Against the Battalions in Blue: Challenging American Police, Their Racism and Their Imperial Violence

Police violence is at the heart of a perpetual crisis in the United States. Today military-grade equipment and training is broadly available to officers. Such developments are especially distressing given the impunity American police have always enjoyed when terrorizing or attacking racialized communities. The tendency to wage violence of this kind — essentially to target Black and Brown people — implicates American police in a history of imperialist violence. This is why War Resisters League has been campaigning against those amongst the private sector and federal agencies that sustain police militarism.

The roots of American policing extend back to country’s settler colonial origins, which shapes present society. Armed patrols that pursued escaped slaves and suppressed Native American populations became the “forerunners” of police departments throughout country. Further development of American imperial and colonial tendencies cultivated relationships between racial dominion, militarism and police procedure. Stuart Schraeder refers to how police reform in the 1950s grew from techniques used in the US occupation of the Philippines post World War II. Those very techniques were instrumental to suppressing Black, Puerto Rican, student and Third World Solidarity uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s. In the context of the present War on Terror, police have brought similar techniques to bear focus on Muslim’s as a racialized group.

There has never been a clear separation between the repressive institutions that occupy countries at the behest of US foreign policy and suppressing populations in the name of domestic order. As Sohail Daulatzai documents in Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America, New York City and Los Angeles police department’s sent officers to train as part of the American occupation of Iraq. Police officer trainings can include geopolitical briefs that supposedly encourage them to see their work as a part of a strategy against ISIS. The actual content of these talks encourages police to target Muslim communities.

Take a training organized by the New York Tactical Officer’s Association for (NYTOA) as an example. The War Resisters League recently held a press conference with the Syracuse Peace Council, Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration and Icarus Project about this gathering of officers near the upstate town of Verona. The SWAT training organized by NYTOA encouraged officers to brutalize the mentally ill, disregard psychological professionals and courted anti-Muslim sentiment.

Trainings like the ones organized by NYTOA are also opportunities for weapons dealers to advertise. The Verona training, for instance, hosted the same companies that sell to repressive regimes and countries waging wars — like Northrop Grumman and Safariland — were hawking their wares, in the form of tear gas, assault rifles and the like, in front of the potential recipients of SWAT team certifications.

The militaristic tendencies of police, whether or not they are blatant, are not nurtured by these private sector actors alone. Many trainings receive subsidies from the federal government. Urban Shield, which has a much wider scope than NYTOA because its participants come from all over the world — police from countries known for repression and/or racial violence like Bahrain, Brazil and Israel have sent delegations — received grants from the Department of Homeland Security. These come through the Urban Area Security Initiative, a program that allocates tax payer money for the trainings. One of the more infamous recipients of this money is Urban Shield. War Resisters League helped found the Stop Urban Shield Coalition and push the training out of Oakland, California. The struggle against Urban Shield in California continues, as the company has relocated its operations to the town of Pleasanton — not far from Oakland.

After having campaigned against Urban Shield in California, War Resisters League now looks to bring that struggle closer to home i.e. to oppose NYTOA. The ultimate goal is abolish the militarism of American policing, which US empire has helped globalize. This means an end to programs like UASI and an end to the trainings they subsidize because they devour resources that should go to those brutalized by militarism — including all communities targeted by the police.