Apparently believing it will bolster his pro-police image, the Trump Administration has announced that it is reversing President Obama’s 2015 restrictions on the provision of certain U.S. military equipment to local American police forces.
Announcing the move on Monday to the Fraternal Order of Police convention in Nashville, Attorney General Jeff Sessions accused the former president of putting “superficial concerns above public safety” and cheered Trump’s decision, telling police that allowing cops to have military gear will send a message that “we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal.”
Far from superficial, the concerns surrounding local police forces being given weapons of war had longstanding and serious implications for American society. This was true particularly after the Global War on Terror fueled an increase in military spending that left even more surplus military goods to be doled out to the police.
Providing local police with bayonets and amphibious tanks has concerned civil rights groups since the program began back in 1997. This is primarily because to the extent police were ever asked to justify these acquisitions at all, they tended to present them as riot control gear to contend with civil unrest. With America in a state of constant warfare since 2001, this was not some idle excuse, but rather reflective of a broad change in mentality.
By 2014, the militarization of the American police force was less a fear than an accomplished fact in many cities. So when protests against police excesses broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, police dressed like, armed like, and acting like soldiers came out in force, aiming to end the protests by military means.
Which isn’t to say that Ferguson was the start of such abuses concerning military assets. In 2011, then-Sheriff of Maricopa County Joe Arpaio, as part of the TV show Lawman, executed a search warrant on a suspected cockfighting ring with a tank and multiple armored vehicles. The tank, manned by actor Steven Seagal, smashed into the house, fueling a lawsuit over the killing of the family’s puppy, along with over 100 roosters. That and 40 armed SWAT members were used to arrest a single unarmed man. At the time, Arpaio defended this approach as safety for the police, and the story was treated more as a joke than a disturbing augur of things to come.
Yet Ferguson marked a change in viewpoint for many people, not just on the issue of police accountability, but on this type of militarization. These incidents were repeated elsewhere in the country, and by early 2015, President Obama felt obliged to place at least some limits on the arms-transfer program.
Despite Sessions’ claim Obama went “too far,” the limits were extremely modest. Banned outright were tracked armored vehicles (i.e. tanks), grenade launchers, bayonets, and weapons and ammunition in excess of .50 caliber. These weapons were thought to pose the greatest threat of misuse. Other transfer programs remained intact, with only the qualification that police would have to justify what they needed the equipment for, and ensure that personnel were properly trained in its use.
For day-to-day operations, this meant little to police, though it did end those bizarre instances where the small-town police drive through town in a tank. It didn’t, however, eliminate those tanks as an option in show-of-force operations in the case of public protests, which was the whole point.
The threat of military force was never intended to be America’s answer to public dissent. That it was happening at all reflects a very dangerous trend toward militarization, not just in the police, but in the general attitude of public officials toward the citizenry.
President Trump’s reversal of the limits, then, is a frightful move. No longer can the hyper-militarism be viewed as an unintended byproduct of an administrative scheme to make money off military surplus. Rather, the reversal makes it clear that such weapons are being given to police by design, which is tantamount to a presidential imprimatur to use them.
This fits in very well with President Trump’s own discomfort when there are protests against his policies. In the end, the militarization of the police is about enhancing government control over the public at all levels, and there are few more dramatic deterrents to the public exercise of free speech than tanks being sent out to face protesters.
Unfortunately, the administration seems only too eager to play this up as part of a general war on crime, with Sessions taking the lead in saying this executive order proves that President Trump “will not allow criminal activity.”
This too poses a danger, as the use of military force against run-of-the-mill criminals is much more likely to be tolerated than use of such force against political rivals. Yet once such force becomes commonplace, its use against anyone may cease to be shocking or particularly controversial.
President Obama’s limitations clearly didn’t go far enough. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is proposing a bill, the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act,” which aims to absolutely ban the provision of “offensive” gear to police, limiting the transfers to body armor and helmets.
The Trump administration seems to be betting that there is little appetite in Congress to curtail this sort of armament, particularly so long as it is sold as being particularly tough on crime. Concern over the way this equipment has been misused—and undoubtedly will be misused again in the future—-will still remain a factor in the political battle.
And it’s a vital political battle. The freedom to peacefully assemble is one of the most essential freedoms imaginable. If that freedom is lost on the political front, police forces around the country, armed by the largest and most advanced military on the planet, will ensure it is never regained.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Daily Caller, The American Conservative, Washington Times, and Detroit Free Press.