I have been watching trends in the US for some time. Macro-trends, if you will. And in Ferguson I see the confluence of three trends: on one hand, poverty and income inequality, on the other hand, militarised police with armoured vehicles and heavy weapons, all coming together under a patina of racial friction.
First, let’s look at how America’s police forces have become militarised. It started in 1990 with the National Defense Authorization Act. This act had a section that allowed the Defense Department to transfer military equipment, weapons, ammunition and vehicles to local police departments.
Since then, over 4 billion dollars’ worth of military hardware has been given to local police departments.
The militarisation of US police forces was plain to see in how the protests of the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle were met with combat-style “troops”. Since then, we have had 9/11 and a military build-up not seen since Reagan, but unlike in the past, the military hardware that was produced for the Bush wars is now eligible to be given to local police departments once they were no longer needed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
So, as the US draws down their military overseas, they are building up their military forces at home – in the form of “up-armoured” police departments.
Why is the US militarising its police forces? I believe it is due to a growing consensus at all levels of government that massive political and socio-economic unrest is in the offing.
The Tipping Point
Let’s look at the other end of the equation, what Robert Reich has called “the tipping point”. In Reich’s 2013 documentary “Inequality for All”, Reich makes the point that after 30+ years of growing income inequality, America’s shrinking middle class and the growing masses of “working poor” are approaching a point at which they will simply no longer be willing to accept the idea of trickle-down economics, will stop scapegoating those at the bottom of the economic ladder, and will start to realise that the system is rigged against them.
What happens when a population reaches this tipping point? We have seen it in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917, and elsewhere over history: the people rise up, usually violently, and take on The Powers That Be.
Indeed, many of America’s leaders seem to be as out of touch with the vast majority of their countrymen as the nobility in pre-revolutionary France: Mitt Romney famously advised students that they should start a business, and if they needed money “go borrow it from your parents if you have to.” Amazing advice, really, when 70% of students need to borrow money to even attend college, and then leave college with an average debt $33,000.
There are other indications. Newt Gingrich famously suggested giving the homeless laptops; Bush The Elder had no idea what milk cost; when Bush the Junior was told by a divorced mother of three that she was working three jobs to make ends meet, he told her that was “fantastic” and “uniquely American.”
When I hear these things I am reminded of the story of Marie Antoinette, who, when the French people were rioting because they had no bread, famously said, “if they have no bread, let them eat cake.” When the ruling class is so insulated, so removed from the rest of society, bad things happen.
Well, the Powers that Be in the USA are aware of history, and they are not going to risk losing their heads. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1981 says that the US military cannot be deployed against the domestic citizenry. So the obvious workaround to ensure that the rabble remain in their place is to militarise the domestic police forces.
Ferguson is just the latest instance of a group of poor black folk facing white cops with body armour and assault rifles. It is important to remember, however, that the event that triggered the uprising is also tied to the militarisation of police forces: an unarmed teen shot multiple times by a policeman. This is happening all the time. There seems to be no interim step – I mean, do cops even carry billy-clubs anymore? Is there no instance where they can shoot a leg or otherwise use non-lethal force? It often happens that an unarmed person is shot over and over again, to the point where the authorities do not even want to release the body for an autopsy or even a burial due to the outrage that it would provoke (as is the case in Ferguson).
Politicians and others who defend the obscene wealth inequality in America are constantly accusing their opponents of engaging in “class warfare.” They may want to stop that. After all, there may come a time when the people actually realise that there has been a class war going on in the USA for generations, and their side is losing.
I think for my summer reading I will re-read some of Phillip K. Dick’s more dystopian works. Only this time I will read them not as science fiction, but more as future history.