Opinion
Bernat Armangue / AP

Ferguson is not Gaza … yet

U.S. law enforcement maintains extensive relations with Israel, but militarized policing is largely homegrown

August 18, 2014 12:00PM ET

The police violence in Ferguson and the attendant images have inspired comparisons with Israel’s assault on Gaza. The parallels between Israeli and U.S. militarized policies are not far-fetched. A cursory investigation shows that Israel maintains an extensive network of relations with U.S. law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels.

It is no coincidence that the chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, which was responsible for some of the heavy-handed tactics employed against protesters in Ferguson, received training in Israel in recent years. These connections are so important that the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee touts their success and the Jewish Virtual Library lists police training as a separate category of U.S.-Israel relations. The CRI, a private counterterrorism-training outfit run by a former Israeli special forces member, promises training in “combat experience in dealing with terrorism, crime and guerrilla warfare.” Over the years, thousands of U.S. personnel at all levels of law enforcement and hundreds of senior managers, from local police chiefs to FBI detectives, have taken counterterrorism training in Israel or attended conferences sponsored by the Israeli government, security-minded conservative think tanks and even the Anti-Defamation League with little to no scrutiny for their role in the militarization of our police forces.

In 2001, shortly after 9/11, I wrote a column asking, “We’re all Israelis now?” That question resonated with U.S. law enforcement agencies, which see Israel as the vanguard of the fight against Muslim terrorism. But as with the argument that Israel’s lobby determines U.S. foreign policy priorities, Israel usually follows the parameters set by U.S. political and strategic elites, not the other way around. For example, the U.S. did not need Israel to reallocate tens of billions of dollars toward domestic defense. Similarly, the half a billion dollars in military weapons given to local police forces through the Department of Defense’s 1033 grants program — a surplus the army was happy to be rid of — was not a result of Israel’s lobbying. It was a natural extension of local law enforcement’s decades-long relationship with the military.

Rather than comparing Ferguson to Israel’s heavy-handed conduct in Gaza and the West Bank, Americans should instead examine their own country’s history of militarized policing. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. military-industrial complex has done pretty well on its own to capitalize on the so-called war on terrorism. As the American Civil Liberties Union described in a 2012 report and again this June, these synergies are part of the dangerous precedents that brought “the war [on terrorism] home.”

Militarized policing

In fact, the roots of the police violence seen in Ferguson go well beyond the Israel-Palestinian conflict. They lie in Vietnam, inner-cities and the farmlands of California's Central Valley. The militarization of police and the concomitant view that treats minority communities as enemies needing to be pacified rather than citizens to be served professionally began in the 1960s with the confluence of four factors.

First, the assertiveness of the civil rights movement, particularly the shift toward black militancy after urban riots in several black neighborhoods such as Watts, led major urban police departments to search for more powerful tools to control and pacify potentially insurgent populations. Second, the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency tactics employed in Vietnam were brought to bear on the “urban jungles” and the growing anti-war movement, which was considered a major threat to the ongoing prosecution of the war. Third, the government felt the need to police the growing movement for labor rights, as epitomized by the response to the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) strikes in Delano, California, in 1965.

In fact, a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team was used for the very first time against the Cesar Chavez–led UFW strike of 1965. The deployment inspired Darryl Gates, then an inspector at the Los Angeles Police Department, to push for making SWAT a major part of his unit. It laid a solid foundation for the rise of militarized policing in the United States.

Fourth, the war on drugs, which was launched in 1971 by president Richard Nixon and focused on communities that were already targeted by SWAT teams; the law and order ethos of the Reagan era, which led to the (increasingly privatized) prison industrial complex; and the militarization of the U.S. southern border with the rise of anti-immigrant hysteria exacerbated militarized policing, with truly damaging results for American society. The concept gained even more momentum after 9/11. In 1985 only one quarter of cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants had SWAT teams. By 2005 this number had grown to more than 80 percent, conducting more than 50,000 annual raids, in part because the federal government requires the military equipment given to municipal police departments be used within one year or returned.  

It is unlikely that the images from Ferguson will trigger the process of demilitarization of US law enforcement. But for once, it seems that Americans are coming to grips with their reality far more squarely than Israelis.

As I argued in 2001, lessons abound, Americans continue to “refuse to engage in the honest introspection of what our role has been in generating the kind of hatred that turns commuter jets into cruise missiles.” This unwillingness to examine our own perpetrations of violence and learn from that history is perhaps the greatest tragedy confronting America’s social progress. Still, the events of the last few days in Ferguson give a cause for hope.

For one, Ferguson is not Gaza or even the West Bank. As events spun out of control, an African American president and attorney general spoke out against the images of militarized police. And a black state police captain from the community assumed control of the police effort and marched along with the town’s residents. In a matter of one day, the scene in Ferguson changed from a state of civil war toward the beginning of healing and understanding.

That calm, as it turns out, was temporary, with the weekend bringing more unrest. But for all the parallels the latest event inspired, the gulf separating the U.S. and Israel becomes all too apparent if we try to imagine Israeli authorities calming a similar confrontation in Ramla or Lydda with a local Palestinian police chief marching with residents to defuse ethnic tensions.

However fitfully, America recognizes its race problems. Israelis are still living in the American 1950s, while Gazans remain trapped in a ghetto in which no Ferguson resident would want to live. It is unlikely that Brown’s death and the images of the last few days from Ferguson will trigger the process of demilitarization of U.S. law enforcement. But for once, it seems that Americans are coming to grips with their reality far more squarely than Israelis.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated without evidence that Ferguson police officers had received training in Israel.  The text has been amended. We regret the error.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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