It took me awhile, rummaging through the photo files on my computer, to locate the pictures I took during an anti-Iraq War march in Portland, Oregon. How long ago was it? I eventually found them in a 2003 folder. It was over a decade ago.
I was checking to see if my memory was accurate about how the police monitoring the demonstration were decked out. It was. They were wearing full military-style protective gear and weaponry, looking like an invading force patrolling an occupied city. They looked just like the police I’ve been seeing on television lately in Ferguson, Mo., who were reacting — “overreacting” is a more accurate term — to demonstrations following the shooting of an unarmed African-American teen by a police officer.
I’d participated in other peaceful marches and demonstrations in Portland over the years -- like the others, this one was peaceful—but I had never before been face-to-face with police who looked like they were patrolling the streets of war-torn Baghdad. It was a frightening experience. They wore heavy, bullet-proof vests whose pockets and pouches bulged with who-knows-what armaments and ammunition. They wore armor-plated leg guards stretched from knee to toe and helmets with clear visors covering their faces. Assault-style weapons hung across their waists or were aimed at the ground, fingers poised over the trigger.
They were still and silent, but their demeanor said, “If your behavior crosses a line we’ve drawn, if you become at all unruly, we will use the might we have at our disposal to stop you.”
We protesters, by contrast, young and old Portlanders, were mostly dressed in t-shirts and tank tops, taking advantage of a mild, late summer’s day.
Why do police wear storm trooper costumes and ride around in armored vehicles at demonstrations? The simple answer is, the military began providing surplus equipment to police in the 1990s, and after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the federal government handed out anti-terrorism grants to police forces. The police departments, even in small towns, have access to military grade equipment because it was given to them.
But there’s a larger, more systemic reason for the show of force I witnessed first hand in Portland and see on the news from Ferguson. It isn’t simply about the availability of the equipment, and it goes much further than what police officers wear at demonstrations. It’s about a major escalation in the threat and the use of force by police departments, which has been growing for the past 30 years.
As a society, we’ve decided that the best way to keep our population safe is to bring the hammer down, hard, on anyone who creates a threat, or even the possibility of a threat, to the rest of us. We’ve developed a zero-tolerance policy -- no offense is to be left unpunished -- and handed it to our police departments and our courts to carry out.
That’s why we have more people behind bars than any other country in the world. Crime hasn’t gone up. We’ve just decided that any criminal activity has to be stamped out and the offenders have to be removed from society. So police officers are told to seek out minor offenders and arrest them, then judges, who have to follow mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, put people behind bars for unconscionable lengths of time.
Even if people look vaguely dangerous, even when there’s no evidence they’ve done anything wrong, some police departments require a “stop and frisk” policy to try and discover any hint, any evidence of possible criminal activity.
We as a society have decided we want harsher law enforcement and longer prison sentences. Police officers and judges are only carrying out our orders. It’s up to us to reverse the 30-year trend if we think, as I do, that it’s gone too far.