The Trump administration is lifting Obama-era restrictions on how much spare military gear police departments can obtain.
Civil rights leaders were immediately clear about what this move means for their movements and the nation. “This is not about public safety. It is about declaring war on communities of color,” said Scott Roberts, the senior campaign director at Color of Change, in a statement.
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The Obama administration limited what types of surplus military equipment could be handed down to local cops after the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, where police descended on crowds of mostly Black demonstrators with high-powered rifles, tactical gear and armored tanks. Protesters in Ferguson rose up in anger over a fallen son, but as the days passed, they also rose up in opposition to the heavily militarized way in which police were responding to them in the streets.
“As we saw in Ferguson — which prompted President Obama to curtail the program that Trump has now restored — giving police unfettered access to grenade launchers and weaponized aircraft encourages police to treat people like enemy combatants instead of citizens,” Roberts said.
Add the new executive order to Trump’s litany of overtly racist moves over the past week. On Friday, President Trump pardoned former Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was facing jail time for refusing to stop his officers from racially profiling Latinos. The message coming from the Trump administration could not be clearer: Under this president, racist cops aren’t held accountable, and police will again have access to dangerous weapons like grenade launchers and bayonets that were taken away from them after Ferguson.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions took advantage of the weather and a fresh news cycle to put a different spin on the military gear story this week. As Hurricane Harvey battered the Gulf Coast on Monday, Sessions told the national conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville that the Obama-era restrictions on military gear kept police from accessing helmets, protective vests and “rescue equipment like what they’re using in Texas right now.”
However, President Obama’s executive order banned police from obtaining certain types of equipment used in warfare, including weaponized aircraft, high-caliber firearms, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and other weapons. Officials also banned camouflaged uniforms, so police would not appear like an occupying army as they did in Ferguson.
Plenty of other types of equipment that can be used during a disaster, including drones, tactical vehicles, command vehicles, helicopters and airplanes remain available under Obama’s order, as long as police departments can prove they can afford to maintain the equipment and use it safely. This permitted class of equipment also includes weapons, such as shotguns, riot batons, battering rams and “explosives and “pyrotechnics,” according to the Justice Department.
Sessions said Trump has signed an executive order that will lift these requirements, making it much easier for police to obtain military equipment without proving that they know how to use it.
“Giving military-grade weapons to police departments with effectively no strings attached does not help public safety — it hurts it,” Roberts said.
Sessions has cemented himself as the minister of Trump’s “law and order” agenda, angering advocates for civil rights and civil liberties on both the left and right in the process. Since taking office, Sessions has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on immigrants, jumpstarted the war on drugs, lifted popular restrictions on civil asset forfeiture and rolled back Obama-era efforts to hold police departments accountable for civil rights violations.
The attorney general is also not shy about his disdain for dissent. Taking aim at civil rights protesters and dissidents in his speech on Monday, Sessions suggested that those who question excessive policing are “radicals” who portray “law enforcement officers as the enemy.”
“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Sessions said, who also claimed that the Justice Department “vigorously prosecutes” officers when they violate the civil rights of citizens.
For civil rights groups and many communities of color, however, the numbers just don’t add up. Since Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, police in the United States have killed more than 1,000 people each year, but the Justice Department so far has failed to press charges against killer cops, even in the most high-profile cases.
In Sessions’s world, it seems, police are perpetually on the side of righteousness.
“You are the thin blue line that stands between law-abiding people and criminals —between sanctity and lawlessness,” Sessions said.
By pardoning Sheriff Arpaio just days before lifting restrictions designed to prevent local cops from dressing up like an invading army, the Trump administration has further blurred the line between “sanctity” and “lawlessness,” making it even clearer that the law only applies to those directly under its increasingly militarized thumb.