Despite political and police rhetoric, maintaining ban is best way to ensure that protesters are protected
On Aug. 1, the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 groups, released a sweeping and comprehensive platform that many news organizations and policy networks are still digesting. This Vision For Black Lives arrived almost two years to the day that a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., sparked a newly framed national conversation about race and police-community relations in America.
One of the earliest policy impacts of that movement was a May 2015 federal ban on transferring certain militarized equipment to local police departments. The ban largely began in response to startling images of police officers with weapons raised confronting unarmed protesters. Those images shocked not only the general public but military experts as well.
But after the horrible killing of five police officers in Dallas, several law enforcement officials urged the White House to lift the ban on militarized equipment for local police departments. And as election season comes into full swing, the posturing from those claiming to stand for “law and order” poses real threats to one of the hallmarks of American society: The right to peacefully protest.
The ban on military equipment was a direct response to the national debate on greater police accountability, criminal justice reform and an honest and effective approach to end systemic racial injustice. But it also influences every activist in this country who believes in the right of protest without the threat of violence.
It’s impossible for any groups to win fights against Arctic drilling, the Keystone XL Pipeline and new fossil fuel leasing and fights for action to combat global climate change without the opportunity to protest. But convincing members and activists to protest under threat or intimidation becomes more difficult when police are ill-trained and militarized. Federally arming police with weapons of war silences protesters across all justice movements.
Peaceful protest and civil disobedience have played a critical role in changing minds and policies in this country — from shutting down bridges and freeways in the fight for civil rights to shutting down coal plants in the fight for our planet’s future, from suffragettes marching in the streets for the right to vote to activists raising the alarm about AIDS awareness. These tactics of disruption have frequently been the only avenue available to stop legal, yet devastating, practices.
We have seen abuses of power exerted by militarized police forces across the globe — an over-reaching police apparatus can intimidate and stifle demonstrators through consistent, peremptory and heavy-handed exhibitions of lethal force. Some news media outlets regularly misrepresent peaceful protest as violent and threatening. But people demanding justice, demanding accountability or demanding basic human rights without resorting to violence, should not be greeted with machine guns and tanks. Peaceful protest is democracy in action. It is a forum for those who feel disempowered or disenfranchised.
Protesters should not have to face intimidation by weapons of war. At a time when trust between communities and law enforcement is at such a low, arming local police forces with militarized equipment is a terrible proposition. These tactics only serve to escalate tension and raise the imminent threat of violence. The systematic militarization of the police can only be seen as an effort to stifle voices and dissuade dissent.
Instead of training officers to use weapons of war against citizens, we should be prioritizing community-based conflict resolution that restores the health and safety of communities of color.
As we grapple with the fundamental problems in our criminal justice system, we need to build a safer environment for freedom of assembly and expression. Let’s keep grenade launchers and armored vehicles off our streets.
Lindsey Allen is executive director of Rainforest Action Network. Annie Leonard is executive director of Greenpeace USA. And Erich Pica is president of Friends of the Earth U.S.