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Our 17,000th Posting! Reflections on Cops and Soldiers: Different Uniforms, Similar Missions


October 16, 2015
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War

Commentary: Because the modern police officer must always be the dominant force in any situation, every encounter with the public looms as a potential confrontation.As a result, municipal police have come to view civilians as potentially threatening adversaries. Some of this paranoia may be traced to the growing availability of handguns. It may also stem from the practice that sees municipal police increasingly recruited from the ranks of returning combat veterans.

Special to Environmentalists Against War

(October 15, 2015) -- I am not a member of any identifiable minority community, nonetheless, on four separate occasions, I have found myself targeted by weapons held in the hands of armed police.

In 1965, during the Vietnam War, a military guard threatened to shoot me if I trespassed onto the Concord Naval Weapons Station. I told him I was an unarmed peace activist. When a truck loaded with napalm bombs approached, I walked through the main gate and stopped in front of the truck, forcing it to a halt. Fortunately, the young soldier decided not to open fire.

One night, working late in my downtown office, I heard a noise in the hallway. When I opened the door, the hallway lights were out. Suddenly, I was surrounded by three strangers shouting, brandishing weapons, and demanding that I put my hands in the air. They turned out to be Berkeley police. After determining that I was unarmed, they explained that they had received a report of a burglary in progress.

One day in downtown Berkeley, I attempted to take a news photograph of a Brinks armored car guard holding a shotgun as he stood next to the Wells Fargo building. As I looked through my viewfinder, I saw the guard shoulder his rifle and point it in my direction. He shouted a blunt warning: "Drop the camera or I'll shoot."

On another occasion, while leaving Berkeley's Ecology Center late one night, I made a perfectly legal U-turn on San Pablo Avenue. When a nearby police car announced its presence with a siren blast and flashing lights, I realized that I had neglected to turn on my headlights.

Embarrassed by my lapse, I pulled over, parked the car and emerged laughing. I began to offer an apology. "Sorry!" I told the officer, "I know why you stopped me."

I expected to find the driver of the cop car grinning and sharing my embarrassment. What I saw stopped me in my tracks: The police officer was cowering behind the open door of her squad car with her service revolver aimed directly at my chest.

She subsequently explained something about criminal behavior that I was not aware of. "When a police officer stops you," she said, "you are supposed to remain in your vehicle. Only the bad guys get out of the car."

Well, live and learn. (Or, as sometimes happens in these spooked-cop cases, you learn and die.)

The Mindset of the Modern Cop
All of these incidents have something in common: they were all rooted in the presumption that I posed a threat to these officers -- even though they were the ones who were armed.

Isn't it ironic that the most heavily armed members of society seem to be the most paranoid, the most "in fear of their lives"? (I've always been told that having a gun confers a sense of security.)

While a police department's motto may be "To Protect and Serve," many modern cops are focused on a narrower obsession: to "Enforce Law and Order."

Perhaps that should read: enforcing "law and orders."

Now, certainly, there are good police -- men and women who are more humanitarian than authoritarian. But they are not the ones who make the evening news. They are not the ones who take lives.

The problem is that, increasingly, modern police are trained to expect that citizens must instantly surrender themselves to the commands of a uniformed officer. Failure to comply (or simply questioning the reason for the stop) is instantly seen as an act of insubordination, a willful act of defiance that immediately escalates the encounter.

Failure to comply -- promptly and without question -- gives license for an officer to seize the individual and to throw him or her to the ground, wrenching their wrists behind their backs so they can be handcuffed. (The approach suggests the Pentagon's goal of "full spectrum dominance.")

Complaints about being manhandled or reacting to the pain by screaming or twisting can provoke the arresting officer to bark, "Stop resisting!" -- all the while increasing the pressure and the pain and quite possibly resorting to an onslaught punitive punches.

In the US, Policing Is All About Domination
Police officers are not to be "disrespected." You cannot walk away from a police officer. If you turn your back on a police officer, you can expect to be detained, assaulted, tasered or shot. Not because you pose any immediate physical threat to the officer but simply because your attitude is seen as expressing disrespect. (It's one thing to try and ignore an annoying boozer in a bar; it's quite another to try argue with or turn your back on a cop.)

That may have been part of the story behind what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Granted, Brown committed criminal acts before his fatal encounter with officer Darren Willson. Granted, Brown engaged in a physical exchange with officer Wilson, after the officer reached for his gun. Brown was seen reaching inside the open car window and struggling with the officer. After Wilson fired at Brown, injuring him in the hand, Brown attempted to flee the scene.

Despite knowing that Brown was unarmed, Wilson fired 11 more shots in Brown's direction, eventually bringing him to a halt 120 feet away from Wilson's police SUV.

Although Brown was unarmed and leaving the scene, officer Wilson could not "let him get away." Instead of waiting for additional police enforcements or arranging to arrest Brown later, Wilson pursued Brown down the street on foot, firing twelve bullets in Brown's direction and eventually killing him.

The US Department of Justice concluded that "there is no credible evidence that establishes that Wilson fired at or struck Brown’s back as Brown fled" but the same DOJ report notes (without explanation) that Brown was struck with two bullets that entered his left and right arms ... from behind.

The DOJ report claims that Brown was shot after he turned and "charged" the officer who, feeling threatened, fired additional rounds. To argue it's point, the DOJ investigation cited "a trail of blood proving that Brown moved forward toward Wilson prior to the fatal shot to his head." But the trail of blood began "22 feet east of where Brown fell to his death."

In other words, Brown had already been shot several times by Wilson before he stopped and turned. Wilson claimed he felt threatened when Brown turned and faced him. But consider the situation from Michael Brown's perspective. He had attempted to flee only to be shot multiple times. He now has reason to fear for his life. But he has no weapon. Perhaps he decided that his only chance to escape certain death was to turn and "charge" the officer.

From the Battlefield to the Barrios
Because the modern police officer must always be the dominant alpha male (or alpha female) in any situation, every encounter with the public looms as a potential confrontation. Increasingly, municipal police have come to view civilians as uniformly suspicious and potentially threatening adversaries.

Some of this paranoia may be traced to the growing availability of handguns. It may also stem from the fact that municipal police are increasingly recruited from the ranks of returning combat veterans.

In the streets of Baghdad (as in the rice fields of Vietnam), American soldiers found themselves members of an occupying force, strangers in a foreign land, surrounded by men, women, and children who all seemed to pose a potential threat. In a combat zone where the enemy is not identifiable by virtue of a clearly recognizable uniform, every civilian becomes a suspect -- every civilian is seen as a potential enemy.

Indeed, as anti-war activist and author David Swanson recently pointed out, the Pentagon's willingness to use military drones to target "people never identified but deemed suspicious by their behavior [provides] a parallel to racial profiling by domestic police."

The World's Policeman
The United States revels in its self-appointed role as "the World's Policeman." Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Haiti, El Salvador, or Grenada, the American soldier is conditioned to respond to local populations with the same mindset of a cop in patrolling America's inner cities -- with suspicion, distrust and callous disregard.

These unfortunate foreigners are expected to comply with whatever command an American soldier throws at them. Frequently, orders shouted in a foreign tongue are not understood and people fail to comply or are not quick enough to signal their submission to authority.

Whether this happens at a checkpoint or inside a home during a night raid, the consequences are frequently tragic. Entire families have been riddled with bullets while driving in their cars or manhandled, beaten and abused in their homes.

Around the world, the US has soldiers patrolling streets and peering nervously from fortified bases looking for any suspicious activities on the part of the indigenous populations. This is a reflection of a fundamental problem shared with domestic law enforcement -- a growing estrangement between the police and the populations being "policed."

In many cases, police live far from the communities in which they serve. Like soldiers deployed to an unknown country, these officers are an alien presence on the streets they patrol. They are not accountable to the community. They do their jobs and, at the end of their shifts, they turn their backs on the people they are paid to oversee (and occasionally, discipline) and return to their distant homes.

In the US and abroad, the pistol-packing American Enforcer is viewed with suspicion, anger and resentment. Increasingly, the role of the cop and work of the grunt is the same: to maintain an imposed status quo; to protect "interests" and "assets" at home and abroad, be they banks, oilfields, shipping lanes or freeway on-ramps.

(Can you imagine the Pentagon or the police enforcing "human rights" or "environmental assets"? Imagine the US Army assigning soldiers to restore a forest or a city obliterated by US bombs. Imagine US police being deployed to feed the poor or to protect picket lines of striking workers.)

The soldier's assignment in foreign lands is a duplicate of the marching orders handed to an urban cop sent into the ghetto to provide "protection."

The balladeer Phil Ochs clearly saw what America's "Top Cop" looked like to the rest of the world. The soldier was nothing more than a common bluecoat, albeit tricked out with better weapons, but still driven by intolerance and the arrogance that comes with the promise of impunity:

Come, get out of the way, boys
Quick, get out of the way
You'd better watch what you say, boys
Better watch what you say

We've rammed in your harbor and tied to your port
And our pistols are hungry and our tempers are short
So bring your daughters around to the port
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World . . .

We'll spit through the streets of the cities we wreck
And we'll find you a leader that you can't elect
Those treaties we signed were a pain in the neck
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World . . . .

We'll smash down your doors, we don't bother to knock
We've done it before, so why all the shock
We're the biggest and the toughest kids on the block
And we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World . . . .

We own half the world, oh say can you see
And the name for our profits is democracy
So, like it or not, you will have to be free
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World.


As America's police have become increasingly militarized, the distinction between the cop-on-the-beat and the soldier-on-the-frontline has become blurred. These two once-distinct versions of policing -- domestic versus foreign -- have begun to merge. People living in America's cities now speak of the police as an "occupying army."

At the same time, the Pentagon attempts to dilute its foreign invasions and occupations by referring to them as "humanitarian" interventions and "policing" operations.

(Note: Under the posse comitatus act, America's military forces are forbidden to operate inside US borders. Recently, however, this 1878 law has been rendered moot by the Pentagon's strategy of "handing down" a largesse of military-grade vehicles and weaponry that has transformed many domestic police agencies into de facto combat-ready armies.)

According to the September 30, 2010, Pentagon report, "Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country," the US has exported its troops to 148 foreign countries. The "Base Structure Report, Fiscal 2010 Baseline" lists 662 overseas bases in 38 foreign countries. Former Senator Ron Paul has claimed the US has as many as 900 bases overseas.

Wherever the Pentagon deploys its forces, it also projects the paranoid mindset of the alpha-male cop. Like the policeman at home, the "world's policeman" must dominate and control the situation. America must be obeyed. Everyone is suspect. Everyone must submit.

Buffalo Springfield said it well, way back in 1967:

There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware. . . .

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away.


And, like the chorus says:

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down . . . .




A slightly different version of this essaty first appeared in The Berkeley Daily Planet.

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