Why Are Police Becoming More Like Soldiers?

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This article was originally published by openSecurity on 1 September 2014.

In the last decades, militarisation of the state and surveillance of the population have grown exponentially in many western countries. Police forces, civilian institutions and even urban spaces have followed this trend of securitisation. Images of heavily armed police forces clashing against protesters in the US, UK, France and many other countries are becoming increasingly common. Leaked official documents have detailed the extensive surveillance programmes several states use to spy on their denizens, under the auspice of “national security”.

While the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” have often provided the pretext, those affected by militarisation and surveillance are mostly neither criminal kingpins nor “terrorists” but ordinary citizens. It has been political activists and groups, those who express dissent and protesters, as well it is true as small-time criminals, who have been on the receiving end of police SWAT team raids, extensive (often illegal) surveillance and assaults by heavily-armoured riot police.

Stretched hierarchies

But militarisation is about more than riot gear and police use of force. It can be perceived as a way for the state to try to retain its relevance and sovereignty in a globalised age, and therefore a tool to control and deter dissent. Since the 1970s neo-liberal capitalism has stretched social hierarchies as inequality has grown exponentially in many western countries. The crisis of neo-liberalism since 2008, which seems to be perpetually prolonged, may be part of the driving force behind a rebelliousness among those at the bottom end of the scale, while those at the top grow more fearful and impose more violent methods of dealing with this perceived threat to order.

Militarisation is spreading worldwide at an accelerating pace. The popular “common sense” is that it is necessary—indeed inevitable—in the face of modern challenges and security threats. While in train for many years, only now are its effects being properly seen and felt.

The state is spying on friends and foes alike. The “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” do not make sense in themselves: how can one make war on a phenomenon? They function as all-encompassing excuse to abuse state power, survey unaccountably and erode civil rights.

According to Peter B. Kraska, militarism is an ideology which assumes that the most appropriate and effective way to solve a problem is by force or threat of violence. Militarisation operationalises this ideology by “arming, organizing, planning, training for, threatening, and sometimes implementing violent conflict”. When civilian police adopt and apply the military model, we see the result as in Ferguson, Missouri—a heavily armed, pugilistic stance towards the people they are charged to serve and protect.

The distinction between domestic and external security, between the police and the military, has blurred in recent years. From one direction, new communications technologies and transnational crime mean that what used to constitute internal security threats to a state are turning into threats which only a rival state could have posed just a few years ago. From the other side, while repressive governments, countries in a state of conflict and some other developing nations use military force to handle all security challenges, including internal ones, this practice is becoming more and more pronounced in longstanding democracies.

According to Dominic Corva, following Foucault, political power is focused not so much on sovereign, territorial, and disciplinary configurations, instead centring on the “biopolitical” arrangements of life within highly urbanised, mobile and digitally mediated societies. Utilising state-sanctioned force to control domestic and foreign territories through “sovereign power”, biopower “produces subjects of governance through techniques of normalization”. While sovereign power takes life or lets live, biopower fosters life or disallows it through the consolidation and propagation of acceptable freedoms. Biopolitical strategies of governance thereby render social orders, such as capitalism, hegemonic.

From hegemony to domination

The notion of hegemony as developed by Antonio Gramsci may perhaps offer a clearer understanding of the root causes of both militarisation and the radicalisation of activist groups, protests and dissidence. For Gramsci, hegemony operates primarily through the institutions of civil society and is linked connotatively to a chain of dichotomies: hegemony / domination, consent / coercion, civil society / state. The polarisation of society and growing inequality can be seen as the underlying source of militarisation, associated with a shift from hegemony to mere domination, from policing by consent to policing by force.

Take the US. There has been immense co-operation between the military and the civilian police in the last few years, with massive amounts of weapons and equipment, as well as military techniques, finding their way to police forces in many American cities. Police departments with access to such equipment, and having adopted military culture, choose extreme tactics in situations which hardly justify flash-bangs, tear gas, anti-tank vehicles and tactical gear. SWAT teams are meanwhile becoming normalised and employed to take a more proactive role in crime-fighting and prevention, away from their original purpose as reactive units for special circumstances. Even the language has changed, with terms that were only heard of in conflict zones, such as “insurgency” and “low-intensity conflict”, finding their way into the vocabulary used to define criminality.

Gramsci wrote that societies only pose such questions as they can solve. And important questions now need to be asked. How can a democratic regime justify militarisation and the criminalisation of swathes of its population? What will happen to dissenting voices in an age of surveillance and militarised police—when speaking out can be considered a crime, a threat to “national security”?

For militarisation and surveillance are parts of a larger and even more worrisome trend, of enforcing greater control over urban spaces, social interactions, politics, culture and ideology to reaffirm a political and economic status quo. Presented as protecting the population, it seems rather that we, the citizens, need protecting from it.

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Alejandro Garcia De La Garza has an MA in conflict, security and development from the University of Sussex and is an associate area specialist for the intelligence, security and international affairs section of CIMBRE, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Mexican-British Research think-tank.

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