Policing the World (Review)Historians in the News
tags: terrorism, imperialism, Police, counterinsurgency
Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing
In 1967 the United States was rocked by a series of urban revolts against racial injustice and economic inequality known as the “long, hot summer.” In response, in July, with smoke still rising over Detroit, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a suite of domestic policies, including both expanded poverty relief and a military crackdown by National Guardsmen trained in riot control. Shortly afterward, Johnson’s advisor Walt Rostow wrote to him, comparing these new domestic policies with the counterinsurgency tactics that the administration was employing in Vietnam. “At home your appeal is for law and order as the framework for economic and social progress,” Rostow wrote. “Abroad we fight in Vietnam to make aggression unprofitable. . . . The equivalent of domestic law and order on the world scene is that nations forego the use of violence.” Rostow was apparently unembarrassed to compare the government’s response to citizens expressing their outrage in the streets of Detroit with the brutal guerrilla warfare being waged by the military in Vietnam. But he did have a point about the strategic parallels between domestic law-and-order politics and Cold War geopolitics: in both arenas, the U.S. federal government trained and equipped local police forces, either in the states or abroad, as the front line to suppress left-wing dissent.
This shift to a law-and-order mindset, Stuart Schrader argues in his new book Badges Without Borders, transformed the United States. By 1968 Johnson had declared a War on Crime and overseen the passage of the watershed Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which channeled massive federal funds and military-grade equipment to local police forces. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, who campaigned specifically on a platform of law and order, then declared a War on Drugs that his advisor John Ehrlichman later admitted was designed to “disrupt” and repress “the antiwar left and black” activists. The result of these policies has been both an enormous expansion of the U.S. prison system and the normalization of police using military counterinsurgency technologies, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, against progressive protesters. That history continues to shape contemporary events in profound and disturbing ways. Over the last month, as a vast coalition of protesters has marched against police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racial inequality, police officers clad in heavy riot gear have gassed and beaten peaceful demonstrators with the blessing of government leaders: Senator Tom Cotton called for an “overwhelming show” of military force, Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged state governors to “dominate the battlespace,” and peaceful protesters were forcefully cleared from Lafayette Square so Donald Trump could have a photo op.
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