The photo above isn't from the recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of an unarmed African American teen. It's over a decade old, a photo I took at a 2003 march in Portland, Oregon, protesting Bush and the Iraq war. I'd attended a number of marches and rallies in Portland before this and had never seen this kind of militaristic response by the police. Were they expecting trouble? Maybe, but not the kind that would demand military-style gear more appropriate for an occupying force in a hostile country than a police department in an urban U.S. setting.
Welcome to our post-9/11 WMDs: Weapons of Mass Deterrence. Counter-terrorism money from the Feds given to local jurisdictions was spent so overgrown children could play dangerous games of dress-up and shoot-em-up on our city streets.
There were no violent incidents during the Portland march. The police didn't fire any tear gas or rubber bullets. But you have to wonder if some of them were disappointed they weren't able to play with their new toys. How many of them were channeling Dirty Harry, thinking, "C'mon, protester, make my day"? After all, when you have all those cool, macho hammers, it's natural to look around for nails you can pound into the ground.
The over-militarization of our police forces, treating criminals and protesters as enemy combatants, has a destructive counterpart in our schools, where students are being treated like potential criminals instead of young people who sometimes make mistakes. Campus guards have become the rule, many of them campus cops who are members of the local police department. While their job description says they are supposed to maintain order and keep people safe, too often they bust kids for minor offenses which the school administration should be dealing with. Young people with clean records get into trouble during the school day and have their first encounters with the criminal justice system. Schools are supposed to educate our children with the goal of giving them greater opportunities in their adult lives. In some communities, for some children, schools give students criminal records which rob them of opportunities which otherwise could have been theirs.
We've turned into a fearful society. We're frightened of one another, so we enact zero tolerance policies which are supposed to keep us safe. Arrests for drugs and petty theft result in disproportionate prison sentences. People are stopped and frisked on the streets because they look dangerous, because they might be the kind of people who may have committed a crime, or might be thinking about committing a crime in the future. Young people are dragged out of school and down to police stations to be questioned and booked. And police go out into what they see as "the jungle," the "little Beiruts" of our cities wearing clothing, driving vehicles and carrying weapons which are wildly disproportionate to the dangers they face, generating fear, hatred and, potentially, greater lawlessness, in the people they encounter.