Maybe we can look back to December 8, 1969, as the day the police decided to militarize itself against black people. There’s an Opinion piece on the Los Angeles Times website that pronounces that “50 years ago, LAPD raided the Black Panthers. SWAT teams have been targeting Black communities ever since“. This article dissects how a group that armed itself to protect Black communities from police brutality drew the ire of police forces across the United States. The article proposes that it was the raid of the Los Angles Blank Panther Party headquarters that ushered in the militarization of policing.
“On that morning 50 years ago, the Panthers became the targets of the world’s first major raid by a Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, team. More than 350 officers took on 13 Panthers, ostensibly to execute arrest warrants. The group they battled included three women and five teenagers.” A major irony to the formation of SWAT was that its co-creator is none other than Daryl Gates. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. Gates was the Los Angeles Police Chief during the brutal beating of Rodney King.
The Black Panthers, founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, were established to protect Black communities from police brutality. At the time, brandishing a loaded weapon in public was not a crime and the Panthers exploited that to impress upon the police community that they had had enough. “Dressed in black berets and black leather jackets, the Black Panthers organized armed citizen patrols of Oakland and other U.S. cities”.
Although the Los Angels gun battle may have been the start of the militarization of the police, it was the clash 4 days earlier in Chicago, Illinois that caught the country’s attention. On December 4, 1969 the Chicago police raided a Black Panther’s headquarters and gunned down Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The significance of this shooting and the controversy that erupted after that shooting continues to this day.
Despite the fact that they are frequently portrayed as gun brandishing Black men in leather jackets, the Panthers also provided lunch programs and medical assistance to black communities. “From 1969 through the early 1970s, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program fed tens of thousands of hungry kids. It was just one facet of a wealth of social programs created by the party—and it helped contribute to the existence of federal free breakfast programs today”.
Since the raids in Los Angeles and Chicago, the militarization of policing has grown exponentially aided by the 1033 Program. The 1033 Program “transfers excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. The program legally requires the Department of Defense (DOD) to make various items of equipment available to local law enforcement. The modern program arose during the H. W. Bush administration”.
THE EVOLUTION OF SWAT TEAM EQUIPMENT: FROM WWII RIFLES TO BEARCATS details the evolution of police artillery and tactics to the manifestation of its full visualization during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown. “Business Insider journalist Paul Szoldra commented: “Their uniform would be mistaken for a soldier’s if it weren’t for their “Police” patches. They wear green tops, and pants fashioned after the U.S. Marine Corps MARPAT camouflage pattern.”
As politicians and slogan makers fight over the latest jargon – defunding the police, let’s not lose sight of the real issue. The militarization of the police also means the hardening of their mission. The military’s central mission as described by the Department of Defense is to “… provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country” That is in direct contrast to “protect and serve” which is the common mission of most police forces.
So, let’s start by getting the police forces throughout the country back to their central mission of protecting the communities they serve instead of killing them.