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The problem with calling for demilitarization “of the police”

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

“This is not to say there aren’t vast differences and nuances that need to always be named, but our oppressors are literally collaborating together, learning from one another – and as oppressed people we have to do the same.” – Cherrell Brown

The outrage on my Facebook feed has grown dramatically over the last six months against the militarization of American cities. I’m glad Ferguson has prompted fresh scrutiny of federal programs that allow local police departments to acquire military weapons.

I’m glad we are having some important conversations: we are talking about there being a certain color of the skin of the people gunned down in the name of security in America. We’re talking about the irrelevance of a young boy’s college ambitions when it comes to whether he “deserved” to be gunned down. Why narratives around state-sanctioned violence tend to erase women victims. The shortcomings of the term ‘people of color.’ The misplaced (racist) focus on looting when we should really be talking about decades of oppression that has stripped communities of dignified channels of responding to injustice. How the War on Drugs has turned our communities into militarized war zones.

And I’m glad white men and institutions are finally in these videos and posts talking about the role of race in anti-civilian violence. Because — who are we kidding — white men and institutions dictate sociopolitical agendas so when they say race is involved, then we, America, can believe race is involved and not only just in Michael Brown’s death but in the way he — and most other black humans in this country — live(d).

But I’m worried about some of the rhetoric emerging in our outrage over militarization. “This isn’t Iraq—it’s Ferguson,” commentators note. “Police officers aren’t supposed to be soldiers.” Their comparison isn’t unique. I’ve seen it used many, many times. Images show officers using army-grade equipment against unarmed and almost exclusively black civilians. This distinction between police and military has startled people into (finally) thinking critically about police brutality and racism in this country — about the billions in weaponry created not to protect but to kill being funneled into our own cities and (ab)used by those in power to murder civilians extrajudicially.

This line of thinking is powerful because it means we are both seeing what it looks like to be black in America — and what it looks like to live under a constant threat of anti-civilian violence. We are feeling horror, and we are going, Whoa, Ferguson looks like the West Bank/Tahrir/Baghdad, and we are recognizing that our police officers shouldn’t be using weapons made for soldiers and America shouldn’t be looking like Iraq or Palestine.

But what does this comparison really say? What is being asked, Elif Batuman points out in the New Yorker, when we are invited to consider whether an image of men in camo on tanks is more appropriate to a ‘war zone’ or Missouri?

Iraq or Missouri?

Because brutal anti-civilian violence does not stop within US borders. Because those men on tanks were a problem before they came to US cities. (And police brutality was a problem in those cities before those weapons came in). Because Palestine should not look like today’s Palestine nor Iraq like today’s Iraq. And the reason they do is not because they were born that way but because the military complex that does everything possible to destroy black communities here also kills people with impunity in Iraq and Palestine and everywhere else.

Militarization isn’t a threat when it happens to the police. It is a threat in and of itself.

The way we have been saying “police are not soldiers” fails to recognize this and expressing outrage over the militarization “of the police” fails to recognize this and risks implying that there is some just form of militarization. And that I think is nothing less than violent and nothing less than a destructive form of respectability politics. A form that reflects perverse essentialism — an assumption that, as Batuman notes, “anti-civilian violence is ‘un-American’ but not ‘un-Iraqi‘” — and an even deeper amnesia about the American gift that keeps on giving: occupation. After all, we have played a key role in turning other nations into ‘war zones.’

Saying Michael Brown should not have been gunned down because he was going to college means there was an okay place for him to have been gunned down.

Saying Ferguson’s police should not gun down non-white people with military weapons because they are not soldiers means that but there is an okay place for soldiers to gun down non-white people with military weapons.

Saying America looks like Kabul means America should know better than to act like Kabul.

But Brown should not have been gunned down because he was human, and Ferguson should not gun down people with military weapons because those non-white people are also human, and Ferguson looks like Kabul because they were brutalized by the same military complex, and our cities should not look like war zones not because we as Americans deserve better, but because no one deserves anything less.

I do think this line of thinking — of America looking like a war zone — can be really powerful when used to build solidarity and recognition within non-white communities witnessing different episodes of militarization. For it really is an interrelated system. But our demands can’t stop at severing the links between police and military; we need to be dismantling the military complex itself.

And to be clear, I do not think this means everyone needs to talk about everything right now, because it is so okay to focus on battles that are dear to us. There are enough people who won’t let folks feel what they need to feel or let them say what they need to say or bring up their own issues and arrogantly ask people to talk about them instead. That isn’t transnational solidarity, and I don’t want anyone to question where I stand on such bigoted attempts to silence or sidetrack current conversations about domestic policing and anti-black racism in the US.

What I do think is that it might be worthwhile for people to question the language we use to fight these systems domestically in order to make sure that it does not implicitly condone the same system’s violence abroad.

Header Image Credit: Mahroh Jahangiri

Mahroh Jahangiri is the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She was formerly a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and her previous research has focused on the ways in which American militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact non-white communities transnationally. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, she lives and organizes in DC. You can say hi to her at @mahrohj.

Mahroh Jahangiri is Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools.

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