Wearing full body armor and armed with assault weapons, SWAT teams’ tactics make it much more likely that people will be killed. Using no-knock raids, they rush into a resident’s home by breaking the door. Immediately upon entry, they commonly use “flash-bang” grenades, which render people temporarily blind and deaf. Naturally, the targets of such raids might assume that their home is under attack by criminals. If the residents are armed and try to defend themselves, they are likely to be killed by the SWAT team.
This is what happened to Eugene Mallory, an 81-year old retired engineer in Southern California. A SWAT team broke into his home and shot him dead before he had a chance to leave his bed. The raid turned up two marijuana plants, for the possession of which Mallory’s step-son had a California medical license.
The Economist (March 22) article titled Armed and dangerous, describes how U.S. police departments have become highly militarized. The article is significant not only for the information it provides but also because a mainstream corporate media outlet is publishing it.
The article focuses specifically on SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) units, and how frequently police departments around the country are using them. It cites an Eastern Kentucky University study that estimates that the annual number of SWAT raids around the country has skyrocketed from around 3,000 in the early 1980s to around 50,000 raids today. Originally, SWAT teams were intended to be used only in specific circumstances such as confronting major drug operations. Nowadays, police departments are using SWAT raids routinely, at times for operations as trivial as breaking up unlicensed poker games.
According to journalist Radley Balko, over 50 innocent civilians have been killed in SWAT raids. Considering that targets of a SWAT raid may have engaged in some illegal activity and thus not fit the “innocent” designation, the number of victims of SWAT raids are likely much higher. Innocent or not, targets of SWAT raids do not deserve to be summarily executed.
The militarization of the police is not a local phenomenon, characterized by overzealous police chiefs going overboard arming their departments. This is a national trend that has really taken off since the early 1980s. It has been consciously promoted and funded by the federal government. Between 2002 and 2011, the federal government gave a staggering $35 billion in grants to state and local police. In addition, thanks to being supplied with a virtually endless supply of weapons for wars, the Pentagon provides much of its considerable surplus military hardware to police forces virtually free.
And the militarization of police departments feeds on itself. Given civil asset-forfeiture rules, police departments routinely seize money and assets they confiscate in drug raids. They can do so even without the accused being proven guilty, leaving them only the option of suing to get their belongings back. The booty from drug raids are now a significant source of excess income, itself a source to pay for more police officers and more weapons.
Police are an instrument of class repression and control
The trend highlighted by the Economist article can only be properly understood in the context of the social function of police. Far from merely maintaining law and order, law enforcement is an instrument of class repression and control. Through highly militarized police departments, the capitalist class exerts control over the working class, particularly over oppressed communities. Law enforcement keeps these communities under siege. People are constantly under the threat of being stopped and searched on the streets and are even in danger of being raided at home. Murder at the hands of the police, whether SWAT teams or street patrols, is an all too common phenomenon, particularly for African American and Latino youths.
Why are we seeing a higher level of police repression carried out by more heavily armed police? The answer lies in the erosion of well-paid jobs for the working class. With a persistently high level of unemployment and existing jobs being predominantly low-paid service industry jobs, the capitalist class needs more violence and more repression to keep the working class in check. The warehousing of a record number of people in prisons are another component of this class control strategy.
The March 21 murder of Alejandro Nieto in San Francisco is the latest in a long list of police murders of unarmed civilians. Carrying a clearly marked Taser that he used for his job as a security guard, Nieto was shot 14 times and killed by San Francisco police. In response, the community has organized several protests that have drawn large numbers of people.
The only way to confront murder and brutality by police, who are now more heavily armed than ever, is through organized mass action.