarcerate huge numbers of Black people as a matter of policy, then police departments require all the tools the federal government has been giving them since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 – a cornerstone in the construction of a truly national, integrated gendarmerie, which is defined as “a military force charged with police duties among civilian populations.”
SWAT teams, first formed in Philadelphia in 1964 and Los Angeles in 1967 as unabashed counter-Black insurgency units, have proliferated to the far corners of the land, and are now standard drill for warrant-serving cops.
The domestic counterinsurgency army has been methodically expanded by each successive President, first through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and ultimately drawing on the stocks of, not only the Pentagon, but virtually every armed agency of the federal government.
President Obama, to whom idiots appeal to scale back police militarization, is as hawkish as any of his predecessors in about keeping America safe from Black-inner city insurgency.
The lead sentence in an item the New York Times blandly titled “Data on Transfer of Military Gear to Police Departments,” tells the tale, succinctly: “Since President Obama took office, the Pentagon has transferred to police departments tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”
Clearly, the U.S. is at war with Black America.
All the nation’s police departments are following the same drill, with the same tools and weapons, under the same mandate: keep the Blacks in check; terrorize them as a matter of policy; provoke them, when it is politically convenient; and keep them imprisoned at rates never experienced over time by any group that was not formally enslaved.
This is not “mission creep,” but the logical fulfillment of the mandate handed down by the collective political leadership of the United States in response to the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties – a movement whose most militant sector was “militarily defeated,” as Black Is Back Coalition chairman Omali Yeshitela points out, by the U.S. gendarmerie’s counterinsurgency campaign of assassination, disruption and mass arrests.
The U.S. government was not content to simply crush the organized activists, but opted to put Black Americans as a group under a militarized regime of mass incarceration. That’s the regime that shot Michael Brown six times, two Saturdays ago, and which has since sent reinforcements in various uniforms to bolster the state’s longstanding policy of Black containment.
That’s why Al Sharpton statements on Ferguson are diversionary, at best:
"America as a nation, Missouri as a state, Ferguson as a city, is at a defining moment on whether or not we know and are mature enough to handle policing — whether it goes over the line or not.... All policemen are not bad; most policemen are not bad. But all of them are not right all the time. And when they're wrong, they must pay for being wrong just like citizens pay when they're wrong.... Looting is wrong. We condemn the looters. But when will law enforcement condemn police who shoot and kill our young people? We got to be honest on both sides of this discussion."
We only quote Sharpton because his views are essentially representative of the Black Misleadership Class, which has presided over nearly half a century of mass Black incarceration and containment, yet continues to counsel that African Americans are only a reform or two away from true “freedom.” Sharpton wants Black people and the police to understand each other’s perspectives, which is the common refrain of corporate media, as well.
Fortunately, the defiant activists in Ferguson understand all too well where the police are coming from. This is not about bad, rogue cops, but an entrenched system of Black oppression that the cops are paid and trained to enforce.
It was understandable that previous generations of Black people, who came to political consciousness in the late Fifties and Sixties, could believe that growing police repression would surely be overcome by what seemed like the inexorable rise of Black majorities and decisive voting pluralities in the cities.
But the election of Black city councilpersons and mayors did not transform the fundamental relationship between the community and the police, who were even more quickly being integrated into a national gendarmerie that was sworn to impose what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow.
Meanwhile, the Black Misleadership Class – the beneficiaries of the limited, civil rights gains of the Sixties – spent most of their energies integrating themselves into the Democratic Party and affiliated corporate structures, while accepting every gift of guns and gear from the feds.
Black majority rule does not automatically transform the relationship between cops and citizens. Newark, New Jersey, for example, has had Black mayors since 1970. Yet, a U.S. Justice Department review shows that cops violate the rights of residents in 75 percent of pedestrian stops. There is nothing atypical about Newark among largely Black cities.
Back in the late Sixties, many believed that an influx of new, Black and brown police would compel local departments to “protect and serve” the people, rather than protect white privilege and serve the rich and powerful. It does generally appear that Black cops are somewhat less likely to kill or maim Black residents, but the repressive relationship is not fundamentally altered by their increased presence on the force.
In New Orleans, which has had a number of Black police chiefs, about 40 percent of the department is Black. Nevertheless, the department’s conduct in Black neighborhoods is as savage and predatory as in any city in the nation.
Back in 1969, it was not hopelessly naïve to believe that the establishment of civilian review boards to oversee police departments would make a huge difference in the lives of people at the other end of the nightstick. Today, there are plenty of such boards, with varied levels of independence and power, but nowhere can it be said that review boards have fundamentally altered Black-police relationships in statistically significant ways.
If the people of Ferguson or anyplace else demand more Black police officers or a civilian police review board, we should all support them. But we have the benefit of history to inform us that such reforms will have only marginal impact on community-police relations as long as the police mission is to contain and incarcerate Black people – which is the root of the militarized police state. The same “army/police” rules everywhere in America.
There is no liberated territory – not yet. But, that must be the goal.
Glen Ford is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com. Reprinted with permission of Black Agenda Report, blackagendareport.com.