On a quiet Saturday afternoon, a war tank rolls down an eerily empty street. A few dozen yards ahead, civilians stand and stare at the massive vehicle, flanked by heavily-armed police in helmets and Kevlar.
The tank is slow and steady in its approach to its targets. Its sirens blare, forcing everyone around it to cover their ears in fear. Suddenly the quiet breaks as men, armed with machine guns and shields, storm the crowd, taking down anyone in their way. They push and knock their way through people, shoving back onto private property, banging down doors and throwing down to the ground anyone who does not move out of their way quick enough. Their faces are masked, their eyes are wild, their shouts are forceful. Women’s screams are heard as paraphernalia is strewn about haphazardly. Everywhere you turn, the armed men are capturing people, hauling them off to unknown locations.
This is not a scene from a dystopian novel. It’s not a portrait of a war-zone. It’s the reality that took place in the American city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana this past weekend.
It’s the environment in which Alton Sterling was killed. And it’s the site where hundreds of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were subdued by today’s veritable juggernaut of militarized force: American police.
No one is debating the absolute necessity of police forces in America. They are critical to the function of our society and their sacrifices are many. But the implications of local police departments, state police, and SWAT teams apprehending civilians in such a manner are daunting and far-reaching. In mixed crowds of average people like you and me, the police have become increasingly violent, resorting to tear gas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets to remove people protesting against brutality.
In today’s America, calls to end brutality beget brutality.
To be clear, it is a dangerous and volatile situation for police officers as well. On July 7, one of the most devastating mass casualty shootings shocked the nation when five police officers were shot on duty in Dallas, Texas, while trying to keep a peaceful protest in order. They were killed in calculated, cold blood. It was an epic, devastating tragedy that brought many of us to our knees.
One might be tempted to say that it gave birth to what transpired in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of other cities across the country this weekend, where hundreds were arrested in frightening scenes like the one described above. But the American punitive state has been maturing now for quite some time.
The Dallas shooter is a prime example of this.
In the hands of Micah Xavier Johnson, the army veteran accused of shooting the police in the brutal attack, were military-grade weapons. Like many mass shooters before him, Johnson allegedly used a high-powered rifle, either an AR-15 or an SKS, his pockets literally spilling over with ammunition.
The horrific incident was captured on video by an eyewitness, where the shooter can be seen using highly-advanced combat moves, his body shielded by the type of armor used in battle. It was frightening to watch, but it was not unprecedented. His weapon of choice was the same used in the mass shootings in Orlando, San Bernardino, Aurora, and Newtown.
What’s most shocking about these types of guns is not only the serious firepower they pack or that they have been used in every war since Vietnam. It’s the ease in which people have access to them. Up until last fall, these guns were available at America’s beloved superstore, WalMart — the same place you can buy TVs, groceries, and toilet paper.
And it doesn’t end there. Indeed, Johnson’s violent actions weren’t the only horrifying details to come out of last week. He was also the first suspect to be killed by a drone on U.S. soil.
In a press conference early Friday, Dallas Police Chief David Brown told reporters: “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the subject was. Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
The standoff was no doubt tense, violent, and highly dangerous for the police officers involved. But no matter how brutal and unconscionable Johnson’s actions were, he was still, at that point, a suspect. And his right to due process was protected by the U.S. Constitution. Until it wasn’t. The Dallas Police Department was able to play judge, jury, and executioner with the use of a small plastic bomb robot with explosives taped to its exterior.
It’s very difficult to feel any sympathy for a man like that, who kills innocent people in cold blood. But, it’s worth noting that when Dylann Roof, the man who killed nearly twice the amount of people last summer at a prayer group in Charleston, South Carolina, was arrested, he was taken in peacefully, with police officers buying him fast food. The same was true of James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater in 2012. These alleged killers committed similarly deplorable actions, but the outcomes were quite different. Dylann Roof got Burger King; Micah Johnson got bombed.
Drones are nothing new in American warfare. They have been used increasingly in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So much of the military-grade weaponry that local police forces are armed with comes straight from sales from the Pentagon. But war and policing should be seen as two different things entirely.
In an article that recently ran in The New York Times, former counterterrorism official with the National Security Council Rick Nelson said of drones, “In warfare, your object is to kill. Law enforcement has a different mission.”
But it’s just that mission — or the failures to follow through on it – that has been giving protesters nationwide pause regarding police forces. The entire reason the country has seen so many demonstrations has been because of police using excessive force. Police brutality is a gross mishandling of their power and so many are getting away with it. How frightening then, that they should they be allowed to use bomb robots and rifles on suspects when they already have trouble with handguns, batons, and even their bare hands.
So what happens next? Let’s imagine for a moment a worst-case scenario. What happens if, say, a group of police don’t want to go into a violent situation. It’s a sentiment we can all understand. Protecting and serving is a dangerous business. But it’s easy to say, “Let’s send a bomb robot into a housing project in Baltimore or Compton, or down a dangerous street in Chicago.” And just like that, American streets could begin to look like those far-off, violent lands that a disconnected public pities. Because on those streets would be, of course, dozens of innocent residents who have nothing to do with any suspected crime. Our children and our families, suddenly in grave danger from those hired to protect them.
Given who police seem to mostly perpetrate against, we know who and what these victims will look like. And with a justice system that seems to lean heavily toward police favor, what happens then? Just like that, police officers could become something else entirely. They could become the Gods of War.
Of course, this is the absolute worst case, hypothetical scenario. For now and for the most part, America remains a country governed by laws and not by people. But the events of the past week have proven that should the people in power ever change their minds to abandon the law in the name of the law, they’re certainly armed. And certainly dangerous.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, Twitter