Target: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner
Goal: Demilitarize law enforcement in the United States
As comedian-turned-serious-news-reporter John Oliver recently put it, singing along with muppets, “It’s a fact that needs to spoken: America’s prisons are broken.” Incarceration rates in the U.S. are egregiously high, nearing one percent of the population, according to a policy think tank called the Prison Policy Initiative. What’s more, people (especially men) of color are vastly overrepresented in the pool of those incarcerated: according to a recent Pew Research study, black men were six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated, with a recent University of Michigan Law School study reporting that black men receive harsher sentences than white men for the same crimes.
U.S. law enforcement is broken, too, with excessive militarization on the rise. In her recent book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander notes that in the early 1980s, there were 3,000 Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) deployments in the U.S., but by 2001 the number had increased to 40,000. Further, the U.S. government has recently been outfitting local police precincts with military-grade weaponry as part of the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 program. Under this program, surplus military equipment, including tanks and military weaponry, may be supplied to local U.S. police precincts, with the Washington Post reporting nearly half a billion dollars of equipment given away in 2013 alone. Over the years, police precincts that prioritized drug arrests have been given these resources as incentives.
Now, SWAT raids regularly occur for minor drug offenses, and nearly daily (every 28 hours), a black man is killed extra-judicially by law enforcement, according to statistics provided by the Malcolm X Grassroots movement. In an horrific recent event in Ferguson, Missouri, police violence led to the death of yet another unarmed young black male and was followed by protests in the town. Law enforcement shot at and threw tear gas at peaceful protesters, also arresting journalists as they rolled through neighborhood streets in military vehicles. The local newspaper the Riverfront Times reported that individuals were also attacked while standing in their own back yards. This included one man who shouted “This my property!”, which the Times said “…prompt[ed] police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”
This type of militarization leads to a culture in law enforcement where officers are no longer protecting their citizens. Join in writing to our Speaker of the House to use his voice to bring back an America where all citizens can walk the streets freely, without any threat from a militarized police.
Dear Speaker of the House Boehner,
U.S. prisons are broken, and the U.S. law enforcement system is broken. As Senator Rand Paul recently put it, “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most Americans think of as law enforcement.”
House representative Hank Johnson, from Georgia, has written legislation to demilitarize local police precincts and to limit the 1033 program, which currently allows such precincts to receive military-style weaponry. This legislation would help to ensure that some violence is curbed–for instance, we would prevent the use of over-the-top military tanks roaming town streets and coercing innocent, peaceful protesters into submission with tear gas and rubber bullets. An additional consequence of limiting this type of equipment would be a re-framing of what the relationship of law enforcement officers and citizens should be. The duty of law enforcement is first and foremost to protect the rights of citizens, but in many recent cases, U.S. law enforcement officers have done the precise opposite, endangering individuals without cause and/or with extremity.
As Langston Hughes wrote beautifully in his poem, “Let America be America Again”:Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: Sanandros via Wikimedia Commons