Progressive reformers and anti-imperialists from a century ago warned us about what happens when a nation uses its military to establish an empire. Today, with the militarization of the police force around the country we are watching their warnings playing out right before our eyes.
Some effects are more predictable than others. If you do that, this will happen. That is also true for nations and societies. Take the militarization of the American police force.
Over a hundred years ago, high-minded progressives were warning that the nation which relies on military for its empire-building would suffer some drastic unintended consequences. It would, without any doubt, lead to the kind of police force that was counter to anybody's concept of liberty. Those chickens, as they say, would inevitably come home to roost.
In 1900, for instance, William Jennings Bryan espoused that view. In a speech on American imperialism, he said that when a nation freely violates the human rights of other nations it would be no time at all when it turns its lawlessness on its own people.
If there is poison in the blood of the hand it will ultimately reach the heart.
Scouring the archives, I found this stunning quote by the long-forgotten American reformer and author, Ernest Howard Crosby. Though his career as a reformer was short- only the last ten years of his life- he earned a fine reputation for his anti-militarist and anti-imperialist writings.
(You can find Crosby's complete biography here.)
Oh, if he had been a puller of strings in the murky business of politics, an unscrupulous bare-faced parvenu, a successful thief of the toil and sweat of the poor, the columns of the major newspapers of the lying money press would have been unanimous in their sing splendid paeans to his virtues..They said nothing: no one seemed to have noticed that a great intellect and noble heart had been still forever.
Militarism is not a thing which can be raised for foreign consumption only. We cannot give to our government the power to enslave other peoples without showing it how to enslave us as well. We may insist on firing our blunderbuss at weaker nations, but we are bound to feel the "kick" ourselves. It is well that this should be so.For the people of America to stamp out the only republic of the East — for the people of Great Britain to annihilate the only republics of Africa — and at the same time to maintain their own freedom, would be to run counter to the simplest rules of justice, and it may well turn out that the Anglo-Saxon race in its mad attempt to enslave others, has really been fastening the shackles upon itself.
Here we are a little over a hundred years ago, suddenly aware of the shackles and the chains of repression in the heartland. We sit around, trying to figure out how they came to be latched.
And it's not just in Ferguson Missouri where the police become an occupying force with body armor, tear gas and more sophisticated ground control technology and armored tanks. Through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security- which was supposed to protect- police departments across the nation are dressed out like like alien invaders.
Colin Jenkins, a writer for the Hampton Institute, makes the same connections that Crosby did in 1904.
In his essay entitled "Coming Home to Roost: American Militarism, War Culture, and Police Brutality" Jerkins writes:
Police training mimics military training, both physically and mentally. Transition programs that funnel soldiers to police forces have become common at all levels of government. The changing face of law enforcement is indicative of this process as forces that are traditionally advertised to "protect and serve" have become noticeably militaristic. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that soldiers, many of whom carry the mental baggage of war, are being streamlined from the streets of Fallujah to the city blocks of the US.
It was a fatally easy step to make. The oppression of innocent civilians in Iraq slid into the oppression of innocent civilians in Anywhere, USA.
(Some critics of the Bush war on terror would say that this intolerable reactionary oppression of American society has been the goal of the terrorists all along. Others would blame the corporate-driven, superpower imperialism, personified by people like political mastermind Dick Cheney.)
The equipment and machinery regularly utilized by local police forces across the US now mimics that of a war zone. They possess everything from body armor to high-powered weaponry to tanks, armored vehicles, and even drones. But why? Are the duties of police officers really as dangerous as they're made out to be?
Jenkins points out that the number of police killed in the line of duty is a tiny fraction of the total number of police officers. The odds of being struck by lightning over the course of a lifetime is many times greater - 1 in 3,000 than a police being killed (1 out of every 18,000).
Yet police are armed to the teeth - a fact that suggests conscious shifts from "defense" to "offense" and "protecting and serving" to "confronting and repressing." Citizens - most notably poor, working class, and people of color - who are intended to be the beneficiaries of this "protective service" are now viewed and treated as enemy combatants on a battlefield.
That sad fact wouldn't have surprised the earnest anti-militarist, Ernest Crosby. Our great grandfathers were a lot wiser than we gave them credit for.