Summary: While the country wrestles with police brutality and protests, dividing between Black Lives Matter or Back the Blue, a bizarre phenomenon has been unfolding in policing under our noses for decades. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between domestic law enforcement and the military. That’s not by accident. In this essay, we unf*ck policing in America and find out how civil liberties are eroding and why cops have tanks.
Does it seem strange to anyone else that protestors have been taken off the streets by unidentified federal agents and thrown into unmarked vehicles? How about the fact that the regular cops look like troops from a bad Van Damme sci-fi special? I’m friends with a bunch of cops. Related to a couple as well. I’m totally comfortable being friends with police while acknowledging that certain aspects of policing are fucked. I’m also comfortable stating the very obvious and human fact that Black lives matter. What I’m not comfortable with is the total silence and complicity at all levels of government that we have heavily armed domestic military policing the streets. How did this even happen, and why does everyone seem to be cool with this?Protests in the United States aren't new. In fact, it’s how all this started. It’s why protest and free speech were the first things the founders protected in the Bill of Rights.
You know what is new? Police with fucking cannons. Remember what riot gear used to look like? Cops would come out on the street behind some homemade plexiglass lunch tray with their little helmets on and a club. Now everyone looks like fucking Batman. They’ve got assault weapons, tasers, shields, body armor, tanks—literally, tanks—flash-bang grenades, grenade launchers and drones.
Of course, our right to protest has always been open to interpretation in America. Peaceful assemblies have been met with lynchings, attack dogs and water cannons in the past if the gatherings were mostly Black. There are unspoken rules to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. It all depends upon what you look like and whether or not the thing you’re speaking out against is protected by the ruling class.
Now, in fairness, demonstrations are more protected than they were in the '60s and '70s, for example. Everything is broadcast and open for the world to view in real-time these days. You might feel like things are worse right now, like chaos rules the streets and cities throughout our nation are burned out and smoldering. They’re not. But our view of it is so amplified. And that view depends in large part upon how curated your social feed is toward your interests and viewing history.
For better or worse, life is live streamed, recorded and documented for all to see. One might think that this would offer greater protection to those in the streets. And, for a while, it probably did. But our senses have been broken down, and we’ve become callous and numb.
That is, until one of the boys in blue murdered George Floyd. Unless you are a white nationalist, you gasped. We all did. No amount of concocted backstory could overwrite that history. It happened. We saw. We took to the streets and all hell broke loose. For a moment, the music stopped.
It didn’t take long for the establishment to catch its breath and get organized to flip the script though. Taking regular police off the streets and replacing them with heavily armed military police meant doubling down on domestic militarization. And so instead of reform, we got a bigger show of force and the “blame the protestor” mantra took center stage, and the familiar us versus them dance began and the music started again.
The list of Black Americans killed during protests in America is long and tragic. But when four white students were gunned down in Kent State, it caused the nation to reexamine its policy surrounding military intervention in domestic affairs. The National Guard is only called in under a national emergency when local law enforcement cannot handle a situation like a violent riot or natural disaster. It’s a mechanism of last resort that must be ordered by the governor of the state. One of the protections states are guaranteed to prevent executive overreach. Remember that point. It’s important.
During the sit-ins at Kent State, the Ohio governor, James Rhodes, characterized the students at Kent as “the worst type of people we harbor in America.” Take note of the language there. Even though it was 1970, the word “harbor” has always been used in a negative context to suggest that the people described are there for nefarious purposes.
He calls in the National Guard, and even though the students were sitting in the quad peacefully, they decide to move in heavy handed with tear gas, which causes confusion and leads a guardsman to open fire without provocation.
Scenes of the National Guard being deployed to beat, fire upon, gas and brutalize Black people were routine noise by this time. But white kids? Oh, man. Nixon done fucked up. From History.com:
“H.R. Haldeman wrote in his journal that Nixon was 'very disturbed' by the Kent State shootings, but he noted that the president was mainly preoccupied by the incident’s political ramifications. Nixon had long sought to crush the antiwar movement on college campuses, which he believed was the work of 'outside agitators,' and Haldeman reported the president was 'hoping rioters had provoked the shooting.'”
We’ll talk a lot about Nixon throughout this podcast because he truly gave birth to a new America bound and determined to actually stay like the old America. The list of graduates from his administration that would go on to determine public policy over the next half century is truly remarkable. It was never about Nixon. Just like it’s not about Trump today. It was all about the ideals that made him possible and the men who were willing to play the long game to make sure the more liberal elements of our society would be destroyed.
Creating a militarized domestic police state was just one way they began to tear at the loose fabric of the civil rights movement, environmentalism, and general liberal awakening in the country. It took quite a long time for them to put the pieces of an authoritarian presence on the streets back together after Kent State.
Let’s break down the series of acts that took us from recoiling in horror at Kent State to accepting professor Orange Von Fucknugget using the military to clear a mom’s group from Lafayette Square for a photo op or just plain disappearing protestors from the streets of Portland.
We’ll start in the '80s with our main man Ronald Reagan. Remember that Reagan conservatism was birthed in the ashes of the Nixon catastrophe. Many of the eventual policy makers of his administration cut their teeth and formed their world views during the Nixon years. Notable American political figures like Donald Rumsfeld, Al Haig, George Bush Sr., Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger, etc. These men, among others, would help shape and craft a more insidious version of Nixon’s Southern Strategy with a philosophy that put the penal system, welfare, the capital markets and foreign policy under the umbrella of a philosophy described as neoliberalism.
1981: Congress passes the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act. which allows the U.S. military to cooperate with domestic and foreign law enforcement agencies and grants them access to military bases and equipment. All of this was in service of the War on Drugs, a seminal moment in the history of mass incarceration and a topic for a later podcast.
Fast forward to 1997 under President William Jefferson Clinton—and a couple of years after the disastrous crime bill that one Mr. Joseph Biden so vehemently supported—the 1033 Program was enacted. The program authorized the Department of Defense to get rid of excess equipment to local police departments who only have to pay for shipping.
2001: Just days after 9/11, Congress almost unanimously passes the Authorization for Military Force, or AUMF, that allows the Bush administration to identify and hunt down terrorists using whatever means necessary at their disposal. Representative Barbara Lee from California was the only one to vote against it, warning of the dire consequences such unfettered authorization could have.
Just days after the AUMF, Congress also expanded the right to surveil citizens under the Patriot Act by compelling businesses like Verizon or social media companies, anyone really, to provide them with data. Essentially warrantless wiretaps. The right to put someone under surveillance was determined by the FISA courts, originally established to hear sensitive foreign information. The Patriot Act basically allows a single appointed judge to decide out of public view whether or not you can be wiretapped. Yup. A secret fucking court. No oversight. No records. No witnesses.
The nail in the coffin came under President Obama and new provisions in the The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA.) This routine Act authorized, and reauthorized, by Congress included some serious fuckery during the Obama years. Essentially, it gave the administration the unilateral right to expand the definition of terrorism and use military force to pursue whomever they deemed to be terrorists anywhere on the planet.
We round out these greatest hits with another smash hit single under Barack Obama. The end of Posse Comitatus. Posse Comitatus was passed in the 1870s to put some guard rails on when troops could be deployed domestically because things were pretty out of control after the Civil War, and it was sometimes difficult to know who was in charge and when a circumstance called for federal troop intervention. Buffers that had been in place since the 1870s were now gone. Like the concept that a governor has to declare a state of emergency and invite the federal government to intervene in a situation, which the Chief Executive needs to agree with and the Congress must authorize, was essentially stripped away. In other words, no more buffers.
Just a little history, some context and understanding, and we can begin to tune our ears to the steady erosion of civil liberties and the upending of civil society. It’s how simple slogans like Law and Order, Support the Troops and Make America Great Again all sound so natural when, in reality, they are built upon decades of policy work intended to turn us against one another and create the ultimate us versus them. So much so that none of us can truly see heavily armed unidentifiable agents of the state robbing protestors of their Constitutional rights for what it is: UnAmerican.
Here endeth the lesson.
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).