Shades of apartheid South Africa.
That was my immediate reaction when I saw the images from Ferguson, Missouri. Not for the racial divide between the (mostly white) police and (mostly black) protestors demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a cop. Rather, it was the military accoutrement: the armored personnel carrier, helmeted police officers in camouflage and vests, sharpshooters taking aim with assault rifles, tear gas and rubber bullets — all shockingly reminiscent of what I witnessed as a journalist 20 years ago covering the fall of apartheid.
By its very nature, apartheid required the virtual militarization of parts of the country. How else could the white minority government impose racial segregation on the majority black population? South Africans of color, who comprised more than 80% of the nation’s inhabitants, were denied even the most basic rights. Skin color was destiny: it determined where you were born, where you grew up, where you were educated, where you could work, whom you could marry, where you could live, where you would die. And it was brutally enforced.
As a result, there was no such thing as community policing in the townships, the destitute, grossly overcrowded and underdeveloped areas where people of color were forced to live. I spent much of my time reporting in Soweto, Johannesburg’s sprawling black township. To enter the place, you first had to navigate a roadblock manned by policemen decked out in full combat gear. These were not your cheerful cops, walking the beat: the white government believed it was engaged in a full-on war to keep the black population, led by godless Communists (as it characterized Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress) from taking over the country. The police patrolled the township in Casspirs, snub-nosed armored personnel carriers that rode high above the ground to limit damage from mine explosions. They brandished semi-automatic rifles, smoke bombs and tear-gas dispensers. They shot to kill at the slightest provocation.
Is that what we want in our country? It was ostensibly a war — the war on terror — that has turned our police forces into small armies. After the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept.11, 2001, federal funds flowed to these law enforcement departments, which were seen to be on the front lines of a worldwide fight against terrorism. Grants from the Department of Homeland Security paid for bullet-proof vehicles, body armor, night-vision equipment. Justice Department money bought rubber bullets and tear gas. The boys in the Pentagon sent machine guns, armored trucks, aircraft and other surplus war equipment.
If the uniform makes the man (or the woman), then what message is transmitted to police officers when they don all this military gear? That their fellow citizens, whose safety and rights they’re sworn to uphold, are the enemy? We, in this country, are guaranteed the right to peaceful protest. Those guys in the GI Joe getups are supposed to be on our side.
Much of this militarization went unnoticed — and unchallenged — until the confrontation in Ferguson. It’s encouraging that politicians of all stripes have decried the deployment of such equipment and vehicles. President Obama, in his press conference on Monday, said that it’s “probably useful” to make sure that what the various police departments are purchasing “is stuff that they actually need…. There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Because here’s what happens when that occurs: On March 21, 1960, several thousand black demonstrators gathered outside a police station in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were protesting against having to carry racially designated passes that determined where they could work and live. The 300 or so policemen who confronted them were arrayed atop armored vehicles and armed with submachine guns and rifles. The protest was mostly peaceful; after several hours, a few of the demonstrators threw stones at the police — who began firing their weapons. 69 protestors died in the two-minute barrage of bullets, many of them shot in the back as they tried to flee.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But we should take it as an object lesson.