Global HotSpots, Rethinking America

America’s Police: Preparing Urban Warfare

What connects Mexico’s Iguala, Ferguson and New York City?

Credit: Bernard Bujold www.shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • We Americans now practice at home the impunity by police for which we deride countries like Mexico.
  • The preservation of the rule of law is often the exception in cases of police corruption or complicity in murder.
  • A major error: We Americans are now treating our policing activities as acts of war.
  • Offending acts by police in the pursuit of an “urban war” are held to different standards than those by civilians.
  • The events from Iguala to Ferguson to New York send a powerful message of exclusion and hopelessness.

It has been almost half a century since the world last thought of American cities as conflict zones. But starting this past August, events in Ferguson, Missouri, changed that rapidly.

The appearance of armed personnel carriers, Humvees and other military equipment reveal to Americans – and the world – that U.S. cities are indeed the new war zones.

A key part of the problem is the pervasive access to heavy weaponry by local law enforcement after 9/11. Instead of focusing on community policing – getting closer to the people – law enforcement has actually distanced itself and “tooled up.”

It is scant comfort that local law enforcement agencies sell this as their approach to “homeland security.” Their weaponization – and indeed the militarization of civilian security, as their actions to “defend” themselves against protestors show – is a bridge too far.

Next stop: Mexico

Switch of scenery: Twenty-five hundred miles away, the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, a small city that in southwestern Mexico also has the world shocked.

It is unfathomable to hear that students can go from participating in a peaceful demonstration to a savage massacre under any circumstances – never mind in such a quick, clandestine, vicious and yet systemically embedded fashion.

The brutal murders of these youth, allegedly perpetrated by the town’s mayor, his wife, local police and a drug trafficking ring, Guerreros Unidos, all working in tandem, unleashed a series of events that has turned Mexico’s political situation on its head.

The dangerous urban/military nexus

Urban conflicts arising from transnational criminal activity account for 88% of the lethal violence that countries experience today.

This underscores that cities have become the new battleground. And while this phenomenon is more pervasive in the developing world (think Brazil), it is happening here in the United States as well.

To boot, the U.S. military considers urban warfare as its most challenging theater – and trains for it. The ample resources it has at its disposal stand in stark contrast to the simultaneous lack of other services being provided to citizens.

In addition, the recession that significantly reduced employment and the diminished revenue base also dented the way in which the United States addresses the needs of its poorest citizens, most of them living in urban areas. Offering militarized security adds insult to the persistent injury.

As cities in the developing world expand, they also grow more fragile. The pressure of uncheck growth without public services, employment or physical space leads governments to violent solutions, but also shifts policing to a military activity, as we have seen in countries like Mexico and Brazil.

On to the Big Apple

The brutal and violent use of excessive force to arrest Eric Garner, an unarmed citizen, in New York City was inhumane. The illegal chokehold that ultimately killed Garner despite his screams, “I cannot breathe,” reflect two trends that policy analysts have known for a long time.

First, U.S. cities are the newest zone of conflict. And second, this new type of urban warfare mentality has gone hand in hand with a greater tolerance by the U.S. legal system when it comes to holding police accountable for their actions.

Unless we are completely blind, we Americans must urgently realize one painful global reality: What we now see – and practice – at home is precisely the impunity which we Americans so frequently deride in places like Mexico.

There, we know that preservation of the rule of law is often the exception in cases of police corruption or complicity in murder.

But now the shoe is on the other foot: The failure of grand juries to indict policemen in both Ferguson, Missouri, and now in New York City all point to a dangerous conclusion: We Americans are now treating our policing activities as acts of war, and thus hold any offending acts committed in the pursuit of that broader goal to different standards than the civilian ones used to prosecute criminal acts.

Unfortunately, the urban wars of 2014 are not armed conflict as we know it. Instead, they are manifestations of ideological divides like the racism of the police in Missouri or in New York.

These actions are but a mirror that reflects the deeper divides that are rearing their heads all across the country. Whether it is a matter of color or class, all these actions, from Iguala to Ferguson to New York, send a powerful message of exclusion and hopelessness.

And, lest we want to blind ourselves, we must recognize that it is precisely this type of sentiment that lays the groundwork of unrest and instability in any political system.

These incidents reflect how the toxic brew of

1. arming police forces as though they were at war,

2. ignoring urban violence that results from the presence of transnational criminal groups, and

3. unabashed racism within the ranks of the police

is giving birth to a movement against corruption, lack of accountability and the illegitimacy of the judicial system.

The result is a potentially dynamic international movement of citizens who have had enough of the status quo and are taking to the streets to make their voices heard.

The demonstrations yesterday in New York City and Washington, DC over the failure to indict police for acts of violence will only grow stronger – unless citizens regain a sense of legitimacy in our criminal justice system.

In Mexico, the ongoing protests in two states, Mexico and Guerrero, with hundreds continuing to march and block streets, recall the power of mass movements to instill social change.

While these demonstrations have been peaceful to date, unless the governments respond with actions that lead to overcoming injustice, we will certainly see the urban landscapes become war zones.

What is at stake for the United States

What is at stake for the United States goes to the core of our national values. If we allow racism to manifest itself through actions of those whom we trust to protect us, then we must urgently ask ourselves these questions:

1. How can we expect to overcome generations of intolerance, if the most recent iteration is seen in the failure of a judicial system to speak truth to power?

2. How can we expect to be a standard bearer for human rights globally when our own institutions are unresponsive to doing what is right?

3. Have we not recognized that the United States has recently become a nation that is “majority minority” at birth level – indicating that this problem will grow exponentially, unless tackled at the root now?

These last few weeks have laid bare divisions in the American society that will ultimately bring us Americans down, unless the voices of those who protest and of those who seek justice are given a chance to be heard.

Mexico as a warning sign

Watching events in Mexico is to see what could happen in this country – and how quickly it can all happen. All it takes to unravel support for a system that is thoroughly corrupt is one horrific incident as a tipping point – an act of violence and terrorism that has awakened citizens to the reality of a damaged political and judicial system.

The urban revolts of Mexico are like those of Ferguson or New York. They are reactions that will ultimately transform a reactionary mindset or reform a corrupt government.

Will the situation in Mexico actually create a chain-reaction elsewhere? It is difficult to second-guess the protestors. What is clear, however, is that there is little time left for the Mexican government to continue business as usual.

And if that is the case, watch out for a second Mexican Revolution that like the one in 1917 that may set the pace for real reform in the 21st century.

Hopefully, in the United States, we can avoid this type of urban warfare.

For that to happen requires American citizens to wake up from their slumber and insist that we must, first, once again open up our political system to greater diversity and greater inclusion.

And second, we need to ensure the willingness of government at all levels to take responsibility for the acts of racism that run counter to the American sense of fairness and human dignity.

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About Johanna Mendelson Forman

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and a Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center, Washington, D.C.

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