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Tomgram: Chase Madar, The Criminalization of Everyday Life

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Sometimes a single story has a way of standing in for everything you need to know.  In the case of the up-arming, up-armoring, and militarization of police forces across the country, there is such a story.  Not the police, mind you, but the campus cops at Ohio State University now possess an MRAP; that is, a $500,000, 18-ton, mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle of a sort used in the Afghan War and, as Hunter Stuart of the Huffington Post reported, built to withstand "ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IEDs, and nuclear, biological, and chemical environments."  Sounds like just the thing for bouts of binge drinking and post-football-game shenanigans.

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That MRAP came, like so much other equipment police departments are stocking up on -- from tactical military vests, assault rifles, and grenade launchers to actual tanks and helicopters -- as a freebie via a Pentagon-organized surplus military equipment program.  As it happens, police departments across the country are getting MRAPs like OSU's, including the Dakota County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota.  It's received one of 18 such decommissioned military vehicles already being distributed around that state.  So has Warren County which, like a number of counties in New York state, some quite rural, is now deploying Afghan War-grade vehicles.  (Nationwide, rural counties have received a disproportionate percentage of the billions of dollars worth of surplus military equipment that has gone to the police in these years.)

When questioned on the utility of its new MRAP, Warren County Sheriff Bud York suggested, according to the Post-Star, the local newspaper, that "in an era of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and mass killings in schools, police agencies need to be ready for whatever comes their way... The vehicle will also serve as a deterrent to drug dealers or others who might be contemplating a show of force."  So, breathe a sigh of relief, Warren County is ready for the next al-Qaeda-style show of force and, for those fretting about how to deal with such things, there are now 165 18-ton "deterrents" in the hands of local law enforcement around the country, with hundreds of requests still pending.

You can imagine just how useful an MRAP is likely to be if the next Adam Lanza busts into a school in Warren County, assault rifle in hand, or takes over a building at Ohio State University.  But keep in mind that we all love bargains and that Warren County vehicle cost the department less than $10.  (Yes, you read that right!)  A cornucopia of such Pentagon "bargains" has, in the post-9/11 years, played its part in transforming the way the police imagine their jobs and in militarizing the very idea of policing in this country.

Just thinking about that MRAP at OSU makes me feel like I grew up in Neolithic America.  After all, when I went to college in the early 1960s, campus cops were mooks in suits.  Gun-less, they were there to enforce such crucial matters as "parietal hours."  (If you're too young to know what they were, look it up.)  At their worst, they faced what in those still civilianized (and sexist) days were called "panty raids," but today would undoubtedly be seen as potential manifestations of a terrorist mentality.  Now, if there is a sit-in or sit-down on campus, as infamously at the University of California, Davis, during the Occupy movement, expect that the demonstrators will be treated like enemies of the state and pepper-sprayed or perhaps Tased.  And if there's a bona fide student riot in town, the cops will now roll out an armored vehicle (as they did recently in Seattle). 

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By the way, don't think it's just the weaponry that's militarizing the police.  It's a mentality as well that, like those weapons, is migrating home from our distant wars.  It's a sense that the U.S., too, is a "battlefield" and that, for instance, those highly militarized SWAT teams spreading to just about any community you want to mention are made up of "operators" (a "term of art" from the special operations  community) ready to deal with threats to American life.

Embedding itself chillingly in our civilian world, that battlefield is proving mobile indeed.  As Chase Madar wrote for TomDispatch the last time around, it leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court.  Today, Madar returns to explain just how this particular nightmare is spreading into every crevice of American life. Tom

The Over-Policing of America
Police Overkill Has Entered the DNA of Social Policy
By Chase Madar

If all you've got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves "solving" social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

By now, the militarization of the police has advanced to the point where "the War on Crime" and "the War on Drugs" are no longer metaphors but bland understatements.  There is the proliferation of heavily armed SWAT teams, even in small towns; the use of shock-and-awe tactics to bust small-time bookies; the no-knock raids to recover trace amounts of drugs that often result in the killing of family dogs, if not family members; and in communities where drug treatment programs once were key, the waging of a drug version of counterinsurgency war.  (All of this is ably reported on journalist Radley Balko's blog and in his book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop.) But American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct.  It's also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

It starts in our schools, where discipline is increasingly outsourced to police personnel. What not long ago would have been seen as normal childhood misbehavior -- doodling on a desk, farting in class, a kindergartener's tantrum -- can leave a kid in handcuffs, removed from school, or even booked at the local precinct.  Such "criminals" can be as young as seven-year-old Wilson Reyes, a New Yorker who was handcuffed and interrogated under suspicion of stealing five dollars from a classmate. (Turned out he didn't do it.)

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Though it's a national phenomenon, Mississippi currently leads the way in turning school behavior into a police issue.  The Hospitality State has imposed felony charges on schoolchildren for "crimes" like throwing peanuts on a bus.  Wearing the wrong color belt to school got one child handcuffed to a railing for several hours.  All of this goes under the rubric of "zero-tolerance" discipline, which turns out to be just another form of violence legally imported into schools.

Despite a long-term drop in youth crime, the carceral style of education remains in style.  Metal detectors -- a horrible way for any child to start the day -- are installed in ever more schools, even those with sterling disciplinary records, despite the demonstrable fact that such scanners provide no guarantee against shootings and stabbings.

Every school shooting, whether in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or Littleton, Colorado, only leads to more police in schools and more arms as well.  It's the one thing the National Rifle Association and Democratic senators can agree on. There are plenty of successful ways to run an orderly school without criminalizing the classroom, but politicians and much of the media don't seem to want to know about them. The "school-to-prison pipeline," a jargon term coined by activists, is entering the vernacular.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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