The indefensible death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the indiscriminate police violence in subsequent protests have returned police misconduct to the center of our national conversation.
It is not a conversation we may quickly or easily conclude. The problems in American policing are multitude and systemic, matters of both policy and culture. Much of this can only be corrected at the state or local level, and as there are around 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, this is a monumental task. In very few cases could sweeping federal action affect any substantive reform
But one way in which Washington is directly implicated in police brutality is its contribution to the militarization of local police departments through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program and the so-called “war on terror” more broadly. Often in concert with the war on drugs, the fight against terrorism has been used to blur the lines between the military and the police, arming ostensible peace officers with mindsets, tactics, and weapons of war.
Many Americans first learned of the 1033 Program in 2014, when both peaceful protest and destructive unrest broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Photos from Ferguson showed police rolling through suburban streets in armored vehicles which, to the civilian eye, looked like tanks in a war zone. They looked like military gear because they were military gear — Defense Department castoffs given to local police departments for counter-drug and counter-terror operations.
The 1033 Program provides much more than vehicles. Police can also request weapons including bayonets, automatic rifles, and grenade launchers, as well as ammunition, body armor, robots, watercraft, and aircraft including surveillance drones. Former President Obama placed a few limits on the equipment transfers in 2015; Present Trump has since lifted them.
The outcome was predictable: Police never felt constrained by the Pentagon’s suggestion for how its hand-me-downs should be used. Cops use military gear when responding even to nonviolent protests, as we’ve seen yet again this past week. They use it in many more mundane situations, too.
Heavily armed SWAT teams, originally created for barricade and hostage situations, are widely employed beyond that intended purpose. Documented uses include arresting an unarmed optometrist for privately betting on football games, ransacking a backyard chicken coop, preventing unlicensed barbering, and forestalling a suicide attempt by preemptively killing the suicidal man.
Armored vehicles are used to patrol beaches, malls, theme parks, and college ball games. The St. Louis County Police Department, which includes Ferguson in its purview, uses a SWAT team to execute all search warrants. It is not unique in that practice. Escalation and threat inflation have become routine in American policing as they are in American foreign policy.
The 1033 Program, which predates post-9/11 counterterror efforts, is not the only way the our endless wars has fostered police militarization in America. Two other aspects deserve special attention.
First, less visible than armored vehicles is the civil liberties threat posed by the militarization of police intelligence collection and use. The “war on terror” served as justification for a massive expansion of domestic surveillance in America, and that expansion has trickled down from Washington to police departments around the country. Federal agencies share the data they collect via warrantless mass surveillance with state and local law enforcement. This spying is used to investigate suspected crimes with no connection to terrorism.
It’s also used to spy on people not suspected of any crime at all: Washington “loosened or ignored law enforcement guidelines restricting intelligence gathering [by] removing or weakening the criminal predicates necessary to ensure a proper focus on illegal activity,” a Brennan Center report explains. That produced “increased police spying on minorities and political dissidents and increased efforts to escape judicial and public oversight.” Meanwhile, federal funds buy police departments ever more invasive spying technology, including Stingray cell-site simulators whose use is actively concealed from the public.
Beyond the gear and surveillance, however, perhaps the most damaging effect of war on terror-encouraged police militarization is psychological. It pushes police officers engaging with the public to behave as they look, to act like soldiers dealing with enemy combatants. The task conforms to the tools provided — with deadly result.
“Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger,” observed The Concourse writer Greg Howard amid the Ferguson demonstrations in 2014. “If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy.”
This dynamic is deliberate: Police officers are explicitly trained to conceive of themselves as warriors in battle, always on high alert and prepared to kill. And it is disproportionately true in black and other minority communities, as the deaths of Floyd and Brown — and Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson and Philando Castile and Walter Scott and Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones and so many more — steadily remind us. As long as police continue to function as an occupying military force, that list will continue to grow.
There has been a lot of concern on how the protests over the past several days may produce a wave of coronavirus cases. This discussion is often framed as though the pandemic and protests in support of black lives are wholly separate issues, and tackling one requires neglecting the other. But some public health experts are pushing people to understand the deep connection between the two.
Facing a slew of media requests asking about how protests might be a risk for COVID-19 transmission, a group of infectious disease experts at the University of Washington, with input from other colleagues, drafted a collective response. In an open letter published Sunday, they write that “protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”
The letter and the experts who signed it make a case for viewing the protests not primarily as something that could add to cases of coronavirus (though they might) but as a tool to promote public health in and of themselves. Protests address “the paramount public health problem of pervasive racism,” the letter notes. “We express solidarity and gratitude toward demonstrators who have already taken on enormous personal risk to advocate for their own health, the health of their communities, and the public health of the United States.”
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,000 epidemiologists, doctors, social workers, medical students, and other health experts had signed the letter. The creators had to close a Google Sheet with signatures to the public after alt-right messages popped up, but they plan to publish a final list soon, says Rachel Bender Ignacio, an infectious disease specialist and one of the letter’s creators. The hopes for the letter are twofold. The first goal is to help public health workers formulate anti-racist responses to media questions about the health implications. The second is to generate press to address a general public that may be concerned about protests spreading the virus.
“We live in an age where you are privy to seeing veritable lynching on your smartphone,” says Jade Pagkas-Bather, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Chicago. The response now “has been a long time coming.” My colleague Julia Craven described the sensation of watching black people die at the hands of law enforcement, and feeling caught in a loop of trauma:
As protesters pour into the streets of Minneapolis, Louisville, Denver, and other cities, Black folks are jerked back to 2012, when Rekia Boyd was shot by an off-duty police officer and when Trayvon Martin was gunned down by an overzealous rent-a-cop. Or to 2013, when Renisha McBride was killed while seeking help after a car accident. Or to 2015, when Gray’s spine was severed in the back of a police van, when Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail.
It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing protests against racism during a pandemic. Racism is dangerous to public health because black people experience disproportionate effects of the coronavirus, as Craven has documented extensively. Race can affect how difficult it is to get a test, whether drugs and vaccines are designed to work for you, whether health professionals believe and listen to you. Incarceration rates are higher for black people—the virus thrives in prison—as are rates for diseases that in turn exacerbate COVID-19. “The reason why we have such high levels of diabetes, hypertension, and asthma is directly linked to structural racism,” physician Uché Blackstock told Craven in March. “We’re already very vulnerable.”
That link between racism and disease is why Ayesha Appa, an infectious disease fellow at the University of California–San Francisco, signed the letter when she saw it circulating on Twitter. “It is part of our job as infectious disease doctors to add our words of support.” She calls racism “one of the more dangerous infectious diseases.” The explicit link between white supremacy and public health is why Dashawna Fussell-Ware, a social worker and doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, put her name on the letter. She felt frustrated with a lack of responses from formal organizations. “I need very public denouncements of racism and white supremacy,” Fussell-Ware said. “We’re not going to condemn the protests—that was really, really important to me.”
In the long term, breaking down structural racism is an unequivocal public health good. In the short term, we are in danger of overemphasizing the viral spread that might come from the protests, these experts argue. “We should have a realistic awareness that we may be tasked with more cases,” says Pagkas-Bather. But she adds that the protests are “not happening in a vacuum.” They’re happening as states are relaxing stay at home orders, as largely white crowds head to pool parties and brunch. “We’re not going to be able to pin this on the protests,” says Pagkas-Bather.
The letter outlines a number of ways that protesters can reduce the risk of spreading or catching the coronavirus, such as wearing masks, distancing, and, if they’re sick, staying home and donating supplies to others instead. But many of the risks of viral spread could be mitigated by law enforcement themselves. “I imagine this wouldn’t happen, but what a wonderful place this would be if law enforcement passed out masks to those that didn’t have them,” says Appa. Instead law enforcement is instigating violence that—beyond the direct harm of rubber bullets and tear gas itself—pushes people into close contact and induces coughing. Putting protesters on buses and in jail also increases the risk of spread, notes Appa. That is: Many instances of increased transmission at protests are stemming from racism itself.