Police Are Using Tragedies in Dallas and Orlando to Demand More Militarized Weapons

Jul 17, 2016 by

As Black Lives Matter protests continue, police are clamoring to bulk up their arsenals.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Police killings of black people, which last year outnumbered lynchings of African Americans during the worst year of Jim Crow, have touched off two years of nationwide protests for racial justice that have forced police brutality into the global spotlight. Yet even as police violence is more visible, these same forces are continuing to kill, as underscored by the recent deadly police shootings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Now, amid a fresh nationwide resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, these same police departments are invoking the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse LGBTQ nightclub and the killing of five Dallas police officers to ramp up the militarization of their forces and repress demonstrations. Reuters reporters Nick Carey and Julia Harte noted that the Denver police union is calling for police to meet local protests with riot gear, and the police association of New Orleans is pressing for patrol vehicles to be equipped with assault rifles.

As protests continue to sweep the country and world, here are the most egregious examples of police and lawmakers using the Orlando and Dallas killings to justify further militarization.

Baton Rouge Police Department Armed for War

Baton Rouge residents are reeling from the police killing of Sterling, who was shot to death outside a popular Triple S Food Mart while he was pinned to the ground. But now, those who are protesting the slaughter are also forced to contend with a fierce crackdown from police, who are armed with military-grade weaponry.

The War Resisters League recently summarized the arsenal of the Baton Rouge department, which has history of violence and brutality against Black residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “Among the militarized gear of the Baton Rouge police department are 558 assault rifles (from a military transfer program), ear-splitting sirens called LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Devices), an armored personnel carrier (MRAP) and tear gas—all of which have been deployed over the last week.”

Since the killing, thousands of local residents have joined with demonstrators from across the country to participate in Baton Rouge protests, some of which were organized by the capital city’s high school students hailing from a community organization called #thewave. At least 200 protesters were arrested over the weekend, prompting alarm from human rights organizations.

“The sheer number of arrests last night raises serious questions about proportionate response to peaceful protests,” said Amnesty International, which has observers in Baton Rouge, raised the alarm on July 10: “

Marjorie Esman, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana, said in a statement released on July 11, “The Baton Rouge police used violent, militarized tactics on groups of people who have gathered peacefully in protest of Alton Sterling’s killing. We were on the scene and witnessed police in full riot gear with assault rifles while individuals were exercising their lawful rights and posed no threat. The police lunged and grabbed at peacefully assembled people and threw them to the ground. Such misconduct violates the constitution and is serving to escalate an environment already filled with tension.”

Today, local groups along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge Police Department for “violating the First Amendment rights of demonstrators who were protesting peacefully against the killing of Alton Sterling,” according to a press statement.

“[The police response] made me afraid to protest. Seeing the way the police were manhandling folks caused me to hide, scream out of fear, and finally flee for my safety. I had to run. A peaceful demonstration should never be like that,” said Crystal Williams, local resident and organizer with North Baton Rouge Matters. “I feel like speech is my most powerful tool to ensure my community and my family are safe. But now I feel totally silenced.”

Use of Killer Robot to Deliver Lethal Force

The Dallas police department’s use of a robot armed with a bomb to kill Micah Xavier Johnson, who police say killed five officers on July 7, sets a troubling domestic precedent.

The robot was a Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros, described by Peter Singer, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, as a “remotely-controlled bomb disposal robot commonly used by police, military and other first responders around the world.” Police say that the robot was armed with an “explosive device of C4 plus ‘Det’ cord.”

The killing is being widely reported as the first incident in which U.S. police deliberately used a robot to deliver lethal force. However, such tactics are not new to U.S. troops overseas.

According to Singer, one of the closest U.S. parallels is the 1985 police bombing of the black liberation organization MOVE, which burned down 61 homes, killed 11 people, five of them children, and left 250 people homeless.

According to Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and editor and contributor to Drones and Targeted Killings: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues, U.S. covert drone wars overseas also provide troubling parallels. “There is so much secrecy surrounding Obama’s drone program and, even when he releases figures of civilian casualties, they just don’t add up, according to the leading NGOs. The lack of transparency around the Obama administration also extends to the legal rational for using targeted killings and drone strikes off the battlefield without respecting due process. This is also called an extrajudicial killing.”

“With the lack of transparency in the federal government about drone policy abroad,” Cohn told AlterNet, “there is no reason to believe there is going to be any more transparency on a local level.”

Now, at least one police department—Indianapolis—is saying that it will consider using a robot to deliver deadly force.

Reversing Reforms Hard-Won by the Black Lives Matter Movement

On June 15, just days after the massacre at the Orlando Pulse LGBTQ club’s Latin night, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed  an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act that allows the Pentagon to disperse military-grade weaponry to police departments across the country.

The demand to demilitarize police departments has emerged has a key rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter protests, with public pressure forcing President Barack Obama to issue an executive order in 2015 which placed some limits on the federal 1033 program that allows the military to distribute “surplus equipment” to law enforcement agencies. Obama’s reform established a list of weapons that are prohibited from distribution and adds more steps to the acquisitions process for other arms. It has been criticized for falling short of eradicating the federal program altogether.

But the latest House amendment reverses this executive order by stipulating that “no funds shall be used to implement President Obama’s Executive Order 13688 limiting the donation of surplus federal equipment to state and local law enforcement as part of the DOD’s Excess Property Program (1033 program).”

As AlterNet previously reported, the June 15 amendment was introduced by Rep. David Reichert (R-WA), who has been historically weak on LGBTQ rights, voting in 2006 to back a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Yet, he did not hesitate to invoke the pain and loss of the LGBTQ Latinx community in arguing for the police militarization amendment in the House, declaring: “Tragically as we saw in San Bernardino and most recently in Orlando, we’re living at a time with increasing threats against local communities.”

The amendment is currently being conferenced with the Senate and Reichert has vowed to fight to include the amendment in any conference report or omnibus.

Meanwhile, as police and lawmakers continue to seize on public fear to escalate militarization, Black Lives Matter protesters vow to continue mobilizing to the streets. More than 30,000 people have signed on to a Movement for Black Lives pledge which declares, “We want an end to the war being waged on Black people, in all its forms. Some people fear change, and that’s ok. Many will attempt to halt our progress. That is not OK. Some will continue their attempts to undermine us, but we will remain undeterred.”

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