BY ELIAS YOUSIF
In repressive states across the world, I have often watched with deep dismay the response of foreign military and police forces towards political reform movements or popular mobilization efforts. In many cases, brutal tactics, sometimes made possible by U.S. equipment, are used to stifle civil society and to guard the regime in power from criticism, accountability and reform. Yet, even as a member of an organization that tracks and scrutinizes the policies and behaviors of U.S.-backed foreign security forces, I was ill-prepared for the surreal yet painfully familiar scenes that have taken place across the United States since the killing of George Floyd.
In Washington, D.C., heavily armed riot police, national guard units and a veritable alphabet soup of federal agencies clashed with peaceful protesters at the behest of a president keen on projecting strength through force. These scenes evoked the well-worn playbook of authoritarian states from across the globe. A Black Hawk helicopter and other aircraft, Humvees and hundreds of armed “troops” spread across the streets of the democratic capital of the world could have been mistaken for scenes of a crackdown in one of the world’s many autocracies.
Indeed, the law and order arguments used to justify state violence could have been taken straight from palaces of just about any despot. Pointing to amorphous security threats to justify sweeping and indiscriminate violence is a routine that international human rights watchers know all too well.
The results in American streets have been horrific, and include examples of violence at the hands of police and national security forces that America would quickly condemn were it to take place anywhere else.
I have seen what despotic regimes do with American weaponry and military hardware overseas, where the monopoly over the use of force is used to threaten civil society and democracy, rather than protect it. Unfortunately, the militarized response to some protests in the United States over the past several weeks reflects what black Americans and people of color have suspected all along: America increasingly resembles a police state.
So, while the scenes from D.C., New York and Minneapolis may have shocked people of privilege, for many it was just a window into their own daily lives and lived experiences.
Indeed, American policing – particularly in communities of color – has come to mirror some of the militarization that characterizes internal security institutions in autocracies all over the world. Since September 11, local police forces have been showered with equipment more suitable for a war zone than American city streets, including assault rifles, grenade launchers, bomb-detonating robots and armored personnel carriers. SWAT teams execute nightly no-knock warrants, raids that have resulted in many deaths, including of Breonna Taylor. Police officers remain shielded from accountability through unions and legal protections, including qualified immunity, which effectively shelters officers from prosecution for constitutional violations, while people of color are disproportionately absorbed by the world’s largest prison system.
American democracy, or at least aspirations for it, cannot exist in a police state. Internal repression of the kind we’ve witnessed in many instances these past few weeks is incompatible with the ideals so many of our leaders pay lip service to. In that sense, calls for re-imagining American policing and for addressing institutional racism are essential for the health and longevity of America’s democratic experiment.
The road ahead is long, but de-militarizing American policing is a useful starting point. Ending the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which funnels military hardware to local police forces; revoking prosecutorial immunity; and placing a moratorium on no-knock raids would help bring American security institutions more in line with what is expected in a liberal democracy. Beyond just providing the means of violence, these programs and practices send a message that encourages the culture of combat and an “us versus them” mentality that grips some local police efforts. In that sense, what is ultimately needed is a cultural revolution. We can no longer be satisfied with the negative “peace” that has taken hold across our country, where so-called rule of law is too often maintained at the barrel of a gun.
These past few weeks, as difficult as they have been, should offer some hope. American democracy, it turns out, is sustained not by our institutions but by our people, many of whom filled the streets at great personal risk to demand the ideals this country prides itself on for all its citizens. American policing as it stands is incompatible with those ideals and continues to cast a long shadow on our democracy. Until that changes, our city upon a hill will remain a distant vision.
Elias Yousif is the acting director of the Security Assistance Monitor Program at the Center for International Policy, where he analyzes the impact of U.S. arms transfer programs on international security and human rights.