Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Race and the War Machine

One of these days I'll be able to sit down and try to write out all my thoughts about what is going on with in Ferguson. It is difficult because so many issues around race, militarization, government, surveillance, privilege, oppression, justice and others are involved. There are few easy ways of unpacking it all and so one argumentative point easily leads to another and to another and to another. The few times I've tried to write out my thoughts it is like popping only a single bubble in bubble wrap. An almost impossible task to accomplish as one bubble popped easily leads to another and then another and then another and soon it is difficult to know where you started.

For a poetry group that I am part of, we are planning to write poems that refer to what is happening in Ferguson. Tonight I decided to try to jot down some of my majors thoughts, and I have ended up swinging back and forth in my writing, between poetic language and theoretical language. At one point I'll start with imagery that I have been seeing in the media but eventually I'll descend into some poststructural sermon about power and ideology. Eventually I decided I needed to write something on my blog to help make sense of all my thoughts.

One of the things that I have appreciated from Ferguson is the way that it is helping, albeit in frustrating ways, to inform the public about the militarization of the domestic police force. The US has been a serious major military power for quite some time. All the trivia about the amount the US spends on its military being more than most of its allies and enemies combined is not hyperbole. The US is addicted to war. Chalmers Johnson referred to militarism as the new colonialism, and that in order to understand the US and its relationship to the world today we need to look at it through its most basic imperial unit, the military facility. The casualness through which the average US citizen sees their country as having the ability to invade anything, bomb anything, kill anything on a daily basis is the height of imperial banality. But while the rest of the world is seen as a map of everyday violence, within the US people see such things as exceptional of course.

But all things that are repressed find ways of returning and hence the billions spent on creating hardware for the American war machine elsewhere have trickled their way back into small and big towns across the country. Police departments get body armor, battle ready guns, even tanks to manage their populations. It is interesting because the critique in all those Robocop movies is not necessarily that humans will become cyborgs and blend the line between man and machine. That is part of it, but not the most fundamental message. It is instead a commentary on how because of corporatization, because of capitalist mercilessness, because of the things that make America America, the domestic sphere will become a battlefield and it will be militarized and money will be made off of it the same way it is made overseas. The reboot of the franchise took this further than the others by focusing on the drone technology aspect and how that which is used to oppress others eventually rears its end back home.

An interesting shuffling of power and violence is taking place and unless you are paying attention it is easy to miss. I find it almost unnerving how people of many different colors insist that race isn't as much of an issue anymore, and that their way of dealing with issues of racism is to hate those who mention race and argue almost obsessively that racism is not a real issue anymore since there is a black President in real life and not just in disaster movies. The US seems to lead the way in terms of tolerance and colorblind wishful thinking. This is one thing that drives the US in terms of re-imagining its feelings of superiority, by giving it that tolerant cultural dimension, where people here are better because they are more free and see each other as real humans and not as genders or skin colors. But what has accompanied all of this back-patting over racial harmony and alleged exorcising of the ghosts of racist pasts? Is that while everyone constantly wants to point out that things are MUCH better now, in terms of just the everyday reality of co-existing with a police force, things have gotten much worse and much more problematic.

This sort of discursive shell game is a common facet of life. Violence moves to another realm. Power becomes concealed and invisible, but still exists in the structure of life. Systems of displacement and disenfranchisement persist albeit with different skins and with different rationale. For so many people they are desperate to not see this bait and switch. They are desperate to imagine that things have just simply gotten better. That race is not a real issue today, that if we just don't talk about it or don't see it, it doesn't affect us. I was amazed at how so many people on Guam, who were Filipino and Chamorro seized upon the idea that when a white person is shot by a black cop in the states it isn't as sensationalized, but when vice versa happens, the media explodes. For them, they wish that race didn't play a role in this and accept even ridiculous strategies if it will somehow give them that peace of mind. It is ludicrous to somehow think that somehow discovering that equalizes things or makes the issue where colorblindness is the way to go, but if you want to deny the fact that you are either benefiting from or being oppressed by racist systems, then you will say and pretend to believe anything to escape that truth coming into contact with your truth.

But the very militarization of the police shows the way in which race, as a dividing concept, as a marker that does not only differentiate but also stigmatizes is alive and well. Race, throughout much of human history was a marker that allowed a whole different set of rules, legal, discursive, ideological, psychological rules to apply. Even if someone was your neighbor, if they had the same amount of limbs as you, same ability to speak, to love, to get sick, to die, etc. race was something that made it so that even someone who might be just like you, could be treated like an enemy, a stranger, an evil person, and that violence could be set upon them and used with impunity upon their bodies. Race is something that marks those who should receive the violence of the state, the hatred of a community. Race is a way in which a community identifies those who can be killed, but not murdered, those for whom the calculus of their lives and their dreams and their aspirations are sometimes a little bit less and other times a lot less. Race is what marks those who are supposed to rape, to loot, to commit crimes, versus those who just make mistakes or are just trying to get by. Race is like a target upon domestic bodies that authorizes the war machine, something supposedly reserved for outsiders, for foreigners, for strangers, to be used against them.

This is why it is interesting to see so much effort go into denying the significance of race today, when the militarization of the police shows how race is still incredibly significant. How if race was less important than there wouldn't be as much of a need for the cloaked violence to war to be unleashed against people within the country. Because they would be seen as bodies that make mistakes but ultimately do matter.


Obama aims to avoid 'militarized' police culture

By Nedra Pickler

Associated Press POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:46 p.m. HST, Dec 01, 2014

WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama said Monday he wants to ensure the U.S. isn't building a "militarized culture" within police departments, while maintaining federal programs that provide the type of military-style equipment that were used to dispel racially charged protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
Instead, the president is asking Congress for funding to buy 50,000 body cameras to record events like the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown and look for ways to build trust and confidence between police and minority communities nationwide. He announced the creation of a task force to study success stories and recommend ways the government can support accountability, transparency and trust in police.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Monday new Justice Department plans aimed at ending racial profiling and ensuring fair and effective policing.
"In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement, which will institute rigorous new standards -- and robust safeguards -- to help end racial profiling, once and for all," Holder said in Atlanta.

With protests ongoing in Ferguson and across the country, Obama spoke to reporters at the end of a White House meeting with police, civil rights activists and local leaders and acknowledged the participants told him that there have been task forces in the past and "nothing happens."
"Part of the reason this time will be different is because the president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure that this time is different," Obama said. He said he was upset to hear the young people in the meeting describe their experiences with police. "It violates my belief in what America can be to hear young people feeling marginalized and distrustful even after they've done everything right."
At least for now, Obama is staying away from Ferguson in the wake of the uproar over a grand jury's decision last week not to charge Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Brown. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges, but investigators would need to satisfy a rigorous standard of proof. Justice also has launched a broad investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
Obama is proposing a three-year, $263 million spending package to increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement and add more resources for police department reform. The package includes $75 million to help pay for 50,000 of the small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job, with state and local governments paying half the cost. Estimates vary about the precise number of full-time, sworn law enforcement officers in communities across the U.S., though some federal government reports in recent years have placed the figure at roughly 700,000.
Brown's family wants to see every police officer working the streets wearing a body camera. The Rev. Al Sharpton told reporters afterward he would convey to Brown's parents what had occurred in the meeting and expressed confidence it would bring change because Obama put his "full weight behind it."
"What happens after the meeting will determine whether we just had a feel-good session or whether we're moving toward change," Sharpton said.
Cameras potentially could help resolve the type of disputes between police and witnesses that arose in the Ferguson shooting. Some witnesses have said Brown had his hands up when Wilson shot him. The officer who shot him said he feared for his life when Brown hit him and reached for his gun. But there are issues to be worked out -- including privacy concerns for police, suspects, victims and bystanders; legal questions over who has access to the recordings; and training to make sure officers are using the cameras and don't have them turned off at a critical time.
The White House said those are the types of concerns that could be addressed by Obama's newly created Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which will include law enforcement and community leaders. The task force is being co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a professor at George Mason University and former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department.

After the Brown shooting and resulting protests in August, critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators. Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment. "There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama said in August.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president concluded he does not want to try to repeal the programs that are authorized by Congress because they have proven to be useful in many cases, citing the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. "But it is not clear that there is a consistency with regard to the way that these programs are implemented, structured and audited, and that's something that needs to be addressed," Earnest said.

The White House review shows the wide scope of the programs -- $18 billion in the past five years from five federal agencies, including the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury, plus the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The report says most of the equipment the programs provide are routine -- like office furniture, computers and basic firearms -- but about 460,000 pieces of equipment primarily used for military purposes have been provided to local police, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft.

Obama said he will issue an executive order that will require federal agencies that run the programs to consult with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations and recommend changes within four months to make sure the programs are accountable and transparent.
"We're going to make sure that we're not building a militarized culture inside our local law enforcement," Obama said. He said the goal instead is to ensure that "crime goes down while community trust in the police goes up."

Demands for police to wear the cameras have increased across the country since Brown's death. Some officers in the St. Louis suburb have since started wearing the cameras, and the New York Police department became the largest department in the U.S. to adopt the technology when it launched a pilot program in early September.

A report from the Justice Department, which had been in the works before the Ferguson shooting, said there's evidence both police and civilians behave better when they know there are cameras around. In a recent Cambridge University study, the police department in Rialto, California -- a city of about 100,000-- saw an 89 percent decline in the number of complaints against officers in a yearlong trial using the cameras. The number of times the police used force against suspects also declined.

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