An American police officer, taking the phrase “war on crime” rather too literally. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
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Michael Brown, Ferguson and the United States' police-soldiers

Over the past few decades, US police departments have invested heavily in military-style equipment and training. The turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri shows the results.

The story is uncomfortably familiar. A young black man is shot by the police in the United States; the ensuing outrage sparks protests; clashes between police forces and protesters escalate an already tense situation. There are very few positive signs coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, in the current debacle following the shooting of the unarmed, 18 year-old Michael Brown on Saturday. However, alongside the hotly contested issues of racial dynamics in the country, one other talking-point has come to light: the militarisation of America’s police departments. It is a discussion that is long overdue.

The “city” of Ferguson has a population of just over 21,000 people. It is 6.20 square miles (16.06 sq km) in total area, making it the same size as the UK village of Dunsfold, in Surrey. The annual police budget accorded to this meagre area is $5.2m. It is no wonder that the police forces now facing down protests on the streets are armed with shortened assault rifles and use armoured personnel-carriers adorned with turret-mounted weaponry. In fact, huge police budgets have come in large part from grants given to them by the Department of Homeland Security. The US police have been arming and equipping themselves for years on a martial scale.

Advanced equipment and confrontational tactics have become typical fare. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The issue has been pertinent since as far back as 1997, when Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University published their article “Militarising American Police: The Rise and Normalisation of Paramilitary Units”. In fact, the “drug war hysteria” of the 1980s was what initially gave American politicians the justification to roll out much of the military model that we are witnessing in action this week. The academics claimed that “some police paramilitary units proactively seek out and even manufacture highly dangerous situations,” instead of simply reacting to threat levels appropriately. Moreover, the units target whichever areas the police feel are likely to be “high crime or disorderly areas, which most often are poor neighbourhoods, whatever the city’s size”. This analysis may be 17 years old but presents a stark reflection of the realities Ferguson’s protestors are facing.

Notably large amounts of funding have been flowing into the police authorities' coffers since the 9/11 terror attacks - the money given by Homeland Security comes in the form of “anti-terror grants”. Yet it is quite apparent that the problems the police are now facing in Missouri have nothing to do with terrorism. What has happened is that an obsession with curbing terrorism, mixed with the withdrawal of US armed forces from foreign excursions, has created a huge surplus of military-grade equipment that isn't needed, but is nevertheless stockpiled by police departments. The “urban areas security initiative” plays a central role. Directing funding towards “high-threat, high density” areas like St Louis, Homeland Security claims that it should be used “to prepare for, prevent and respond to pre-operational activity and other crimes that are precursors and indicators of terrorist activity”. Though the police in Ferguson are engaging in none of the relevant anti-terror tasks, they have the equipment to suggest that they are. And since they have it, they might as well use it.  

A candlelit vigil held on Sunday night suddenly turned sour when protestors chanting “no justice, no peace” were greeted by police officers with riot gear. Images of groups of peaceful protestors – mostly from the two-thirds majority of African-Americans in Ferguson’s population, represented by 3 out of 53 police officers in the city – being fired on with rubber bullets and tear gas have surfaced all over social media. This is the US police machine operating in its most intolerant and frankly dangerous manner.

Commentators in favour of the bellicose nature of the police often point to the violent nature of interactions between police and certain types of criminals. The justification for SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams is that the police need to be better armed than their targets so that police are less exposed to potentially fatal risk. This makes sense. But when a SWAT team conducts a dramatic raid based on a “no-knock” warrant, removing the need for them to announce themselves, the chances of a fatal confrontation are actually far more likely. This is totally undesirable if the criminals would not have been dangerous in the first place.

This point can be extended to the clashes in public places of the sort now being seen in Ferguson. When the police utilise such heavy-handed methodology, it comes as no surprise that protestors, whose original objection was to an inappropriate application of police force, will react with particular vehemence. Threat arises where there needn’t have been any. Furthermore, there is no reason why maintaining an efficient police department capable of dealing with serious threats – terrorism, hostage crises – means the response to wider, but mostly peaceful social problems cannot be toned down.

Sadly, if Ferguson serves as any example at all, it is one of heightened police aggression and militarisation in the US. As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, notes, “if you take a police officer and arm him like a soldier, dress him like a soldier and train him like a soldier... that is going to have an effect.” For Michael Brown and those mourning his loss, that effect has become all too real. 

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era