When Civilian Protest Is Labeled 'Urban Warfare'
When state officials say they face "a sophisticated network of urban warfare,” they're looking through the lens of a militarized police force.
This is what escalation looks like. “The situation on the ground in Minneapolis & St. Paul has shifted & the response tonight will be different as a result,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety tweeted as businesses boarded up their windows and the Saturday sun sank low over the Twin Cities. The National Guard and law-enforcement presence would “triple in size,” the state agency warned, “to address a sophisticated network of urban warfare.”
“Urban warfare” is a striking choice of words for a state agency, and one that cable-news anchors seized on and repeated in the fiery hours that followed. For the fifth straight night, Americans marched and chanted—and some rioted and looted—overwhelmed with frustration and rage by the Monday killing of George Floyd, who died while a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Prosecutors charged Chauvin with manslaughter and third-degree murder on Friday, but three other police officers involved in the incident remain free. And the current protests are about not one black man’s death, but thousands of them, and centuries of discrimination, dehumanization, and denial of basic civil rights.
The police and the U.S. military are separate institutions because policing a community and fighting a war are supposed to be separate jobs. In traditional “wars,” both sides are heavily armed. In Minnesota, only the agents of the state appear to be wearing body armor and carrying long guns. And yet: State officials are calling this “warfare” on official public channels. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety and a spokesperson for Governor Tim Walz did not respond to requests for comment about the language.
“War” is not how public officials have referred to the protests by pro-Confederate and white-nationalist groups in recent years; those gatherings have not generally been dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. Nor were the armed “Liberate” protesters who swarmed the Michigan statehouse earlier this month removed by force; instead, the legislature canceled its session. But perhaps it was inevitable that officials would turn to military language as demonstrations spread across the country this week. In cities large and small, police departments are now outfitted like military units. When you’re driving an armored vehicle down Main Street, civilians can begin to look like insurgents.
Militarization can escalate already tense situations. Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown escalated dramatically on their second day, when police showed up in Humvees, wearing camouflage, and carrying M4s. This can be taken to even more absurd extremes: That same year, the police department in Fargo, North Dakota, attracted my colleague James Fallows’s attention for riding through the snow in full military-style camo, hanging off their armored vehicle. The last major “public disturbance” in the area had been during the 2001 Testicle Festival, more than a decade earlier.
The state of Minnesota’s “urban warfare” rhetoric is the inevitable consequence of this decades-long militarization of American police departments, Arthur Rizer, a policing expert at the center-right R Street Institute, told me late Saturday.
“You create this world where you’re not just militarizing the police—you equip the police like soldiers, you train the police like soldiers. Why are you surprised when they act like soldiers?” Rizer, a former police officer and soldier, said. “The mission of the police is to protect and serve. But the premise of the soldier is to engage the enemy in close combat and destroy them. When you blur those lines together with statements like that … It’s an absolute breakdown of civil society.”
American police officers generally believe that carrying military equipment and wearing military gear makes them feel like they can do more, and that it makes them scarier, Rizer’s research has found. Officers even acknowledge that acting and dressing like soldiers could change how the public feels about them. But “they don’t care,” he said. Most of the time, heavily armed police units such as SWAT teams are used not for the hostage and active-shooter scenarios for which they are ostensibly designed, but instead for work like executing search warrants, a 2014 study found. And agencies that use military equipment kill civilians at much higher rates than agencies that don’t, according to a 2017 study.
After Georgia protesters vandalized CNN’s Atlanta headquarters on Friday, the rapper and activist Killer Mike addressed the city’s residents in a clip that circulated widely. “I’m glad [protesters] only took down a sign and defaced a building, and they’re not killing human beings like that policeman did,” he said. “I’m glad that they only destroyed some brick and mortar, and they didn’t rip a father from a son, they didn’t rip a son from a mother, like the policeman did.” Like other activists and politicians across the country, including Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, Georgia’s John Lewis, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, he pleaded for people to stop setting fire to America’s cities. “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house, so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. And now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.”
Some people have ignored that plea, burning cars and buildings and looting businesses. But yesterday, as police pepper-sprayed a congresswoman, drove into a crowd, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters and journalists alike, it was clear that some police officers were approaching these situations like soldiers, and treating citizens as enemies.
That’s not the only option for how police can respond to moments like this one. On Saturday afternoon, police officers in Camden, New Jersey—not dressed like soldiers—joined protesters in their march for justice.
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