Donald Trump stood before a predominately white audience on a campaign stop in a Michigan suburb to make his pitch to African-American voters.
Before a backdrop that included no Black faces, the then presidential candidate laid out the case for “trying something new.”
“You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose?”
The answer to that question, is becoming clearer by the day.
Last week, the Trump administration announced plans to reverse an Obama-era restriction that prohibited local police departments from obtaining certain types of federal surplus military equipment.
“Good equipment saves lives,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the National Fraternal Order of Police conference audience that gathered in Nashville, Tennessee. Sessions also added that police “will get lifesaving gear you need and sends a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity to become a new normal, saving tax payers money in the process.”
Citizens that feel we need to be protected from “bad hombres,” terrorists, and violence on “many sides,” might applaud this decision. But coming from a law and order president that lionized violence against dissenters on the campaign trail, this is a reversal that would make former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover proud. Hoover is infamously remembered for pioneering cointelpro, an FBI effort aimed at infiltrating and spying on political and civil rights organizations and activists.
Hoover also believed “justice is incidental to law and order.”
As Vox notes, the 2015 Obama-era restriction prohibits officers from obtaining military equipment such as firearms and ammunition higher than .50 caliber, grenade launchers, bayonets and armored vehicles. That decision came down in response to protests and uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, where organizers and activists were met by camouflage-clad officers that more resembled extras from the Call of Duty franchise than a peace-keeping entity.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Obama said when the decision was announced.
The decision was largely symbolic, as Departments had been acquiring surplussed military gear for more than three decades before the decision. It was a not so subtle nudge by the Obama Administration to police, and to the nation, that police departments that resemble an occupying army should be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Of course, the reversal is also symbolic. A signaling to the law enforcement that the days the not so distant past are back, and to the nation that police can enforce order by any means necessary.
Although uprisings in response to police shootings are just the most recent snapshots of heavy-handed policing in the Black community, they are by no means the first. When it comes to law enforcement and militarized police, Black people have a long track record of being treated as enemy combatants.
Under Bull Connor’s tenure as Birmingham’s police chief in the 1960s, protesters for civil rights were greeted by the powerful streams of water hoses, the teeth of police dogs, boots and batons.
Across the country in the same era, the Los Angeles Police Department formed the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit as a response to civilian unrest, including the Watts uprising and its immediate aftermath. SWAT teams were also used to battle the Black Panther Party and were increasingly utilized in the decades following to fight a war on drugs that left Black communities decimated across the country. The epitome of a militarized police force is the MOVE bombing of 1985, in which Philadelphia police dropped a bomb in a residential area and directed local firefighters to delay putting out the ensuing blaze.
Trump’s decision is hardly a dog whistle. The decision to roll back the Obama-era restriction police obtaining military gear is a siren song to police and the law and order supporters who love them. Radley Balko, Washington Post columnist and author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” made it plain in a series of tweets following the decision.
“Rolling back those restrictions sends a pretty clear message — a message with echoes in the Arpaio pardon, rollback of investigations into police abuse, etc.” Balko tweeted. “Under this administration, there will be zero interest in discussion, oversight, or prevention of police abuse. As far as the federal government is concerned, there is no such thing as too aggressive, too militaristic, too abusive, too biased.”
If police acquisitions of military gear in Trump’s America is the shot, the overt demonization of the present day Black Lives Matter movement is the chaser. Just like the civil rights and Black power movements, present day Black Lives Matter activists have found themselves under federal surveillance. Taking root at the same time is the talking point that the Black Lives Matter movement and activists are one and the same with terrorism and terrorists. The cavalier nature of the manner this baseless accusation is tossed around with is nothing short of alarming.
If one affirms that Black lives matter, the opposite position is the maintenance of white supremacy and the declaration that Black lives do not matter. If Black Lives Matter can be successfully equated with terrorism and, by extension, Black people as terrorists, oppressors morph into freedom fighters.
And we know what this country does to terrorists, domestically and abroad. We also know what this country does to those it deems a threat to the white power structure and status quo. It unleashes the full weight of an increasingly militaristic law enforcement on Black people exercising their First Amendment rights to organize, gather and protest systemic, government-sponsored oppression. We also know what everyday citizens are emboldened to do in the names of patriotism and white supremacy. From elected officials who casually talk about running over protesters to white supremacists who make good on the threat, Trump’s America, with militarized police and emboldened white supremacists, looks a lot like J. Edgar Hoover’s America, with all-out war on Black activists.