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How to Fund an American Police State

As homeland security budgets grow, civil liberties wither.

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 3:53 PM EST
NYPD officers form a line near Zuccotti Park in November.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

At the height of the Occupy Wall Street evictions, it seemed as though some diminutive version of "shock and awe" had stumbled from Baghdad, Iraq, to Oakland, California. American police forces had been "militarized," many commentators worried, as though the firepower and callous tactics on display were anomalies, surprises bursting upon us from nowhere.

There should have been no surprise. Those flash grenades exploding in Oakland and the sound cannons on New York's streets simply opened small windows onto a national policing landscape long in the process of militarization—a bleak domestic no man's land marked by tanks and drones, robot bomb detectors, grenade launchers, tasers, and most of all, interlinked video surveillance cameras and information databases growing quietly on unobtrusive server farms everywhere.

The ubiquitous fantasy of "homeland security," pushed hard by the federal government in the wake of 9/11, has been widely embraced by the public. It has also excited intense weapons- and techno-envy among police departments and municipalities vying for the latest in armor and spy equipment.

In such a world, deadly gadgetry is just a grant request away, so why shouldn't the 14,000 at-risk souls in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have a closed-circuit-digital-camera-and-monitor system (cost: $180,000, courtesy of the Homeland Security Department) identical to the one up and running in New York's Times Square?

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So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.

But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.

All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that "the police" have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.

Perhaps the pepper spray used on Occupy demonstrators last November at University of California-Davis wasn't directly paid for by the federal government. But those who used it work closely with Homeland Security and the FBI "in developing prevention strategies that threaten campus life, property, and environments," as UC Davis's Comprehensive Emergency and Continuity Management Plan puts it.

Government budgets at every level now include allocations aimed at fighting an ephemeral "War on Terror" in the United States. A vast surveillance and military buildup has taken place nationwide to conduct a pseudo-war against what can be imagined, not what we actually face. The costs of this effort, started by the Bush administration and promoted faithfully by the Obama administration, have been, and continue to be, virtually incalculable. In the process, public service and the public imagination have been weaponized.

 

Farewell to Peaceful Private Life

We're not just talking money eagerly squandered. That may prove the least of it. More importantly, the fundamental values of American democracy—particularly the right to lead an autonomous private life—have been compromised with grim efficiency. The weaponry and tactics now routinely employed by police are visible evidence of this.

Yes, it's true that Montgomery County, Texas, has purchased a weapons-capable drone. (They say they'll only arm it with tasers, if necessary.) Yes, it's true that the Tampa police have beefed the force up with an eight-ton armored personnel carrier, augmenting two older tanks the department already owns. Yes, the Fargo police are ready with bomb detection robots, and Chicago boasts a network of at least 15,000 interlinked surveillance cameras.

New York City's 34,000-member police force is now the ground zero of a growing outcry over rampant secret spying on Muslim students and communities up and down the East coast. It has been a big beneficiary of federal security largess. Between 2003 and 2010, the city received more than $1.1 billion through Homeland Security's Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program. And that's only one of the grant programs funneling such money to New York.

The Obama White House itself has directly funded part of the New York Police Department's anti-Muslim surveillance program. Top officials of New York's finest have, however, repeatedly refused to disclose just how much anti-terrorism money it has been spending, citing, of course, security.

Can New York City ever be "secure"? Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted recently with obvious satisfaction: "I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world." That would be the Vietnamese army actually, but accuracy isn't the point. The smugness of the boast is. And meanwhile the money keeps pouring in and the "security" activities only multiply.

Why, for instance, are New York cops traveling to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey, to spy on ordinary Muslim citizens, who have nothing to do with New York and are not suspected of doing anything? For what conceivable purpose does Tampa want an eight-ton armored vehicle? Why do Texas sheriffs north of Houston believe one drone—or a dozen, for that matter—will make Montgomery County a better place? What manner of thinking conjures up a future that requires such hardware? We have entered a dark world that demands an inescapable battery of closed-circuit, networked video cameras trained on ordinary citizens strolling Michigan Avenue.

This is not simply a police issue. Law enforcement agencies may acquire the equipment and deploy it, but city legislators and executives must approve the expenditures and the uses. State legislators and bureaucrats refine the local grant requests. Federal officials, with endless input from national security and defense vendors and lobbyists, appropriate the funds.

Doubters are simply swept aside (while legions of security and terrorism pundits spin dread-inducing fantasies), and ultimately, the American people accept and live with the results. We get what we pay for—Mayor Bloomberg's "army," replicated coast to coast.

 

Budgets Tell the Story

Militarized thinking is made manifest through budgets, which daily reshape political and bureaucratic life in large and small ways. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, used this formula to define the new American environment and so the thinking that went with it: "Terrorist operatives infiltrate our communities—plotting, planning, and waiting to kill again." To counter that, the government had urgently embarked on "a wartime reorganization," he said, and was "forging new relationships of cooperation with state and local law enforcement."

While such visionary Ashcroftian rhetoric has cooled in recent years, the relationships and funding he touted a decade ago have been institutionalized throughout government—federal, state, and local—as well as civil society. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, with a total 2012 budget of about $57 billion, is the most obvious example of this.

That budget only hints at what's being doled out for homeland security at the federal level. Such moneys flow not just from Homeland Security, but from the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commerce Department, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense.

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