Challenging a Militarized Police State in the US

When the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and other law enforcement agencies cracked down on protestors March 30, 2014, the city’s finest rolled out a military-style force.

Chanting “No Justice, No Peace,” the revved-up marchers were protesting the March 16 shooting death of homeless camper James Boyd, a man with mental health problems, and more than a dozen other men since 2010, many of whom also reportedly suffered from mental illness.

As the evening progressed, the police reacted in front of the University of New Mexico (UNM). Equipped with gas masks, body armor, batons and automatic rifles, they deployed officers on horseback, a SWAT Team and a pair of armored vehicles. After confronting shouting protestors, the APD released tear gas, which seeped into campus dormitories.

March 30 wasn’t the first time that local cops forcibly broke up a militant if largely peaceful demonstration. In October 2011, police dismantled the local manifestation of Occupy Wall Street, while in March 2003, APD cops mounted on horseback charged at anti-Iraq war protestors and fired tear gas that drifted across a UNM-area neighborhood and into homes.

While such police actions in New Mexico and the United States are nothing new, the country’s law enforcement apparatus keeps sharpening its technological edge and finessing force deployment capabilities.

War at Home

In the big picture, domestic policing has evolved hand-in-hand with foreign military interventions over the decades, further shaped by elite policies of social and racial control, corporate expansion and the suppression of challenges to the power structure.

Growing up in 1960s’ Albuquerque, Southwest Organizing Project organizer Joaquin Lujan recalls rough cops, some of whom were recruited from the state of Oklahoma and assigned to police an unfamiliar, Spanish-speaking culture.

“The people that were being beat up were people of my culture, indigenous people, Chicanos,” Lujan says. “We were faced with a whole lot of police brutality throughout Albuquerque and throughout the barrios.”

Decades later, Lujan says complaints of police brutality and deadly force have moved out of the barrio and across the entire city, touching different social strata and marginalized groups like the homeless and mentally ill.

Paul Eichorn, who runs an Albuquerque food assistance program for needy persons including Vietnam and Gulf war veterans, was struck by a police video that showed the killing of James Boyd by officers who were “barking commands” at the troubled man like they were in a war scenario.

“Our APD cops are too violent, and I think it goes back to probably their training as soldiers,” Eichorn ventured.

While the full histories of the officers involved in the Boyd shooting have yet to be disclosed, in other recent Albuquerque cases either the police shooters or the victims were suffering from PTSD acquired from military service. Toss in substance abuse and domestic violence and a volatile social cocktail is brewing on the streets.

An April 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that a majority of 20 fatal APD shootings between 2009 and 2012 violated constitutional and civil rights.

“This level of unjustified, deadly force by the police poses unacceptable risks to the Albuquerque community,” the DOJ wrote to Mayor Richard Berry.

The report also cited violations in 200 cases of less deadly force randomly examined by the DOJ in the same period, especially regarding the use of Tasers.

On May 5, Cinco de Mayo, Albuquerque activists staged a historic takeover of the city council meeting to protest inaction on police shootings. The residents then formed the People’s Assembly of Albuquerque, which passed three resolutions in the council chambers that called for the sacking of the city’s police chief, expressed no confidence in the mayor and chief administrative officer and demanded an independent police oversight commission.

A Nationwide Problem

In good measure, the Albuquerque violence might be considered the domestic fallout from imperial wars and forays. New Mexico’s largest city is far from alone on this score.

In Memphis, Tennessee, for instance, 23 people were killed by local police in 2012 and 2014, according the Memphis Black Autonomy Federation (MBAF). For any U.S. city, the death toll represented “the largest number of people killed by police in this time period,” the group states in a recent report.

A MBAF summary documents the deaths of 20-year-old Jeremy McGraven, shot in the back by the police while allegedly driving a stolen vehicle; 54-year-old Delois Epps and her 13-year-old daughter, Makayla Ross, killed in a car crash blamed on a Memphis police officer who was speeding through the streets without a siren or activated flashers ; and Andrew Dumas, 32, incinerated after officers tossed chemical tear gas into a home in which he was hiding, causing a fire that also damaged several neighboring homes.

Strikingly, several incidents in Albuquerque resemble episodes in Memphis in the way people were killed by police officers.

Allegations or proven instances of officer-committed sexual violence are other common threads in New Mexico and Tennessee. Last month, Las Cruces, New Mexico police detective Michael Garcia, who investigated sex crimes, reached a plea deal in a federal prosecution stemming from the rape of a 17-year-old department intern.

U.S. police violence has grabbed the attention of the United Nations. At a March 2014 meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) determined that the United States had incurred in 25 violations of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, including racial profiling, police violence and criminalization of the homeless.

Bay Area journalist Adam Hudson wrote that the UNHRC’s review elevated “the suffering inflicted by U.S. domestic and foreign policies to the realm of international human rights.” Washington, Hudson continued, regularly chastises foreign nations for human rights abuses but “has yet to clean its own house.”

The UNHRC’s report examined militarization and the surveillance state, noting for example, the pervasive NSA eavesdropping on citizen communications, and the use of lethal force by the U.S. Custom and Border Protection.

The New Mexico-based ACLU Regional Center for Border Rights pinpoints U.S. border zones as other hotspots of law enforcement violence.

According to the civil liberties advocates, at least 27 individuals were killed along the southern and northern borders of CBP agents from January 2010 to early 2014, while a 28th person in CPB custody  died due to inadequate medical attention.

Among the victims, the Regional Center identifies seven minors as well as a U.S. citizen mother of five who was gunned down by an agent during an altercation. Six of the victims were killed while on Mexican territory, including three teenagers ranging in ages from 15 to 17.

From Policing to SWAT Teams

According to Hudson, police militarization has been on the upswing ever since the Nixon administration, a time when SWAT teams emerged as a response to civil conflict.

In 1981 Military Cooperation and Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act was passed during a  period when Washington was renewing support for Latin American death squads and hatching CIA plots to overthrow leftist governments in Nicaragua, Angola and other nations deemed contrary to U.S. interests by the Reagan administration.

Akin to the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program aimed at disrupting and neutralizing the anti-war and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, government spying and other forms of harassment were directed against Central America solidarity activists.  Later, police targeting of Occupy Wall Street and other activists was also exposed. Most recently, some Albuquerque anti-police violence activists report being watched, trailed or stopped by cops.

After the collapse of the socialist bloc, the militarization of policing continued in the War on Terror, the War on Immigrants and the War on Drugs. Perhaps not coincidentally, the modern stages of U.S. foreign policy always saw new pipelines opening up for the importation of illegal drugs into the U.S , along with the redefinition of law enforcement and the expansion of SWAT teams across the land.

To suit the times, police training and grooming acquired a militaristic edge and belligerent philosophy.

New Mexico resident Lucille Cordova has seen many sides of the coin. A former organizer of prisoners’ families, Cordova recalls a brother who was thinking of switching from the military to civilian law enforcement but opted to remain with Uncle Sam after an exposure to an 18-week training, or “indoctrination,” with a Texas sheriff’s department that taught new recruits to consider themselves “the elite of the elite” in an “us vs. them” struggle against the population.

Broadening the debate on policing, recent front-page articles in the Albuquerque Journal documented how the national security gravy train delivers billions of dollars of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants to local law enforcement agencies for equipment acquisitions and other purposes.  The Department of Defense is part of the game, handing over “surplus” military hardware like armored personnel carriers to local police forces virtually for free.

Even the small and medium sized New Mexican communities of Los Alamos, Farmington and Deming have recently added mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles or armored personnel carriers to their police departments’ arsenals.

In neighboring El Paso, Texas, which has consistently ranked as among the safest three U.S. cities during the last several years, $773,000 in federal grant money allowed the local police department to purchase 1,145 M-4 assault rifles in 2010, theEl Paso Times reported.

DHS Mission Creep?

Critics say the DHS represents a classic case of mission creep, expanding its mission into multiple facets of civilian law enforcement, with its overall budget soaring from $29 billion in 2002 to $61 billion in 2014, according to the Journal.

Even former Bush administration Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was taken aback by the DHS’ evolution.

“They’ve kind of lost their way..,” Ridge was quoted by the Journal. “I’m trying to figure out why these local communities need Humvees…they could probably use a couple of more patrolman rather than another military vehicle.”

Yet, like the DOD-defense contractor revolving door, money is to be made in the business of policing.

Dubbed Tasergate by some pundits, Albuquerque is now engrossed by the news that former Police Chief Ray Schultz negotiated a deal with Taser International to supply his department with nearly $2 million in equipment prior to the chief’s departure from office last year.

Shortly thereafter, Schultz emerged as a paid consultant to the company, according to local media accounts.

Wave of Activism Against Police Brutality

In Albuquerque, police violence has triggered the biggest wave of activism in the New Mexico city since the early 1970s.

Since the shooting of James Boyd, activists have marched in the streets, packed City Council and DOJ meetings, conducted vigils, organized community forums, and prepared petitions to remove the mayor and convene grand juries that will indict officers. Citizens are participating in the DOJ’s current goal of writing a consent decree that will impose new recruitment standards, training, oversight policies, and standard operating procedures on the APD.

Street protests have drawn hundreds of young people who are cutting their teeth in activism and civil disobedience.

At an April forum held at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, activists formulated nearly 40 short-term and long-term demands. Significantly, the proposals call for the demilitarization of the policing, zero tolerance for racial profiling and citizen oversight of the police department.

Only a few hours away on the U.S.-Mexico border, groups like the ACLU’s Regional Center for Border Rights likewise call for independent oversight of the Border Patrol.

The UNHRC’s report on the state of human rights in the U.S., affords the CBP “an opportunity for comprehensive reform if they’re serious about preventing unnecessary deaths and injuries,” says Regional Center Director Vicki B. Gaubeca.

In the wider context, last month’s Albuquerque meeting highlighted structural changes urgently needed: adequate services for returning veterans and other people with mental health issues; increased funding for social services like substance abuse prevention and treatment; the right to housing; the full funding of schools; and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Two weeks later, speaking at the site where her former student, 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, was shot to death by the APD on April 21, Albuquerque educator Carolina Acuna-Olvera summed up the sentiment of many in the movement:

“We’re already spending billions of dollars going to war around the world, but can’t feed kids.”

The events in Albuquerque bring into sharp focus many fundamental issues as part and parcel of an inseparable package. Whether activists will be successful in winning changes is still far from certain, given the historic impunity connected to police shootings and instances of brutality.

While the City of Albuquerque has paid out nearly $30 million in wrongful death and excessive force lawsuits during the past few years, no police officer has gone to jail for a shooting. And in the seven weeks following James Boyd’s shooting, the same number of additional officer-involved shootings-three of them fatal-have shaken Albuquerque and nearby Los Lunas.

Besides APD officers, New Mexico state policemen and U.S. marshals have been behind the triggers in the latest shootings.

Still, many residents say the city has a historic opportunity to change the course of police-community relations, reassert democratic controls over law enforcement and respond to a deluge of worsening social problems that threaten to tear society apart.

“This is widespread,” said Nora Tachias-Anaya of the October 22 Coalition, one of the groups participating in the Albuquerque movement. “This is national, and we know it, but I strongly believe New Mexico is going to make the difference.”

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur