By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
President Donald Trump’s decision to resume providing surplus military equipment to the police is a direct response to the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement and lays the foundation for further controlling the behavior of African Americans outside of the criminal justice system.
It was the spectacle of police officers riding in armored vehicles with machine guns mounted on them and pointing high-powered assault rifles at demonstrators in the aftermath of a series of young black men being killed by cops that brought about the ban on such weapons for policing.
The shock to the system from scenes of militarized police in the streets of the United States of America led then President Barack Obama to create a task force to look into the issue and, in May 2015, to severely curtail the transfer of such weapons from the military’s surplus stock.
“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community,” Obama stated during an appearance in Camden, N.J., on May 18, 2015. “We’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”
Obama had it right. Contrary to the claims of their union leaders, the overwhelming majority of police officers know that the best form of policing is not in the type of heavy-duty weapons they can be equipped with but their ability to forge alliances with the communities which they serve. The Obama ban included tracked armored vehicles – tanks – as well as grenade launchers and bayonets. Some other equipment would be allowed after police departments provided additional certification and assurances that it would be used responsibly.
Now Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions have lifted the Obama ban. “These restrictions went too far,” Sessions said in an address to the National Fraternal Order of Police on Monday. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety. We will do our best to get you what you need.”
Sessions is a hardcore law-and-order politician who is yet to demonstrate an understanding of policing in 21st Century America. He and his boss have adopted the slogan of making America safe again. But safe for whom?
Statistics continue to show that unarmed African Americans, especially young males, face the peril of being killed by the police, mostly with impunity. The Guardian newspaper, which tracks such statistics, reported that police killed at least 258 black people in 2016, of whom 39 were unarmed.
The BBC reported in 2016 that the average number of police deaths from 2006 to 2015 was 49.6.
“There’s a widespread perception in the American public, and particularly within law enforcement, that officers are more threatened, more endangered, more often assaulted, and more often killed than they have been historically. I think it’s a very strong perception. People truly believe it. But factually, looking at the numbers, it’s not accurate,” the BBC quoted Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of Southern Carolina and former policeman, as saying.
Yet, both the National Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association have been pressing for resumption of the transfer of military surplus to the police supposedly to ensure police safety.
On the other hand, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has accepted that law enforcement has historically played a role in the persecution of blacks and other minorities.
The Guardian reported in October 2016 that the Association’s president, Terence Cunningham, called on the police to understand the mistrust caused by officers being the “face of oppression” during a “dark side” of American history.
‘For our part,” Cunningham said, “the first step in the process is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
The 124-year-old Association has about 18,000 members in several countries.
“Overcoming this historic mistrust requires that we must move forward together in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” Cunningham said. He ermphasized also that law enforcement is a “noble profession” and that over the years thousands of officers have “laid down their lives for their fellow citizens.”
But such reasonable comments are lost in the inflammatory rhetoric of Trump and his administration. There is good reason for it. Policing can be used to keep the peace through mutual respect between officers and citizens or it can be an instrument of oppression.
While the ordinary police officer goes about his or her duties of keeping the peace and then returning home to their families, their neighbors and their communities, the tactics and actions of those in Washington with an ulterior agenda can only make their work more difficult.
In the year 2017, African Americans are not about to allow Trump or Sessions or any other person to extend the neo-slavery of mass incarceration into militarized occupation of their communities. For, rest assured, in the final analysis, that is the end game of this making America safe again and the “war on crime.”