The Obama administration has ordered Ferguson police to return two military HMMWV (‘Humvee’) that were distributed as part of a government program to give surplus military weapons to local police forces. The action occurs amidst ongoing national concern over police violence.
The city of Ferguson was ordered to relinquish the Humvees in June of this year, after it was discovered that they were given in error, but local officials have resisted giving them up. Finally, the decision was made to go and reclaim the vehicles: “So we’re going to go down with a trailer and truck and get them on an expedited basis,” said Mike O’Connell, a government official.
Protests in Ferguson marking the anniversary of the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a victim of police violence, continued over the weekend. However, when violence broke out in the late hours of Sunday evening, a state of emergency was called. Protests continued Monday evening, when more arrests were made.
Local police forces have become equipped with military-grade weaponry as a result of the Department of Defense’s “1033” program, which allocates surplus military technology to local police. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers over $1 billion in grants to local jurisdictions to equip themselves against the threat of terrorism. These weapons are often distributed without proper oversight. “From an oversight perspective, DHS grant programs are pretty much a mess,” said a congressional aide in 2014.
The militarization of the police drew national attention in the wake of the original protests and unrest following the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014. Many critics, including the ACLU, believe that the militarization of local police destabilizes the community, rather than making it safer, and contributes to a warlike atmosphere and combative police-community relations. One certainly has to wonder why a city like Ferguson, with a population of 21,000, would need four Humvees in its local arsenal.
In May, President Obama issued a directive which was intended to curtail abuses of the military surplus program by local police. This would require applications for surplus equipment to provide “detailed justification for acquiring the controlled equipment.”
Because this executive action could be reversed when Obama leaves office, Georgia Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson is leading an effort to have the measures coded into law. Although his bill failed to pass in the last Congress, it now has some bipartisan support. However, with a combative Republican Congress, Johnson says that “Congress is gridlocked with partisanship, so we’re not doing the business of the nation, including things like stop militarizing law enforcement.”
Protests in Ferguson on Sunday were peaceful, despite the intimidating presence of police in riot gear, until a gunfight broke out around 11:15 p.m. involving a small handful of people. Following the shooting, an 18-year-old black man named Tyrone Harris was shot and critically wounded by plainclothes police officers after allegedly firing on their vehicle. Harris remains in critical condition and has been charged with assault, among other crimes.
The militarization of the police has expanded since September 11, 2001, and was evident during the Occupy protests as it is in the Black Lives Matter protests. As one protester said, “It’s a reminder that there is a lot of work to do in terms of ending police violence.” We must recognize that giving local police more weapons does not necessarily make a community safer. In a 2014 report from the ACLU, Kara Dansky writes: “We think that historically, the police and the military have had different roles and that American neighborhoods aren’t war zones and police should not be treating us like wartime enemies.”
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.