Stop the War on Baltimore

Now is the time for Mayor Rawlings Blake to put an end to Baltimore police militarization.

By Dante Barry

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has lifted the citywide curfew, and the National Guard plans to implement a drawdown. Now is the time for Mayor Rawlings Blake to put an end to Baltimore police militarization.

The response to the killing of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson opened up a national conversation around police militarization and how militarized police disproportionately affect communities of color. Thanks to the wars on drugs and crime, police militarization has been one of the most unnoticed developments of our lifetime. Police militarization has been the state’s tactic to clamp down on dissent and directly target communities of color with racially biased policing and excessive use of force.

In a nighttime drug raid, a black 7-year-old girl, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, slept on her grandmother’s couch as half a dozen masked officers of Detroit’s version of SWAT—Special Response Team—held their guns drawn at the door. The SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade through the window that landed next to Aiyana, burning her blanket. Officer Joseph Weekley, fired a single shot at Aiyana’s head. Most recently in February, a mentally ill black woman died in Fairfax County jail when a sheriff’s deputy shocked her four times. These practices are far too common and are perpetuated by a failure to hold police officers accountable for excessive use of force against black and brown communities.

The Baltimore Uprising

Young black people in Baltimore have been at the forefront of the uprising. Like Ferguson, Baltimore has seen a deployment of militarized policing used upon predominately poor, young black people amid a national movement scrutinizing the militarization of law enforcement. This is not new. As Baltimore pastor Rev. Graylan Hagler pointed out, law enforcement agencies, who have engaged in training sessions in Israel for United States cops, have a history of dehumanizing black communities.

The heavy militarized police presence itself instigated ongoing violence and agitation. Police were openly deployed in riot gear from the start at the protests—armed with batons, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. The police became an invading force in occupied poor black communities in Baltimore, turning their neighborhoods into foxholes of a war zone.

Community members are grieving the loss of Freddie Gray and black transgender woman Mya Hall, and now they must experience continued trauma and violence by the state through police repression. The presence of militarized police sent a message of intimidation to black and Latino civilians in the community. Just like occupied territory in Ferguson, Baltimore viewed those demonstrating as enemy combatants and thugs. Though we should be applauding the efforts of those involved with brokering a truce between street organizations, we should also be wary of fear-mongering and the ongoing criminalization of black communities.

Across the globe, communities are watching thousands of protesters take the street and become victims of state repression and police violence in Baltimore. Well-known Baltimore activist Joseph Kent was kidnapped by police live on television. Joseph Kent’s arrest made headlines internationally as activists on social media demanded answers from Mayor Rawlings Blake and the Baltimore Police Department. Protesters are targeted and legal and medical observers are arrested for adding service to the community resisting state violence.

Maryland’s investment in police militarization

Baltimore, like other localities in Maryland and across the country, received a surplus of military equipment from the Defense Department’s 1033 program to provide to local law-enforcement agencies. What’s happening in Baltimore is a small dose of the capacity of the state of Maryland when it comes to police militarization and access to military-grade weaponry.

In August 2014, The Baltimore Sun reported that local police departments in Maryland received more than $12 million in excess military equipment. With the SWAT team as main users, Baltimore has spent over $500,000 to buy military-style weapons since 2008. Campus police forces at the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, and others qualify for federal funding of military-styled weapons. Author Radley Balko calls this the “rise of the warrior cop”—aggressive policing that draws too much on military techniques and practices at the expense of citizen’s constitutional rights.

Although there is a general lack of SWAT oversight and collection of data nationally, in Maryland SWAT deployments are usually used for search warrants. In 2009, Maryland enacted a law requiring law-enforcement agencies that maintain a SWAT team to report deployment information semi-annually. However, that law was developed after a SWAT team raided the home of a mayor in Prince George’s County in 2008, holding the mayor and his wife at gunpoint over drug allegations. We’ve heard this before.

The time to act is now

My organization, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, looks at police militarization as an issue of safety beyond policing. If safety is to be the point, we must transform every inch of policing. We have been told that cops have a monopoly on public safety. If we envision what actually make us feel safe, it is not SWAT teams or police in schools with Tasers. We need organized and powerful communities and not federal tank giveaways. We need stronger, healthier neighborhoods and not bigger police departments.

The federal government has the power to ensure that military equipment is not used routinely for policing situations like drug raids and street patrols. Local and state governments should also limit the use of SWAT in our communities. This is what Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) is hard at work on, in seeking to reform the Pentagon’s 1033 program.

We know that reforming 1033 is not going to be enough. Any reform done to policing must be systemic and transformative. Militarized policing culture, surveillance technologies, and equipment must all be looked at if we are to see an end of police militarization in our communities. In order to have real safety in our communities, the time for action is now. Demilitarize the police.

Dante Barry is the Executive Director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice.

Article originally posted at The Nation Magazine

Million Hoodies