Why Does the Minneapolis Police Department Look Like a Military Unit?Roundup
tags: racism, crime, Police, urban history
Philip V. McHarris is a writer and PhD candidate in sociology and African American studies at Yale University.
Americans have been outraged by video of the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Monday. Floyd died soon after an officer knelt on his neck for several minutes as he visibly struggled for breath and cried out for help. The video of the violent encounter resulted in the firing of four Minneapolis police officers. The city’s mayor, Jacob Frey, stated, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.”
But protests erupted just 24 hours after Floyd’s death, with demonstrators calling for structural change, recognizing this as the latest in a long history of black people killed at the hands of the police, chanting, “No justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.” Activists criticized the mayor for increasing funds to the Minneapolis Police Department: They demanded cuts to the department’s budget and reinvestment in community infrastructure.
Such protests have become common in a country where more than 1,000 people annually are killed by police, with black people three times as likely as whites to be the victims. Also common is what happened soon after demonstrators gathered to protest Floyd’s death: Police in riot gear shot tear gas canisters into the crowds and fired stun grenades and “nonlethal projectiles” at demonstrators, injuring many. It was stunningly easy to point to the same department’s gentle treatment weeks ago against white anti-lockdown protesters while those protesting against police violence were met with militarized violence.
But this too should not surprise us. Police departments have come to resemble military units, contributing to deadly violence disproportionately against black Americans. While many policies related to policing and mass incarceration happen at the local level, the militarization of police has been promulgated by federal policies.
Militarized policing dates to the 1960s. The acquisition of military grade gear by local police departments began under Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Crime. The 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) established a federal funding stream to increase the strength and size of local law enforcement. The federal stream also provided police departments with funding for military-grade equipment. In 1968, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act making this funding stream permanent.
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