Above is a scene from Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
If you don’t know the context for this picture, and assume there must have been a minor terrorist attack in “fly-over” America that you somehow managed to miss, witness testimony suggests you’re right. Ferguson, Missouri, has been terrorized.
For details on what the killing (/almost certain murder) of 18-year-old Michael Brown has wrought, Greg Howard’s write-up at The Concourse, “America Is Not for Black People,” is an excellent primer.
Put in the simplest terms: Another unarmed black kid was executed by an agent of the state without charge or trial. This time in broad daylight, fleeing from police, with his arms raised above his head. This time the kid was college-bound. This time the local police will not reveal just how many bullets were pumped into his body. This time his community was reminded that neither the achievement of secondary education, nor the universal gesture of unthreatening submission can guarantee their sons exemption from sacrifice on the altar of white fear. This time nonviolent protests insisting there could be no peace without justice gave way to riots.
And now cops dressed as soldiers stalk the streets with assault rifles blazing and when residents voice their displeasure from the confines of their own backyards, they are told over megaphone to return to their homes. When they reply that these are their homes, they are rebutted by tear gas.
Howard writes of the militarization of the American police:
“The worst part of outfitting our police officers as soldiers has been psychological. Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.”
It is possible to imagine arguments for the utility of domestic drones, tanks, and body armor. Not strong arguments, but at least logically coherent ones. We live in a country with exceptional rates of gun ownership, where military grade assault rifles are a leisure item. We live in a world with poorly guarded nuclear stockpiles and nihilistic terrorist cells. But what is the purpose of paroling the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in outfits designed to blend into a Vietnamese jungle?
There is no utility to these uniforms. They are not worn for comfort. They are a fashion statement. They tell the residents of Ferguson that the United States government is prepared to engage them on the same terms it engaged the indigenous of East Asia. They say that the moment their community fails to bear systemic oppression with stoicism, the moment one of their number breaks a storefront window, their suburb will no longer be treated as the home of democratic citizens but as a hotbed of insurgency.
In the most generous assessment, the police are only projecting this message because it was more affordable than buying traditional police uniforms, the bulk of these SWAT outfits being donated army surplus. But when small towns in Indiana can afford their own armored SWAT vehicles, the fact that municipalities across the nation feel it extravagant to spend grant money on a few extra police uniforms conveys to community residents the same message as the camo itself: Your government is more concerned with maintaining the established order than even a semblance of democracy.
Camouflage fatigues have never been so revealing.