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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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.