Did Reagan, Bush, and Obama Turn America Into A Militarized Police State?

April V. Taylor

The militarized response of police to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer was the first time some Americans became aware of just how militarized local police departments have become.  While Americans have long been aware of how police terrorize Black neighborhoods, a lot has changed since the 1965 confrontation between Marquette Frye and California Highway Patrol that sparked the Watts Riots that forced Americans to become aware of this police overreach.  The biggest changes over the last fifty years come from the erosion of the system of checks and balances that made it possible for the U.S. to be classified as a democratic republic and the increasing militarization of American police.  These changes have been made possible by the courts and politicians.  Here are some the people and events that have made the militarized police state America has become even possible:

1. Ronald Reagan’s Escalation of the War on Drugs

While Richard Nixon may have been responsible for starting the War on Drugs and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter helped sustain it after its implementation, it was Ronald Reagan’s two terms as President that introduced such draconian tactics as militarized no-knock drug raids, mandatory minimum sentences, and asset forfeiture laws.  Militarized no-knock raids have been responsible for killing and injuring innocent people all over country with little to no accountability for the officers who maim and kill innocent civilians.  Asset forfeiture laws have been expanded to make it possible for citizens who have not been charged with any crime or arrested to have their cash taken by officers.  The laws allow police to keep the cash until it is proven that it is legal money, which violates the Fourth Amendment and essentially turns police into thieves.

2. Rodney King Beating, Los Angelos, 1991

The recorded beating of Rodney King in March 1991 and the acquittal of the four white police officers who viciously beat him sparked a riot that surpassed the 1965 riot in terms of deaths.  The precedent for police officers being able to act as judge and jury and inflict whatever punishment they deemed fit was set by the officers’ acquittal.  The culture of authoritarianism supported by this precedent has persisted.

3. September 11th Terrorist Attacks

George W. Bush and his administration promoted the feeling that Americans should feel afraid of and intimidated by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.  This climate of fear made it possible for the such things as the Patriot Act, no-fly lists and the Department of Homeland Security to be implemented.  This measures perpetuated the air of authoritarianism that had already been instigated years before and turned the war on terror into “a war on American democracy,” by making it possible for the government and law enforcement agencies to violate innocent American citizens constitutional rights with little to no oversight and accountability.

4. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

Habeas Corpus, which is the right to be not be indefinitely detained without a trial, is one of the foundations of American liberty, but President Obama negated this basic right when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into laww on December 31, 2011.  The law gives the United States military the right to hold any American citizen indefinitely, without a trial if they are named an enemy combatant.  Being named an enemy combatant does not require any proof of wrongdoing or terrorist affiliation, only an alleged suspicion.

5. Homeland Security Financing Militarization of Local Police

After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a program that allowed local police departments to obtain surplus military equipment.  This military equipment was the same type of equipment being used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This allowed local police departments to become armed like military soldiers.  To make matters worse, in 2011 President Obama allowed the Department of Homeland security to give local police departments $2 billion in grants to obtain addition military weapons.

6. NYPD and Oakland Police Assault on Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street protestors across the country engaged in a peaceful movement that engaged in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to stand in solidarity against Wall Street and the financial sector’s assault on middle class Americans.  The violent police response from NYPD, Oakland and Seattle police departments that saw peaceful protestors pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets and injured with flash bang grenades showed many Americans just how dangerous standing up to corporate power could be.  It turned American streets into relative war zones where police where the aggressors and American civilians were the targets.  Despite the fact that Oakland police were never held responsible for fracturing the skull of a Marine who was an Iraq veteran, protestor Cecily McMillan spent three months in Rikers Island for elbowing a plain clothes police officer in the face after he grabbed her breast.  Long before tanks, rubber bullets and flash bang grenades were deployed on protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, the justice system was sending a message that standing up to the injustice of American power structures will be met with brute and violent force.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a police state as one in which “a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police…in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.”  Whistleblowers are increasingly sent to prison for speaking out; surveillance of innocent civilians is conducted by the NSA and other government agencies; peaceful protestors and media have their right to free speech violated by “free speech zones;” some states have made it illegal to collect rain water or grow gardens on personal property, and Bush and Obama have used executive orders to push through legislation never approved by Congress.  As Americans try to stand up and demand that their basic liberties of life and liberty be respected, they are increasingly met with the brute force of a militarized police force controlled by a government that continues to erode the liberties and democracy America was founded on.



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