Time to Put an End to Police Militarization

In August of 1965 I sat in a barracks in Fort Irwin California on high alert as our Battalion’s tanks were loaded onto flat cars ready to deploy to Watts, waiting to see if President Lyndon Johnson was going to declare a state of emergency and send federal troops to aid the police and National Guard already fighting rioters and looters.

If he had done so, we would probably have been the first army troops to reach the area since we were only hours away. As I watched the television screen late into the night I prayed we wouldn’t be sent. We had spent years learning how to destroy tanks in desert warfare and were quite good at it, but I couldn’t imagine how that would help us control rioters and looters.

It would have seemed surreal to lead a column of tanks from LA’s railroad yards to the Watts areas — high school footage of Russian tanks rolling into Hungary immediately came to mind. I hadn’t joined the army to invade an American city, and I’m sure none of the many enlisted men in my platoon many who had come from the LA area wanted to “invade” their home town, either.

Tanks are ill-suited for riot control, though the sheer shock of seeing a column of tanks rolling down the streets of Watts might have quelled the rioting temporarily. What would we do, though, if we came under sniper fire? Would we have been under orders to just button up and wait for the fire to stop, or would we have returned fire? An M60’s 105mm canon, it’s 50 caliber machine gun, and even the gunner’s 7.62 machine gun are not meant for precision fire. If you took a sniper out with a 105mm round, you would probably take out the sniper’s neighbors, too. That’s not liable to create goodwill in the neighborhood, as the Israeli’s should have learned by now.

After the shock effect of the tank columns had dissipated, snipers or rioter’s with Molotov cocktails would have felt compelled to try to take on the tanks that were occupying their neighborhood. Molotov cocktails were used as early as the Spanish Civil War to combat superior armored forces and are particularly effective in urban areas where they can be dropped on tops of tanks as they pass below. Still, I suspect the real reason Johnson did not send in federal troops was because he didn’t want Americans seeing tanks rolling down the streets of their country on the evening news. A country is in serious trouble when they have to call up the military to suppress rioting.

I got a real taste of what it was like to been seen as an occupying force by the people you’re supposed to be guarding a few months later when our Battalion was sent to Vietnam. By that time I was the heavy mortar platoon leader, not a tank platoon leader. There wasn’t actually much use for a mortar platoon in a tank Battalion where we were stationed, so my platoon was assigned to guard a village where they were building our Battalion’s permanent base. At least that’s what we told the locals when we started building our barracks just outside their village, the theory then being that if we could protect the villager’s from outsiders, i.e. Viet Cong, they would gladly join our side.

We tried to coördinate our forces with the village elders, hiring Vietnamese interpreters to work with them. We even hired villagers to help build our camp, doing everything from filling sandbags to building furniture from the shipping crates used to transport our equipment from the states. Apparently a steady income wasn’t enough to buy their loyalty, because we caught fire from the village nearly nightly, along with a few grenades and Soviet-supplied claymore mines.

I suspect if we had done our job (though it was never exactly clear what our job description really was, other than trying to stay alive until we could get back to reality) we would have talked more to the people about what was going on and patrolled the village with Vietnamese locals. That would have been tough since none of us spoke Vietnamese, or even French, for that matter, and none of us had any police training.

As it was, we huddled up at night in wagon-train fashion outside the village, and returned fire only when fired upon. That probably meant the villagers had to spend all the nights we were there sleeping flat on the ground to avoid shots coming their way. Not surprisingly, at least 90 per cent of the fire we got while I was there came from the village we were “protecting,” not from Viet Cong patrols in the jungle, the side where our tanks had been stationed after an earlier attack.

After particularly long nights the local Catholic priest and head of the village would come out and talk to us, assuring us that everyone in the village was on our side, that we shouldn’t fire in their direction. We nodded our heads, agreeing with everything they said and assured them we were doing our best not to fire into the village unless absolutely necessary. At least I think that was what we told them, for it turned out that our interpreter was a Viet Cong who was captured by an infantry unit while out patrolling the jungle in front of our position.

Though our job was supposedly to protect the villagers, in retrospect I suspect that having tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed outside the village helped the Viet Cong to gain new recruits. I even suspect if I had been Vietnamese I would have been one of those who joined the Viet Cong. What true patriot wouldn’t take up arms against an occupying force?

There’s another less obvious, but equally critical, problem with using military equipment like armored personal carriers in policing an area. They engender a sense of power, perhaps even a sense of superiority, in those who use them. Under the right/wrong conditions, high-powered military equipment conveys a sense of power that can give you the confidence you need to fight under battle conditions. Feeling far too vulnerable in my assigned jeep, when a fire-fight started I jumped in a PC and manned a 50 caliber machine gun, never doubting that there was an enemy I couldn’t kill or repel. That feeling is a lot more apt to keep you alive in combat than cowering while the enemy pours lead on your position. I doubt it is a helpful feeling in policing the people you’re hired to protect.

All my experiences tell me that militarizing the police who are supposed to protect us is a mistake. When I saw the police in Ferguson sitting on the top of armored personnel carriers wearing flack jackets, it was hard not to flashback to my own experiences in Vietnam. Who was stupid enough to believe that a military-like presence would defuse the situation instead of inflaming it? Since the State Police and the National Guard have finally led to quiet, some would argue that military force was the answer, that it just took more force than the police could muster with their limited resources.

That may be true if your only goal is to maintain the status quo, but it’s clear the state is not willing to invest those kinds of resources for very long and, in fact, are already withdrawing the National Guard after the first night of calm.

I’m not wise enough to know what fault to assign to those involved in the incident that triggered these protests, but I do know that such incidents are inevitable as long as police are seen as an occupying force by the majority of residents. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that we are seeing repeated in large parts of American, not just Ferguson.

6 thoughts on “Time to Put an End to Police Militarization

  1. I don’t follow your point re maintaining the status quo. If the military presence produced a state of calm, isn’t that a good thing?

    • I agree that producing a state of calm can be a good thing, especially if it provides an opportunity to address the underlying injustice. but until the causes that caused the rioting are addressed and solved, it is at best a temporary state of calm. If the “status quo” is unjust, how can restoring it be a good thing?

  2. There is nothing like reading of people’s first hand experience. I think if a population feel sufficiently provoked to riot then the government’s first priority is to de-escalate the situation. Something has to be done to remove the provocation. To militarize those policing the riots is clearly to do the opposite of what you need to do to restore order. It’s like noticing you’re bleeding and attacking the cut with a knife.

  3. Being disquieted with the development in Ukraine I wanted to learn about an attitude of somebody sensible in the USA. As you are the only one I know I looked after some time at your blog and see if you are concern of the situation. It was probably just a chance that in your last blog you have expressed your doubts about US police which showed ,e you ate the right person.
    You know, I’m a quite old person and I spent the majority of my life under a totalitarian power – the beginning under German Nazis and then under Soviet communists.
    Anyway at that time we had hope. Hope that Nazis will be defeated and during communist rule that there are countries, whose people can express freely their opinion, can read whatever was published, can have friends all over the world, can travel wherever they want.
    Thanks to Gorbatshow it came to the changes and we got freedom I doubted we will ever obtain.
    But what now? What I see happening in Ukraine, where the fascists want to exterminate a big part of their own inhabitants (Tymoshenkova spoke about using A-bombs against them), forbade them to use their own language. Your president (I used to like and trust him!) wants to get NATO to Russian borders and build his basis there. And he even speaks about using atom bombs
    What I hated under communist regime, were all those lies they wanted us to believe. But during the last two months the situation is the same if not worse. We get no true information from our media! It scares me! (one day after fall of Malysian plane Obama said it was shot down by Russians but after the investigation there is no report on the causes).
    Trying to learn the truth I started searching it on Internet. Watching Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the USA, Paul Craig Roberts’ information on neocon, their wish to introduce their New World Order to the entire world, about FED, Bilderberg and so on I really started to doubt that this world has any change to survive.
    Yesterday I watched the criticisms of official report on the causes of 911 done by a great number of American architects, called AE911truth. Being a civil engineer their arguments mightily influenced me.
    But what worse – I have realized that not only many Germans under Nazis, us under communists but even American can- in spite of all there culture, upbringing , intelligence, love of freedom – stop seeing the truth being blinded by their fear!!!
    What future awaits us then? What hope? Russians, Chinese? Awful.
    I would like to get your opinion.
    Lida

    • I can’t imagine any thinking person who would not be worried about the situation in the Ukraine, though at the moment it seems less of a problem then ISIS, and, perhaps, for Americans, the problem of racism and the use of excessive force and surveillance by the government. For me, global warming seems like an even more dangerous threat, particularly since it will require a new attitude toward consumerism to overcome the threat. One fears for the beginning of a new Cold War, with the attendant arms race that diverts money needed from other needs to providing every sophisticated arms.

      I think Putin is taking advantage of America having to focus on all these other issues to push his agenda in the Ukraine. I find it hard to believe that either he or his people really want a direct confrontation with the United States or NATO, but he’s not above taking advantage of the situation to advance his own agenda.

      It’s hard, if not impossible to know the TRUTH about virtually anything, but the fact that I get most of my news from The Daily Show certainly shows that I have no faith in the mainstream media. I seldom watch TV news or read the weekly magazines, and we no longer get the local newspaper. I get newsletters by a number of “Progressive” and environmental organizations which constantly describe the world from the viewpoint that is most likely to make you contribute to their cause.

      I do tend to question conspiracy theories like AE911 even more than I do mainstream media, but I also realize that some theories that I’ve discounted in the past have turned out to be true, much to my chagrin. Now I’m even more suspicious of our own government than I was after having served in Vietnam.

      Still, the number of wonderful people I’ve met online and in person, not to mention the many students I taught over 30 years, make me believe that there is still hope for the world and believe that if people are really able to see the truth that they will make the hard decisions needed to make the world a better place.

  4. Loren,
    I apologize for insisting on stressing the importance of AE911 because I think it’s crucial. I watched the video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGJbiyqx_T8&feature=youtu.be again and I think that it’s improbable that some 1000 technical and building professionals, members of The American Institute of Architects, could be wrong. If both architects and specialist on demolition speak about impossibility of the observed way of falling down of those building due to normal fire and if they think the only reason of it could be nanotermit it should have some importance The psychologist in this video say that the Americans simply can’t accept this story because it contradict their worldview..
    Well, I agree that it surely does. Not only your American world view but mine, too. What would it mean? It would mean that the US government organized both the terrorist flights that hit the twins and put the explosives in the building, that they killed on purpose some 3000 Americans, their own people. I think it would be something far worse than Hitler and Stalin did. Hitler did his murders because he thought Jews are evil people and we Slaves an inferior race. Stalin thought that rich people (capitalists, bourgeoisie) exploit the working class. Very bad, but they at least fought the opponents of the theory they believed in. But to kill their own folk, people totally innocent?
    Why would a ruler do that? It sounds bizarre! Well, the answer could be to instill the fear in the population. To have reason to limit human rights, to enable more policing own inhabitants. You say you question the conspiracy theory very much. So did I. But seeing what happens in Ukraine I thought more deeply about it. Because if a government could do something like that to its own people, what can we expect from it worldwide. One should try very hard to find the truth about 911. Time is perhaps short – as you have seen in Ferguson the militarizing of the police goes on. Perhaps there is just the last chance to prevent total rule of greedy neocons, bankers and CEOs. The 1984 future! Tomorrow it could be too late.
    And what about ISIS (or ISIV)? The only question: who has removed all those non-islamic governments in Iraq, Libya and partly in Syria? Who gave weapons to those Islamic forces? Was not it the same forces that stood behind Ben Ladin? This question has the same key: 911.
    Lida

What do you think?