(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf. The goal of the symposium is to render race visible in national security to shift the dominant paradigm toward addressing issues of racial justice.)
President Trump’s remarks last week characterizing purported lawlessness in cities like Portland and Chicago as “worse than Afghanistan” were offered as grounds for sending federal officers into these and other cities over the objections of local officials. President Trump has also characterized Black Lives Matter protesters themselves as terrorists, while also floating the possibility of designating Antifa as a terrorist organization. These actions have all been rightly and widely condemned. The President does not have the authority to designate “Antifa” or other domestic groups as terrorist organizations. And the President’s treatment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or other federal law enforcement agencies as paramilitary forces that he can deploy at his discretion against cities “run by Democrats” has produced substantial legal and political pushback (with lawsuits, a Department of Justice investigation, resistance from mayors, criticism from former Republican DHS officials and legal scholars).
Yet the common thread between would-be terrorist designations and the suggestion that American cities should be subjected to the same treatment as those in Afghanistan – where the United States military once served as a belligerent occupier – deserves more sustained attention. By making visible relationships that are usually obscured from public view, President Trump’s brutal instincts may inadvertently help connect the dots between two important movements that have both gained momentum in part thanks to his presidency. What the President has made plain is the deep connection between militarized domestic policing and America’s wars abroad. Understanding this broader context means that calls to defund the police must also echo demands to end this country’s endless wars.
Pax Americana Comes Home
In comparing Chicago to Afghanistan, the President was borrowing from a well-worn American playbook on a purportedly lawless world. Portraying large swathes of the world as plagued by anarchy and violence has long been a formula to legitimize the use of state violence in the name of pacification. American interventions are often justified, to borrow former President Obama’s words, on the grounds that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.” So American forces are deployed abroad to restore order, end violence, and protect civilians in allegedly barbarous or failed states. These interventions, in turn, apply overwhelming force together with counterinsurgency techniques that often brutalize the civilians they purport to protect and produce further violence. Moreover, battlefields abroad have all too often served as laboratories for counterinsurgency methods that are imported back into domestic policing. The mutually constitutive relationship between militarized policing at home and imperial interventions abroad has been ably chronicled by scholars and journalists studying America’s wars from the Philippines to Vietnam to the so-called War on Terror.
To take just one example of the ties between the militarization of domestic policing and war, the history of SWAT – “special weapon and tactics” – police units is instructive. Both proponents and critics of SWAT units agree that they were developed in the 1960s and applied to domestic policing counterinsurgency methods used by American forces in Vietnam. Tellingly, the origins of SWAT can be traced to the Watts uprising in 1965 and the subsequent repression of the Black Panthers and the anti-racist protest movements of the 1960s. The early SWAT forces included a significant number of Korean and Vietnam war veterans, and to this day these paramilitary forces often draw on veterans migrating to law enforcement. As foreign wars bled into America’s “war on drugs,” the practice of storming homes in civilian areas overseas translated to no-knock search warrants, authorizing SWAT operators to use techniques developed abroad in residential areas within the United States. Police officers executing a no-knock search warrant shot and killed Breonna Taylor after midnight while she slept in her home in Louisville.
It is not only techniques, weapons and personnel that circulate between wars abroad and militarized policing at home. The racialization of targets of American state violence circulates across borders just as freely. The “Global War on Terror” (GWoT) accelerated police militarization while furnishing a new enemy within. The GWoT’s all too familiar category of racialized threat – the conflation of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern identity with terrorism – is so pervasive that anyone perceived to belong to this nebulous category is viewed as inherently suspect. The specter of “sleeper cells” and internal enemies is used to employ some of the most extreme counter-terrorism tactics – including surveillance, detention and even targeted killing – against American citizens. As Atiya Husain has argued, “[i]n the GWoT counterinsurgency has become domestic practice.”
The idea that Muslim communities within the United States serve as threat incubators has produced an expansive apparatus of national security preventive policing, that mirrors the racial disparities associated with American proactive policing more generally. Where counterinsurgency methods counseled winning “hearts and minds” abroad by infiltrating communities, at home the “countering violent extremism” (CVE) program introduced by the Obama administration served much the same function. Beginning from the premise that Muslim communities were vulnerable to becoming radicalized and embracing terrorism, CVE developed metrics of alleged radicalization and methods to prevent it. Though widely debunked, these theories of radicalization have resulted in law enforcement infiltration of places of worship, schools and student organizations, and other community centers with undercover agents and informants engaged in forms of preventive policing that in effect criminalize whole communities.
Ordinary indicia of Muslim identity including cultural practices – from dress, to grooming, to food and drink choices – religious beliefs, and family ties are treated as evidence of radicalism. Racist cultural stereotyping is thereby passed off as legitimate counterterrorism intelligence. When a Muslim-American (or someone mistaken for one) is critical of America’s conduct of the war on terror, views that should be protected by the First Amendment are instead treated as evidence of radicalization. Pro-Palestinian speech and activism, too, is routinely conflated with terrorism.
Of course, these same scripts have inevitably radiated out to other racial minorities and marginalized groups. The counterterrorism frame now extends to so-called “Black Identity Extremists” (BIE); what should be the protected speech of critics of systemic racism in the United States is instead treated as evidence of threatening radicalism, a basis for law enforcement targeting. A recent study of the policing of activism on social media shows the convergence of CVE and BIE (magnifying further the threats faced by Black Muslims). Nor is the criminalization of dissent and the targeting of activists based on race or ideology new to American policing. The propensity to manufacture phantom menaces emanating from minority communities is itself an expression of the systemic racism in policing that today fuels the largest protests in the country’s history.
Ending America’s Wars at Home and Abroad
The fact that protests against police brutality have engendered further police brutality lays bare the recursive logic of America’s wars at home and abroad. Violence breeds resistance that is met with further violence. The war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on terror – together with militarized border policing – each produce their racialized targets and then continuously reinforce the internal racial logic of such targeting across America’s wars. Police surveillance of Muslim communities collapsed “barriers between foreign and domestic spying and import[ed] scripts from the war on crime into the war on terror.” Customs and Border Patrol “elite units” are now deployed to subjugate protesters in Portland. And the war on terror’s global battlefield now encompasses U.S. cities.
Describing protesters and racial justice activists as terrorists – as the President, the Attorney General and the FBI all have – underscores again the links between domestic law enforcement and America’s military engagements. Calls to defund the police have been at the center of the racial justice protests across America’s cities. But defunding the police requires demilitarizing the American conception of law enforcement, which in turn requires fundamentally rethinking our foreign policy and commitment to a national security state. What would it mean to connect the call for ending endless war to demands to defund the police?
Following on decades of police reforms – from body cameras to de-escalation and implicit bias training – that have failed to stem police violence, the movement to defund is a transformative call to reimagine public safety and racial justice. Divesting from the police entails addressing one of the principal sources of state-sanctioned violence against Black (and Brown) lives by questioning the relationship between armed enforcement and safety.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) has made clear that divestment from policing also requires investment in education, health and safety. Communities across the country are linking the defund campaign to demands for improved community services – from mental health and social workers to schools, housing, and hospitals. Such a transformative vision of public safety has further implications for the criminal justice system, such as decriminalizing poverty by reforming drug policies and eliminating offenses that disproportionately impact the poor and unhoused. (Prison abolition is also a closely related demand.)
Arguments for “ending endless war” dovetail seamlessly with the M4BL invest-divest framework. Indeed, M4BL has issued a call to cut military expenditures and reallocate funds to domestic infrastructure and community wellbeing. But the similarities go beyond shared demands to shift funding priorities. The call to end America’s permanent war footing involves a transformative vision of its own: abandoning a posture of American military dominance.
Rethinking U.S. military primacy is a necessary corollary to ending state-sanctioned violence at home because America’s wars abroad sustain and feed into militarized and racialized domestic policing. Beyond the conveyor belt of equipment, training, and manpower that circulates between America’s wars – within our borders and overseas – lie massive vested interests in what today is best understood as the military-industrial-policing complex. And this complex profits from and entrenches the very forms of racialized state violence that protesters oppose.
Counterterrorism is big business that sustains budgets not only for the Department of Defense, but also for agencies ranging from local police departments, to border enforcement, to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces now investigating protest leaders. The government doesn’t currently provide an accurate accounting of spending on counterterrorism, but recent research by the Stimson Center suggests that such funding in the fifteen years between 2002 and 2017 totaled nearly $3 trillion. This figure includes “homeland security,” the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and domestic law enforcement tied to counterterrorism. As the Stimson report makes clear, in an age of budgetary caps in other areas, counterterrorism represents a “substantial component of total discretionary spending for programs across a wide range of areas.”
Government agencies compete for funding and when they are able to style themselves as essential to national security, they access more revenue. Law enforcement across the board has a direct funding incentive to characterize minority communities and dissidents as threat incubators. Counterterrorism serves as a kind of racist gravy train. Without addressing the revenue streams tied to counterterrorism at home and abroad, there can be no meaningful way to defund the police. As Sam Moyn and Stephen Wertheim have argued, a “militarized concept of America’s world role … permeates Washington.” Defunding the police will require demilitarizing our understanding of American power and purpose.
Toward Dismantling America’s Security State
In the words of Portland mayor Tom Wheeler, the actions of federal agents in that city amount to “urban warfare.” Policing at home and America’s military engagements abroad are, in fact, two faces of the same coin. Protests against police violence call out an important facet of the coercive apparatus of the state, one that in recent years has increasingly demonstrated that the tactics, weapons, and training employed to suppress resistance abroad may also be deployed against protesters in America’s cities.
Dismantling the structures of racist policing at home will require recognizing the continuum of security state violence that connects domestic policing, border enforcement and America’s ever-expanding military footprint abroad. In short, defunding the police will require a transformative vision for the sprawling security state as a whole, one that disrupts practices of racialized violence and advances a vision of racial justice at home and abroad.