A Five-Step Guide to the Police Repression of Protest from Ferguson to Baltimore and Beyond

Last week, as Baltimore braced for renewed protests over the death ofFreddie Gray, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) prepared for battle. With state-of-the-art surveillance of local teenagers’ Twitter feeds, law enforcement had learned that a group of high school students was planning to march on the Mondawmin Mall. In response, the BPD did what any self-respecting police department in post-9/11 America would do: it declared waron the protesters.

Over the course of 24 hours, which would see economically devastated parts of Baltimore erupt in open rebellion, city and state police would deploy everything from a drone and a “military counter attack vehicle” known as a Bearcat to SWAT teams armed with assault rifles, shotguns loaded with lead pellets, barricade projectiles filled with tear gas, and military-style smoke grenades. The BPD also came equipped with “Hailstorm” or “Stingray” technology, developed in America’s distant war zones to conduct wireless surveillance of enemy communications. This would allow officers to force cell phones to connect to it, to collect mobile data, and to jam cell signals within a one-mile radius.

“Up and down the East Coast since 9/11, our region has armed itself for that type of emergency,” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She was defending her police department’s acquisition of this type of military technology under the Department of Defense’s now infamous 1033 Program. It sends used weaponry and other equipment from the battlefields of the country’s global war on terror directly to local police departments across the country. “But it’s very unusual,” Mayor Rawlings-Blake added, “that it would be used against your own citizens.”

It is, in fact, no longer unusual but predictable for peacefully protesting citizens to face military-grade weaponry and paramilitary-style tactics, as the counterinsurgency school of protest policing has become the new normal in our homeland security state. Its techniques and technologies have come a long way in the years since Occupy Wall Street (and even in the months since the first protests kicked off in response to the killing of Michael Brown inFerguson, Missouri). Here, then, is a step-by-step guide, based on the latest developments in the security sector, on how to police a protest movement in the new age of domestic counterinsurgency.

1. Equate Dissidents With Domestic Terrorists.

Since 2012, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have repeatedly sought to link street activism with domestic terrorism and radical activists to “violent extremists.” For instance, one memo from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis attempted to tie events in Ferguson last year to recruitment efforts by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS): “Although at this time, violence in Ferguson has largely subsided… radical Islamists [have] used social media to urge others… to conduct Jihad.” A separate arm of DHS, the Threat Management Division, issued an ominous warning around the same time:

“Currently there is no indication that protests are expected to become violent. However, current civil unrest associated with the incident in Ferguson, MO, presents the potential for civil disobedience… Absent a specific actionable threat, you should refer to the list of suspicious activity indicators in identifying and mitigating threats. Some of these behavioral indicators may be constitutionally protected activities.”

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