By IONA BATCHELDER & CAMERON DIIORIO
On August 9, 2014, in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, a young man named Michael Brown was shot and killed. He was in a suburban area, leaving a convenience store in the middle of the day. His body lay outside in the midsummer heat for hours as the police attempted to shield what had occurred. His friend and accomplice, Dorian Johnson, was present at the scene but was sent away. An autopsy revealed that Brown had been shot at least six times, twice in the head.
As brutal as it is, the shooting would not have become a national headline if not for the real underlying problem: that racism is still present in America today. Michael Brown was an 18-year-old African-American. Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him, is a 28-year-old Caucasian.
So why is racial discrimination—a problem that was supposedly eliminated with the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—so significant in Brown’s shooting? For starters, it is a double standard in our everyday lives. If a black man is seen walking around with something that even slightly resembles a gun, he is shot. If a black man is seen leaving a convenience store with a hood on, he is shot. So why can a group of white male citizens walk unharmed through a Target store in Irving, Texas with assault rifles strapped to their backs, such as those supporting “Open Carry Texas?” Put a black man in the same scenario, and he would be immediately deemed a threat.
Understandably, the community of Ferguson was and still is in uproar over the murder of Brown, so members of the community began to protest the killing. The majority of the protests were peaceful, but some came to Ferguson from out of town and turned the protests into opportunities to loot neighborhood stores and vandalize the area. As a result, the peaceful protests “devolved into sporadic violence, including gunshots,” according to the New York Times.
The police force turned to riot shields, tear gas, rubber bullets and even military-grade armored trucks to quell legal, peaceful protests from unarmed protesters. With peaceful protests looking more like war zones, conditions in Ferguson became inhumane. Peaceful protesters were randomly arrested and dragged off without any reading of their rights or explanation of why they were arrested.
On August 13, Ferguson police arrested Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly and Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery when the two refused to stop filming the police, which was legal. The next day, police threw tear gas and shot rubber bullets at the Al Jazeera camera crew that was trying to cover the protests.
How did the police come into possession of such high-grade military equipment? The answer lies in a piece of legislation passed by Congress in 1990 known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 1208 of the NDAA allowed the Secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.”
After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, surplus military equipment piled up in huge numbers, and the government began using what became known as the 1033 program for all types of agencies, including not only police departments but also the Department of Agriculture, the Railroad Retirement Board and the Consumer Product Safety Commission among other agencies.
Police departments wrote up proposals for the program, giving reasons for needing such high-grade military equipment, and the government, if it agreed with those reasons, gave them the equipment for free. The only catch? The police department, after receiving whatever they had requested, had to use the items within a year of receiving it, or else they would have to return it.
As a result, police departments all over the country have begun to use unnecessary amounts of force for actions that do not need them. According to Newsweek, police in Watertown, Connecticut, (population 22,514) recently acquired a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle (sticker price: $733,000), which was designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, for $2,800. No landmine has been reported in Watertown.
Police in small towns in Michigan and Indiana have used the 1033 Program to acquire “MRAP armored troop carriers, night-vision rifle scopes, camouflage fatigues, Humvees and dozens of M16 automatic rifles” [South Bend Tribune]. Police in Bloomington, Georgia (population: 2,713) acquired four grenade launchers through the program. The Ferguson police department acquired over 30 different objects through the program, including twelve 5.56 mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols and nine “utility trucks” [Atlanta Journal-Constitution].
On the night of August 18th, CNN anchor, Jake Tapper, was reporting live from Ferguson. He walked through the streets of Ferguson, pointing out the protesters and police to the crowd. “Nobody is threatening anything,” Tapper said. “Nobody is doing anything. None of the stores here that I can see are being looted. There is no violence.”
He then described the heavily armed police force and equated the scene with the Afghanistan war. Finally, with anger in his voice, he said, “What is this? This doesn’t make any sense!” This is a question that all people in America and around the world should be asking themselves because while the job of the police force is to protect their citizens, only in very extreme circumstances should the police need high grade weaponry and riot gear.
And in the case of Ferguson—and many other cases—requesting heavy weaponry was completely unnecessary; just because the government has extra tanks does not mean they have to use them. But sadly because of the clause in the 1033 program that requires use of the equipment within a year of receiving it, that is exactly what has been happening.
While the situation in Ferguson had been caused by racism, it only escalated because of the police brutality that ensued, which was only possible because of the high-grade weaponry given by the 1033 program; not only does this program need to be repealed by Congress, but the American government needs to stop handing out military-grade weapons to small town police forces and school districts, especially those with a reputation for racism.