Obama Takes Small Step Towards Demilitarizing Police

Glen Ford of The Black Agenda Report says the reality of policing in the United States is inseparable from the maintenance of the mass black incarceration regime.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Glen Ford Report on The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The Obama administration has banned releasing certain military-style gear to local police departments. The appearance of heavily armed police clad in military-grade body armor to quell the unrest of youth in Baltimore and last year in Ferguson has led to widespread concerns over the federal program providing the gear to local police. The announcement came as President Obama traveled to Camden, New Jersey to highlight his administration’s strategy to help reform local police departments, including efforts to increase the number of police on the beat, and use body cameras. The White House also announced the spending of $75 million over the next three years to buy 50,000 body cameras for police.

Now joining me to discuss all of this is Glen Ford. Glen is joining me from Plainfield, New Jersey, and he is the co-founder and executive director of the Black Agenda Report. Thank you so much for joining us, Glen.

GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this.

PERIES: So Glen, what is this program? And this is happening practically in your backyard, so what did President Obama bring there?

FORD: Well, these so-called reforms that he’s talked about in connection with that appearance in Camden, New Jersey are really all about the cosmetics and the public relations of policing. It has very little to do with the reality of policing in the United States. And the reality of policing in the United States is inseparable from the maintenance of the mass black incarceration regime, or in Michelle Alexander’s words, the new Jim Crow. When you have tracked vehicles and heavy tanks and high-caliber automatic weapons, and battlefield military gear for individual officers, well, that’s not central. It’s not even necessary when your mission is to put millions of black people in prison. Or if your mission is to strike terror constantly in the black community.

The cops who killed Michael Brown, and killed Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott killed thousands of others over the years. They weren’t wearing battlefield outfits. And they weren’t firing automatic weapons, and they weren’t riding around in tanks. All of this, all these killings, this existence of a police army of occupation, all of that predates this huge influx of money and equipment from the Pentagon, and more recently from Homeland Security. But what Obama is trying to solve is the U.S. police public relations problem. The problem is that they look like Nazi stormtroopers. But if their mission is the same as the Nazi stormtrooper, they can accomplish that mission quite well without riding around in tanks and firing automatic rifles. They can do it in their regular police clothing, and 99 percent of the time that is how they do it.

The Black Panther party correctly identified the police mission way back in 1966 as to be an army of occupation in the black community. And that was three years before the establishment of the first SWAT team. Those cops still are an army of occupation today, whether they are dressed casually or whether they are riding around in tracked vehicles or not. It is the mission that counts, it’s not the equipment. It’s not about body cameras, either. It’s especially not about the so-called community policing schemes that the U.S. Justice Department is pushing. And those schemes are nothing but enhanced intelligence gathering proposals that are designed to throw more black people in prison. That is, to maintain this mass black incarceration state which is the problem. What black people really need is black community control of the police. And all the rest of it is a diversion.

It’s not reform, it’s public relations. But I do have to say that even all of these diversions and these public relations proposals would not have happened if there had not emerged a people’s movement about ten months ago.

PERIES: Now Glen, over the last few decades we’ve seen the transformation of local police forces. We’ve seen them going from blue shirt uniforms with the baton to what we are seeing–what we saw in Ferguson and what we saw in Baltimore, almost ninja turtle type figures moving upon our youth.

Now, what has happened? I know that the military spending, growing military spending, and the state of fear that this country is in has actually manifested itself over these decades. And especially after 9/11. Give us some of your observations on how local police departments have changed over the last decades. You cited the Black Panthers. I guess that would be a good place to start.

FORD: Well, yeah. You know, it is the logic of the occupation army that is being followed today. So it is quite logical if you’re going to be an army of occupation in the black community, you’re going to demand all the things that armies have. Cops will certainly develop an appetite for more militarized-type gear. And they are sanctioned in that by giving them, in fact, the mission of being a kind of Gestapo. But that’s not the essence of their mission.

We saw the first influx, the first huge influx of federal monies coming out of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration that was created by Congressional legislation in 1968. that bill was signed by LBJ before he left office, and was of particular interest to Richard Nixon, who started sending millions and millions of dollars to local police departments. At first not so much in terms of gear for the police, but bolstering their sheer numbers almost exponentially. So we got a far bigger police department. And even today, even in city council debates in New York and in other cities, where these cosmetic reforms are being debated, where people are talking about body cameras like that prevents anything. They’re talking about getting rid of all of this militarized gear. These same city councils are opting or asking for federal funds and state funds and raising local taxes to add yet more police. Even in New York where there are almost 40,000 of them, constituting a larger armed force than most countries in the world.

So the logic of the armed occupation does not quit. It doesn’t quit when you feed them tanks. It doesn’t quit when you stop feeding them tanks. We have to get to the mission. And the mission is one of democracy. Black people have a right to police themselves. They shouldn’t be the objects of a kind of militarized structure, no matter what kinds of uniforms or gear that structure distributes to its personnel.

PERIES: Glen Ford, thank you so much for joining us today.

FORD: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.