In the final minutes of a March Madness basketball game, University of Arizona students gathered on University Boulevard as they had after previous NCAA Tournament games prepared to celebrate a win, or commiserate a loss. A local bar owner noted that the students didn’t cause any trouble or property damage, and there was no violence until police began trying to clear the streets. “The kids,” said the owner, “I want to say they weren’t unruly, it was drunk college kids partying after a loss. I think more were hanging out in the street rather than trying to cause problems.”
None the less, Tucson police showed up in Darth Vader-style riot gear, armed with nightstick and non-lethal bullets, pepper spray and gas masks. They quickly declared that the students were now an “unlawful assembly,” ordered them to disperse and when they did not immediately do so, attacked the crowd.
One student said “It seemed like cops were asking for trouble. Wearing gas masks and lining University Boulevard before the game even ended seemed excessive.”
What happened next is shocking. A video showed a cop blindsiding a young woman with his nightstick. Another video showed police firing non-lethal rounds into a male student and then roughly tackling him to the ground when he did not go down.
Police are empowered to use appropriate force, primarily when needed to protect themselves or others. The inappropriate use of escalating violence is more akin to what happens in war zone, not among partying college students. Tuscon on a spring evening shouldn’t look like Kiev, Istanbul or Caracas, but it did. One is left to wonder if the cops see these students as “their people,” the ones they are sworn to protect and serve. Watching the videos, more and more one feels cops have the same Us and Them attitudes soldiers adopt in war zones.
The actions of an increasingly militarized police are reinforced by billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons and equipment available to local police departments through grant programs administered by federal agencies such as the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns:
The police officers on our streets and in our neighborhoods are not soldiers fighting a war. Yet many have been armed with tactics and weapons designed for battle overseas. The result: people – disproportionately those in poor communities and communities of color – have become targets for violent SWAT raids, often because the police suspect they have small amounts of drugs in their homes.
In his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, author Radley Balko shows how politicians’ relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier. He shows how over a generation, a creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated American police officers and put them on a collision course with the values of a free society.
The evidence accumulates. Have we have become the enemy? We have become the enemy.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well, and writes about current events at his blog. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now from from Amazon.