“We believe in the value, power, and potential of training to produce more effective, more capable, and better police officers,” the Ferguson Commission wrote. I believe in this, too. And I believe that investing in a better police force may yield a future where “liking the police” is no longer a privilege, but the norm.
I’ve been calling it the Summer of Helplessness.
From the conflict in Gaza that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead, to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the skies of Ukraine, to the Ebola breakout getting worse by the day, to the shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager here in the U.S., the news of late is enough to make a person feel paralyzed with helplessness and despair. My prayers these days are of the tired, desperate sort: How long, O Lord? Will you hide your face from us forever?
But when it comes to violence and oppression, we are rarely as helpless as we think, and this is especially true as the events unfolding in Ferguson force Americans to take a long, hard look at the ongoing, systemic racism that inspired so many citizens to protest in cities across the country this week.
I’ve heard from many of my white friends and readers who say they aren’t sure how to respond to the anger and grief they are watching on TV or hearing from their black friends. They want to be part of the solution but don’t know where start. They may even feel a little defensive when they hear people talking about white privilege or inaction on the part of white Christian leaders. I’m in the process of learning too, but as I’ve listened to people of color whose opinions I trust, I’ve heard them issue several calls to action we can all heed.
As America began to gear up for its incredibly wasteful (more than $40 trillion since 1972) and utterly futile “War on Drugs,” there were three critical federal actions that contributed to our current vastly over-militarized police forces.
In 1981, the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act was passed. This law authorized military collaboration with civilian law enforcement agencies and dramatically expanded the Army’s participation in counterdrug efforts and included arming and training of local police with military grade weapons, free of charge, at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense.
Then, in 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, supposedly to assist in controlling the crack cocaine infusion in urban communities. This law, tied to a civil forfeiture provision, allows law enforcement to seize property without a conviction, or even charges being levied, if a person is suspected of illegal drug activity.
Finally, in the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (each year this bill funds our military) there was included a provision — “Section 1208” — that allowed the Secretary of Defense to transfer weapons and ammunition that was “suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities.” This law was supposed to give police the firepower needed to “effectively” execute the Drug War. In the 10 years that followed, thousands of tanks, helicopters, grenade launchers, and assault rifles were granted to municipal police forces.
But the militarization of our police forces was not yet complete.
Enter the “War on Terror.”
Editor's Note: Violence, anger, and confusion continues in Ferguson, Mo. Former Sojourners intern and current Digital and Creative Director for PICO Heather Wilson is reporting from the scene and shared her eyewitness account with Sojourners and others late Sunday night. We share it here as an important perspective in the ongoing unrest and confusion. Please keep the safety and wellbeing of all people in Ferguson in your prayers.
"Captain Johnson and the police force in Ferguson IS LYING, AND I AM BEARING WITNESS.
Two hours before curfew, I was photographing at the front of a peaceful march of all generations, calling for justice and peace in Ferguson. It was controlled and respectful—when someone stepped out the traffic lane they were marching in, they were directed back.
Without provocation, armored cars rolled up on us...yelled unintelligibly for 60 seconds and launched tear gas at us without warning. Women...children...even a woman in a wheelchair.
Captain Johnson is saying that bottles and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the front line. TONIGHT I CAN TESTIFY THAT THIS IS UNTRUE."
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For an entire week now we've watched tens of thousands of Egyptians march demanding a change in government. The police force has collapsed. The army is out in force. Residents are policing their own neighborhoods. President Mubarak is weighing his options. And the West is wondering what will happen next.