What's the Military-Police-Prison Complex?

Poster for the GI Coffeehouse Tour
Title image for Urban Shield promotional video
By Rebecca Gordon
Feb 28, 2014

 “Modern policing has always been integrated in some way with the military,” says Rachel Herzing of Critical Resistance. Today’s integrations involve new technologies, new relationships, and new funding streams, but the military-police connection has existed since the invention of professional police forces in the 19th century. In this country, federal law prohibits the military from engaging in law enforcement on U.S. soil. Still, the connection between local police forces, jails, and prisons on one hand, and the military on the other, has been around for a long time, and is only expanding in the post-9/11 period.

On a Saturday afternoon in February, about 25 military veterans, peace activists, and prison abolition organizers met in San Francisco to talk about what happens when local police carry military equipment, training, strategies, and attitudes into our own neighborhoods. Rachel Herzing and Jess Haney of Critical Resistance led this lively workshop, as part of the organization’s ongoing work of dismantling the complex of institutions that includes the police, courts and prisons. Critical Resistance seeks to disrupt the practices that sustain these institutions and to build nonviolent relations and institutions that can replace them.

The discussion was a part of the first G.I. Coffeehouse West Coast Tour, featuring pop-up events for veterans and their allies in a dozen west coast cities. San Francisco’s event was sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War and Civilian Soldier Alliance, and included live performances, open mikes, discussions, and a dance party dedicated to Queer Resistance to Militarism. The tour finishes up in Washington state, in the beginning of March.

Peace activists often talk about confronting militarism both globally and locally, but we don’t always explain (or perhaps even know) exactly what we mean by militarism itself. This discussion with vets and other community activists really helped me develop a more focused understanding of militarism as a world-view. I left the conversation that day with a new definition of militarism, one I think will help me think about what 21st century anti-militarism might look like. Militarism means using organized, government-sanctioned violence or threats of violence to address social, economic, or political problems.

Here are some of the key connections we identified between U.S. militarism and domestic policing:

  • Direct adoption of military tactics by the police: Domestic police are absorbing lessons about urban warfare learned in foreign wars. For example, in September 2014, Alameda County, California (including Oakland and Berkeley) will once again host Urban Shield, a multi-city, multi-agency urban training exercise, in which police and other government agencies train in emergency response. While the exercises may include natural disaster, it’s clear that the possibility of urban uprising is also contemplated. The organization’s website explains it this way: “Urban Shield continues to test regional integrated systems for prevention, protection, response and recovery in our high-threat, high-density urban area [emphasis added].”
  • Violence and coercion as the core of the civilian-police relationship: In both military and policing situations, people come to believe that violence and the threat of violence as the most reasonable approach to the problem of getting other people to do things they don’t want to do, and/or accept treatment or conditions they don’t want to accept. When violence is the first and only tool imaginable, it becomes difficult to conceive of alternative ways to keep a community safe.
  • A common mindset in which civilians become enemies, and enemies become less than human: Both soldiers and police are encouraged to think of the people whose streets they patrol as potential enemies. Enemies then easily fall into another category; they become non-human “vermin,” the “human garbage,” or “gang-bangers.” Torturers commonly give their targets other names. In Chile under Pinochet, a favorite term for torture victims, one that underscored the distance between the government and its targets, was “humanoid.” In this context, policing now emphasizes pre-empting rather than responding to criminal actions.

    When a whole population is a potential threat, it makes sense to assume they have harmful intentions. Prevention of crime becomes an explicit police function, and policies like “stop-and-frisk,” predictive policing, widespread surveillance, and gang injunctions seem like reasonable and obvious strategies. Furthermore white supremacy affects the choice of targets. Both U.S. foreign wars and domestic policing disproportionately affect people of color.

  • Technology and materiel “drift”: The same vendors sell weapons and surveillance technology both to the military and to domestic police. Policing at home and abroad is big, and lucrative, business. In addition, since 9/11 the department of Homeland Security has made grants of weapons and technology to law enforcement agencies across the country, often providing them with military-grade hardware they would never otherwise have sought. These include everything from decommissioned military rifles to such oddities as desert camouflage uniforms for police in leafy Boston; a armored personnel carrier for suburban Concord, California, a city of around 125,000 people, where improvised explosive devices are vanishingly rare; the tanks people living in East Oakland occasionally see running down their streets.
  • The military-law enforcement-corrections industry revolving door. Often the connection between the military and law enforcement is even more direct. Although the military promises recruits they’ll be developing all kinds of marketable skills, in fact, many veterans have a hard time finding work once they’re discharged. The corrections industry is one of the few sectors that actively recruits vets. At the same time, in the early years of the “war on terror,” the military leaned heavily on reservists who were prison guards in civilian life to organize and run military prisons in Iraq and at Guantánamo.

Are there alternatives to military-style policing? Are there alternatives to jails and prisons? Critical Resistance and the prison abolition movement believe that other approaches are, in fact, possible. Some of them exist already; some are yet to be built. Often people are not aware of the resources they already have in their own communities to help resolve conflicts without calling the police. The first step is being able to imagine other possibilities.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Gordon is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras organizing committee. She has been a political activist for more years than she cares to remember, working on issues of feminism, war and peace, economic and racial justice, and specifically torture in the post-9/11 United States. Rebecca's new book, Mainstreaming Torture comes out in May 2014 from Oxford University Press. She's also the author of Letters From Nicaragua, a record of six months spent in the war zones during the contra war.

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