OPD’s “Less than Lethal” Lessons from Military Forces

Posted on March 9, 2012


The story of American law enforcement has always been that of once-private protection firms for 1% elites in search of a social mandate. Despite the obvious primary role that police have in protecting the property of the richest and most powerful, life in a democracy is tough for elite guards—they must grow and assume forms that the constituents of a democracy find gratifying. Diversification in the form of anti-crime campaigns has been priority one for law enforcement since J. Edgar Hoover first crawled from the muck.

On the local level, one such roll-out, the SWAT phenomenon set the predicate for today’s militarized police forces in the late sixties and seventies. Beginning as a militarized response to  overblown fears of terror and hysteria about armed shooting sprees in Los Angeles, the SWAT meme spread and was easily turned toward the war on drugs and crime hysteria of the eighties and nineties. Increasingly, urban combat teams were sent out to America’s inner cities with the mandate to use arsenals of heavy weaponry and to abrogate constitutional protections of America’s citizens and residents. Militarized law enforcement was also directed at civilian assemblies, a natural turn reflecting the origin of policing. The participation of militarized police forces in Philadelphia’s MOVE atrocities, and regular tragedies in inner city neighborhoods, created a national discussion on non-lethal weaponry. Explosives and AK-47’s were replaced with chemical agents,  tazers, flashbangs and various iterations of so-called “less than lethal” rounds in a move to reduce the obvious dangers of militarization in law enforcement.

While the move to “less than lethal” weapons might on the surface be seen as at least a minor step forward, the model that urban police forces have often followed in this new militarized era—US-funded Israeli policing of colonized areas in Palestine—has been troubling. Israeli occupation forces are, indeed, probably the worst example that any civilian police force could look to. In the first place, such forces are not militarized police forces like those that are increasingly problematic here; rather Israeli Border Police and the Israeli Defense Forces are military forces with policing functions. Thus, their goal is not to protect a civilian population from crime and violence and to enforce the law within legal protections for suspects– the entire population that they police is criminalized and there are few if any human rights protections for Palestinians in the occupied territories.

This narrative, unfortunately, is one that is easily absorbed into the American discourse on crime and violence, where geographic and institutional race and class barriers create ad hoc bantustans in which the policing of subject populations mirrors Israel’s policing of subject Palestinians. This superficial similarity based on racist perceptions and an ‘assault on civilization’ ethos, creates a natural partnership between US federal and local police structures and those of Israel.

American security structures are already saturated with an intelligence gathering and surveillance worldview that sees the citizen as a subject for control, continuing a long authoritarian streak that has had only brief pauses of oversight. But an ever tighter series of connections with Israeli intelligence and policing structures only further tilts this view. Idealogues and politicians call for the institution of airport security regimes from Israel, despite their known use of racial profiling. And Israel’s reputation for policing subject populations makes veterans of its security apparatus attractive candidates to manage unconstitutional surveillance of American activists by American leaders. The most notorious example, revealed recently, was that of a private consulting firm run by former Israeli intelligence officials, spying on anti-corporate activists at the behest of a corporation-captured Pennsylvania Governor.

The superficial evolutionary similarities have naturally created imagined bonds between militarized police forces at home and military policing forces abroad, reinforcing already institutionally racist perceptions of poor and of color communities—and by association, activists—where tactics and abuse of “less than lethal” weapons migrate to the American policing context. The possibility that veteran Scott Olsen was injured with a tear gas canister or other “less than lethal” ammunition becomes ever more distinct, in that light. Similar to the way that rubber bullets were misused by IDF forces in the past as often lethal—and at the least tools for disfigurement and maiming—the weaponization of tear gas canisters has become the new rage in Israeli human rights abuses.

By now there have been several incidents where extended range canisters, which are quite literally projectiles, have been used to maim and even kill. In the past few years, there have been several deaths and injuries, with high-speed tear gas canisters fired at the heads and torsos of Palestinian demonstrators. Mustafa Tamimi, shot in the face with a tear gas canister, died in December 2011. Earlier this week, a young Palestinian activist rallying in support of a hunger striking prisoner, was shot in the head with a tear gas canister and remains in intensive care as of this writing. The tactic, used over and over again in ways too similar to be coincidence, can only be seen as a form of terror, to intimidate anti-apartheid activists.

The connection also hits closer to home, however—and not simply because the tear gas is manufactured in the US, and paid for in both the US and Israel with American tax dollars. Tristan Anderson, a bay area resident and solidarity activist visiting Palestine, was struck and seriously injured by one such attack in Ni’lin by the Israeli Border Police in 2009. The attack came hours after a particularly effective demonstration against Israel’s nascent apartheid wall had wound down. Most activists had gone home, and there were only a handful left conversing, not protesting. Israeli Border Police shot several vollies of tear-gas at the handful of protesters and, in what seems like a targeted attack, shattered Tristan’s skull with a canister, causing brain damage which he still struggles with today.

In a cruel irony, a special attachment to the Israeli Border Police trained with the Oakland Police Department and other local law enforcement, just weeks before the OPD and others severely injured Olsen in a similar incident on October 25. In another remarkable irony, Bahrani security forces have also lethalized tear gas and tear gas canisters resulting in deaths during the past year of anti-government demonstrations. This relationship, where a civilian police force receives tips from military forces that have the exclusive aim of policing politically powerless populations [Bahrain is a monarchical dictatorship]—would have been shocking a decade ago. But given the inexorable progression of the police to military mindset, the fusion of roles proceeds without mainstream comment of any kind. The attendant infection of weaponized “less than lethal’ ammunition is not a surprise in this context, along with the kind of injuries one would expect from it.

At the heart of this outbreak of on-going militarization of American policing is the question of what the police are here to do. The history of western policing is punitive and in favor of the powerful—a human rights and constitutional discourse added community service aspects in the past decades, and toned down the violence to acceptable levels. The heart of policing, however, contains the same seed of the structure we live in. The police are a force to protect the powerful from the powerless. As that divide grows more pronounced in our current time, it’s no surprise that these same forces look backward to their origin, losing the brief veneer of human rights rhetoric, returning to their roots as paramilitary teams, with the goal of terrorizing dissidents by making examples out of those who resist.

Occupy Oakland and other groups will hold a rally, march and panel discussion on violent repression of Palestinian activism, starting at 4:00 at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza, Tuesday March 13.