CNN recently aired a hopelessly biased and myopic segment on the Erin Burnett Show – a report that can only be described as propaganda for the US police state. The video, currently on CNN’s website, is titled “How a 1997 bank robbery led to police militarization.”
Kyung Lahr begins her report sounding like a voice actor introducing the trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster with these words, “Shooting at everyone, dressed for war, outside of a Bank of America in North Hollywood in 1997, this is what retired police officer John Caprarelli faced armed only with his 9 mm handgun.”
Cut to a recording from police responding to the robbery in 1997, “They have automatic weapons! There is nothing we can do that can stop them!”
Kyung Lah follows with shock and exasperation, “Hundreds outgunned by just two! [Police Officers] even borrowed rifles from a nearby gun shop!”
Cut back to retired officer Caprarelli with slinking shoulders, meek eyes and a cracking voice, “We were a bunch of Davids and they were two Goliaths” -referring to the entire North Hollywood police force which had helicopters, shotguns, and dogs at the scene.
According to Lah, this incident “stunned” police departments across the country and caused those departments to seek out high-powered rifles and military gear.
The CNN report continues with a reference to a study by the ACLU that shows that the department of defense transferred one million dollars in military equipment to local and state police in 1990. By 2013, that number jumped to almost a half a billion dollars. We are fed these numbers with stills of the 1997 robbery in the background, and led to believe that nothing happened between 1990 and 2013 that would explain the militarization of the police by the Department of Defense, except this incident in 1997.
Nevermind that we have to go all the way back to 1997 to find such a shootout between armed robbers and police. Or that violent crime is at a 40-year low in the US. Or that in 2013, 30 cops were shot and killed in the US – just a fraction of the 9,000 or so murders using guns that happen each year and an even smaller fraction of the 461,000 sworn officers that walk the streets in the US.
This report by CNN is misleading in that it fails to show that the police force by nature is a militarized institution. However, this doesn’t mean it hasn’t become more militarized in time. To expose the red herring that is this CNN report, we need to go back to the origins of the first police departments which were invented between 1825 and 1855 in the US and England. Police departments were created for different reasons depending on the region according to Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop. In the south, police were created to control African Americans who moved to towns like Charleston, South Carolina to work in textile mills. Blacks, whose wages were sent to their slave master, lived together in cordoned-off areas of the city and constituted a constant threat of insurrection because they lived in concentrated areas under unjust conditions.
The police were created in 1840 in New York City following the attempt of local journeymen to create the ten-hour workday and the subsequent creation of a general trade union in 1830. Workers were fed up with unemployment, exploitation in the workplace and bosses pitting Blacks and immigrants against white US born workers. “Workers began to organize and march into rich neighborhoods and threaten the elite of the city,” according to historian David Whitehouse. The City’s wealthiest were feeling threatened by organized and unorganized groups of workers and unemployed. The police were created to quell the unrest and protect the wealth disparity that existed in the City. The new police force would be a full time job with 24-hour shifts and a defined structure.
The first official police force was created in 1829 in England to also put down factory strikes and angry displaced workers. The first supervising justice of the police force in London was a retired colonel. And as Balko says in Rise of the Warrior Cop, this created “military like top-down- structure and even borrowed some military titles.” And it was this model that was adopted by US police forces.
The military had only two options: shoot or not shoot. There was no arresting when the military came into break up strikes or disperse an angry mob. When the army would shoot, they would create martyrs for the cause of the angry and exploited workers. The police force had to carry nearly the same might as the military, but they had to play it different. Patrols began where police would get used to inflicting non-lethal violence on the local population. Which is certainly not to say lethal force wasn’t or isn’t used: the police killed 410 people in 2012. And Black people are twice as likely to be killed by the police as whites. In times of strikes and mob action, the toughest and most brutal police would be on the front lines to break up the strike, always taking orders from higher-ups, just as in the military.
As we are seeing in Ferguson, the police also exist to combat the racial unrest that is a necessary component of exploiting labor. If Blacks are getting paid less, or being prevented from working because of racism, then whites would have to compete against lower wage workers, which would drive all wages down – increasing profits and power for the owners.
“You have to have something to combat what is thrown at you…” says Caprarelli nearing the conclusion of the CNN report.
Right now, in Ferguson, police officers are on the receiving end of peaceful chants and raised hands. And it is these weapons the police were created to disarm. So they respond with military-like intimidation using military-grade weapons. The police are the last line of defense against this horribly racist and materially unequal society.
Isolating this one incident in 1997 as the cause for the out-of-control militarized police forces in the US might be written off as bad reporting, or something to ignore, but it is a seed of misinformation that should be snuffed out.
It is worth noting that both of the armed robbers were killed at the scene of the North Hollywood robbery. Not one of the hundreds of officers at the scene was killed. The Davids miraculously took-down the two Goliaths despite the Davids’ primitive weapons.