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What will happen when Australian police have military weapons?

Images of Ferguson, Missouri, are reminiscent of a war zone. Jeff Sparrow, writer and editor of Overland, says with police behaving more like armies, it’s inevitable — and militarised police are coming to a precinct near you.

Barely 48 hours after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police in Los Angeles had shot dead another young black man, described by his family as suffering from “mental problems”. Accurate and up-to-date figures on police killings in the United States are hard to come by, but statistics from the Department of Justice showed that from January 2003 through December 2009, 4813 people died during “an arrest or restraint process”. Black men were, of course, substantially over-represented. As Salon noted  a few years back, “if you are a young man, a person of color, and live in a poor urban area, you are far more likely to become a victim of police gunfire than if you are none of those things”.

But if the situation in Ferguson is about race and poverty, it’s also about the transformation of local American police forces into miniature (or not so miniature) armies. Increasingly, there’s nothing exceptionable about officers in body armour, riding in military-style vehicles and toting assault weapons.

In Montgomery County, Texas, the local police possess a weapons-capable drone. In Tampa, officers can deploy an eight-ton armoured personnel carrier and two tanks, while the Fargo police operate bomb-detection robots, and Chicago runs some 15,000 interlinked surveillance cameras. In New York, former mayor Michael Bloomberg once boasted: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.”

The militarisation of police forces began with the (symptomatically titled) War on Drugs and then accelerated massively with the War on Terror. Since 9/11, the US Department of Homeland Security has provided something like US$40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, much of which has been spent on systems and devices perfected in actual war zones. In 2012, one estimate put the total expenditure of US federal funds on homeland security-related activities and equipment in the wake of 9/11 at a staggering US$635 billion.

Naturally, the acquisition of combat gear both fosters and relies upon an increasing perception of those being policed as an enemy to be pacified, if not suppressed — a mentality that pervades the security services more generally. “To conclude that ‘the police’ have become increasingly militarized,” writes Stephan Salisbury, “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.”

Only in America, right? Well, no, not quite.

The acquisition of combat gear both fosters and relies upon an increasing perception of those being policed as an enemy to be pacified, if not suppressed …”

In Australia, the Brandis plan for metadata epitomises the same post-9/11 attitude of generalised suspicion, while counter-terrorism has become more and more influential on state policing. In the wake of Occupy Melbourne, David Vakalis and Jude McCulloch noted that:

Specialist squads like the Force Response Unit (FRU), the military-trained Special Operations Group (SOG) and the ‘counter-terrorism’ Security Intelligence Group (SIG) were rationalised on the basis of ‘terrorism’. These squads have gradually come to have a greater influence on regular policing, particularly the policing of protests. Many of the most controversial and problematic policing incidents in Victoria since the early 1980s, including assaulting peaceful protestors and using pressure points and neck holds, can be linked to the SOG or its influence over operational tactics.”

Most of the state police forces are either using or want to use their own drone units. But in Western Australia, police have gone further, announcing in 2013 the acquisition of the $400,000 Ballistic Engineered Armoured Response Counter Attack Truck (known as “Bearcat”), a vehicle whose features include “gun ports, rotating roof hatch, two electric winches, emergency light/sirens, spot/flood lights, battering ram, tear gas deployment nozzle, thermal cameras, common remotely operated weapon station and protection against chemical, biological, radiological nuclear and high-yield explosives”.

During the G20 conference scheduled for Brisbane this November, we’re likely to see exactly the conditions in which militarised policing flourishes. During the summit, the entire CBD will be locked down, with police granted special powers to blacklist, detain and hold people. Within a declared area running from South Bank to Kelvin Grove, Bowen Hills, Fortitude Valley and Woolloongabba, officers will have the right to strip search anyone they think might be carrying a weapon, and anyone arrested will be automatically denied bail. Queensland Police Minister Jack Dempsey has said he wants to deploy drones  — possibly second-hand ex-military aircraft previously employed in Afghanistan — during the G20, as the police prepare for mass arrests.

Furthermore, as Terry Goldsworthy notes, with the extraordinary unpopularity of both the state and federal governments, “a sociopolitical environment for a perfect storm of protest has been created”.

At the moment, Ferguson, Missouri, seems like a long way away. We may feel differently after November.

7
  • 1
    Roger Clifton
    Posted Friday, 15 August 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    We don’t need to control workers’ choice of tools of trade, just their powers to use them.

  • 2
    Forever Marshall
    Posted Friday, 15 August 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    the sort of antics seen in ferguson in a veritable propaganda goldmine for america’s enemies, i’m just picturing russia’s news papers tomorrow. teargassing and arresting journalists is certainly not the image america wants to project overseas, especially not now, and a large part of the reason i think the whole show got closed down so quickly. in the battle for hearts and minds america just had a decisive defeat.

  • 3
    GF50
    Posted Friday, 15 August 2014 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I am with Terry Goldsworthy. The current socio-political environment is poisonous and inductive to a shitstorm of protest. No critique on policy direction to be tolerated.
    Employ Stassi tactics. Plebs to STFU

  • 4
    The Cleaning Lady
    Posted Friday, 15 August 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the Victoria Police were unduly aggressive during Occupy Melbourne. Remember the horses trampling protestors and their belongings?

    In contrast, WA Police had a far greater risk to manage because Occupy Perth occurred as CHOGM was about to get underway. The Queen was just one dignitary here of many, with 6000 visitors in Perth for CHOGM. There were multiple groups geared up to protest.

    Yet, WAPOL took a very reasonable approach.

    An Occupy Perth organiser was reported as saying, “The Police have contacted us, they were incredibly friendly, supportive and non-judgemental. We were very impressed by their enthusiasm for our cause. Joining with the CHOGM Action Network was our decision prior to Police contact, they basically got in touch to explain that by doing this we could forego the complex permit process.”

    http://indymedia.org.au/2011/10/29/interview-with-an-occupy-perth-organiser

    Authorities originally declined to allow camping at Forrest Place, but backed down and allowed the event for a few days.

    Behaving reasonably and respectfully meant that the police did not fuel anger and the protesters were able to get their messages across peacefully.

    In contrast, the Melbourne city council and police caused many of their problems by their attitudes.

  • 5
    GideonPolya
    Posted Sunday, 17 August 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    More hardware for politicized police, more “anti-terror law” violations of Australian human rights, carte blanche for traitorous “homegrown” Zionist jihadi militant extremists brainwashed at the taxpayer’s expense at racist Zionist (RZ) private schools – we may indeed be heading for a police state under the pro-war, pro-Zionist, US lackey, “all-the-way-with-the -USA”, human rights-abusing Lib-Labs. A few days ago a resident of Fairfield, Melbourne, told me that local residents were alarmed by huge explosions coming from the former APM paper factory between Heidelberg Road and the Yarra River. They thought that this was due to explosive demolition of the site which is to be converted to Yuppy Housing – but no, on ground inspection revealed that explosions were due to a massive Police and Military Operation on the banks of the Yarra River in leafy Fairfield.

    The anti-democracy, anti-environment, Coalition -ruled, genocide-based, rogue state of Tasmania (0.5 million Tasmanians have 12 Senators, the same as the 7 million people of NSW) has laws providing mandatory lengthy prison sentences for people peacefully demonstrating (e.g. over environmental vandalism). After pro-environment demonstrations at Hazelwood, (climate criminal Victoria’s dirtiest coal-fired power station) the Victorian Labor Right Government passed similar laws criminalizing demonstrations immediately adjacent to utilities (touch the fence and you face a mandatory prison sentence).

    Australian Federal Police and Australian Intelligence sensibly keep tabs on Muslim extremists, but Zionist militant extremist, terrorists (Zionist jihadis) like the late Ben Zygier (tortured to death by Israelis in long-term solitary confinement in a suicide-proof cell) have carte blanche from pro-war, pro-Zionist, human rights-violating, US lackey Lib-Labs (Liberal-Laborals, Coalition and Labor Right) for committing war crimes (e.g. 2,000 Palestinians killed and 10,000 wounded recently in response to zero Israeli deaths from Gaza rockets in the previous year), spying on Australia, subverting Australians, large-scale forging of Australian passports and the tasering, shooting, bombing, wounding, killing, kidnapping, imprisoning without trial and robbing of Australian citizens.

    I sent a huge, detailed, documented dossier to Australian media, MPs and the AFP about 50 ways in which Apartheid Israel and its “homegrown” Australian Zionist jihadi supporters violate Australians and Australian sovereignty (see Gideon Polya, “Racist Zionism and Israeli State Terrorism threats to Australia and Humanity,” Palestinian Genocide”: https://sites.google.com/site/palestiniangenocide/racist-zionism-and-israeli ) - but the Silence has been Deafening. Indeed one of the Coalition Government’s first acts was to fast-track entry visas for Israeli war criminals and militant extremist, Zionist terrorists (Zionist jihadis) into Australia under Australia’s New White Australia Policy of fast visas for people who Apartheid South Africa called Whites and Honorary Whites.

    Decent, anti-racist, patriotic Australians will reject the traitorous, mendacious and human rights-abusing Libs-Labs who for financial and ideological reasons put the interests of a nuclear terrorist, genocidally racist, democracy-by-genocide Apartheid Israel before the safety, security , privacy, human rights, health , welfare and national sovereignty of Australia - decent, anti-racist, patriotic Australians will reject the growing pro-Zionist police state, vote 1 Green and put the Coalition last.

  • 6
    david fisher
    Posted Monday, 18 August 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    You have to wonder what is wrong with governments that they need to invest in this hardware, Is good-old policing really that bad now?

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 19 August 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    BOYZ with toyz will always want to use them, to someone with a hammer everything is treated as if it’s a nail.
    I’ll always cherish the memory of NSW Kops Kommissar Skippy, almost in tears after the Ring of Steel jamboree in Sydney during the Rodent’s Last Daze, because his storm troopers ddn’t get a chance to use (and still haven’t, despite costing tens of thousands a year to mothball)her beloved quarter mill water cannon - and his words for psoterity “this is how we (hoo you mean we/I>, Paleface?)do bizness in NSW”

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