Most people expect their government to provide them with a safe society, where one doesn’t have to live in fear of dangers, enemies and refugees.
Are we able to see the consequences of the authorities’ gradual introduction of stricter controls – similar to those found in countries where law enforcement agencies are increasingly militarised, and where cities are imposing zero tolerance policies for minor offenses?
Do we understand what is really taking place when our government argues in favour of arming the police? For example in Norway, where its parliament’s previous decision was against permanently arming the police, government’s champions won a victory in June this year when a motion allowing the police to carry firearms in «vulnerable areas» was passed. The Norwegian government is aware that crime rates are reduced when zero tolerance policies are introduced. But.
«What if the US – with its conservative ‘Wild West’ attitudes and the world’s most overcrowded prisons – exports this mentality to a small country like Norway?»
Such changes are indicative of a particular atmosphere in the society. What Stimmung or mood (a concept from Martin Heidegger’s philosophy) represents the mentality of our time? Which dogmas and norms are gaining currency, so that they become ideologically and morally anchored in our system of values? Responding to demands for greater security, governments resort to technology and police methods that are employed in other parts of the world – ones we do not like to compare ourselves with. This «governmentality» thus gains acceptance among the majority of the population and as a result becomes acceptable.
Let me give one telling example of this tendency: American law enforcement officers go to Israel to receive training and Israeli military experts train American police officers on US soil. They have plenty of experience in handling Palestinian demonstrations and managing internal control and border security in the occupied territories. The increased presence of police forces makes civilian demonstrations in the US resemble war zones, replete with armoured vehicles, helmets, shields and weapons. As in Israel, the line between the police force and the military force is blurred.
The militarisation of the police
Examples of such militarisation and of the attendant increase in police brutality abound in the book The End of Policing (Verso, 2017).
And just recently, the city of Durham, North Carolina was the first city in the US to go against the trend. According to Al-Jazeera, the city council opposed «international exchanges with any country in which Durham’s police officers receive military-style training.» The city of 250,000 inhabitants is aware of how black-majority neighbourhoods have been brutalised at the hands of the police. The council’s motion prevented their new police chief, Cerelyn Davis – who championed exchanges with Israel while heading Atlanta’s police department – from «militarising» the police in the city, home of the prestigious Duke University.
«You shoot first and ask later.»
Durham’s act of dissent was inspired by movements like Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. The latter recently published a declaration stating: «As Jewish people, we reject Israel’s detention and prosecution of Palestinian children like Ahed Tamimi.» (See Modern Times in April, she has now served her term in prison.) At the other end of the spectrum is The Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israeli American-Jewish organisation that sponsors the training of federal and local police personnel and government officials by Israeli police, intelligence and military experts – 15,000 professionals from dozens of American cities have travelled across the Atlantic during the past years alone.
Alex Vitale, the man behind the aforementioned The End of Policing, also told Al-Jazeera recently that the militarisation of American police isn’t something new but stretches back to the 1970s «War on Drugs» and the on-going «War on Terror». He adds: «Israel has created a dynamic to normalise counterinsurgency tactics with the US law enforcement community.»
As we know, Israeli instructors have experience in protecting settlements and maintaining a degrading system of border control. They may well also have a thing or two to offer when it comes to the racist treatment of impoverished African-Americans.
But what if the US – with its conservative «Wild West» attitudes and the world’s most overcrowded prisons – exports this mentality to a small country like Norway? The militarisation of Norway is being steadily increased by the presence of US troops, which keep extending their stay in our military bases. Moreover, as a NATO member state, Norway is obliged to keep no less than 24 recently purchased F35 aircraft in a state of high readiness. This is twice the number the parliament recently decided on and three or four times greater than what Norway contributed to the campaign against Libya – with all the consequences that invasion had.
A parallel to this trend is the way the police exploit new opportunities for societal control. The police in some American cities pounce on even minor offenses or misdemeanours. Behind the policy of zero tolerance lies a theory first set out in the 1982 book Broken Windows (Kelling/Wilson): A broken window in a neighbourhood contributes to a general state of decline, leading to yet more misdemeanours and encouraging petty crime. The point being that such environments create a pathway to more serious crime. The police therefore write out lots of fines, stop and search people and patrol the streets in a mood of intense suspicion in public displays of watchfulness. They take people off the streets, carry out mass arrests of demonstrators, and generate business for debt collectors and corrections facilities. All the graffiti must go. No one is to urinate in the bushes, sell illicit cigarettes or litter. I can personally remember Washington Square in the early ‘90s while a student in New York – the result there was gentrification, a rise in property prices and less diversity.
«Those protesting the excessive culture of control, whether they display anger, visible pain, or euphoria, are treated as potential «perpetrators.»»
Let me quote the America political analyst Robert G.B. Kelley in The End of Policing: «Our militarised culture puts police officers and soldiers on pedestals and describes their actions in terms of ‘security’ or self-defence … unarmed people shot by the police are referred to as attackers.» The new culture, or mentality, involves issuing massive fines for playing loud music, property violations, wearing sagging trousers, having an expired driver’s licence, failing to mow the lawn, disturbing public order or simply arresting people for walking down the middle of the street. Those protesting the excessive culture of control, whether they display anger, visible pain or euphoria, are treated as potential «perpetrators.» According to Kelley, this represents a form of racist taxation, where the state «takes out a surplus without having produced anything but discipline and terror and the reproduction of itself.»
In Los Angeles, 90 000 Rather than spending the resources on social welfare measures, the budgets are dominated by the needs of the security apparatus. The dominating mentality is to automatically treat citizens who are born with a different skin colour as suspect. The mentality is similar to the one underpinning the use of drones, where you «take out» suspects that may become the «terrorists» of the future. You shoot first and ask later.
Arming the police also leads to meaningless killings. The End of Policing tells the story of a deaf man who took out a packet of cigarettes without having seen or heard the policeman calling out to him, only to get shot in the back and killed. A trigger-happy police force has generated reactions and American counter-movements: Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Organization for Black Struggle, Don’t Shoot Coalition, Millennial Activist United, Dream Defenders, We Charge Genocide, Community Rights Campaign – most of them marching behind the banner of #blacklivesmatter.
And what of the official demonisation of Muslims? New York’s well-known Muslim Surveillance Program was initiated in 2002, but ten years later the head of the programme, Thomas P. Galati, admitted that it actually didn’t yield any results. According to The End of Policing, every tenth person in New York today is an American Muslim. The demand for security prompted authorities to keep watch over how many times people performed their daily prayers, what restaurants they frequented, what kind of pizza they ate and what they chatted about after praying.
What do the figures tell us? Of the roughly half a million stop and searches carried out by the New York Police Department a few years ago, the police only found firearms in around 0.2 per cent of the cases!
And (since this editorial is written in Norway) could our growing bourgeois welfare state possibly follow a similar pattern in the future? Today most of us welcome more security, Oslo’s «anti-terror flowerpots,» and tougher border controls.
Let me therefore conclude with a point the philosopher Antonio Gramsci once made clear – that «common sense» is not the same as «good sense.» To Gramsci, common sense is largely the product of something superficial and generalised, whereas serious thinking requires critical, sharp thoughts. Common sense promotes a relatively baseless popular legitimacy, «a conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed,» where adherence to whichever ideology is dominant at the time becomes cemented.
This may perhaps be something worth keeping in mind as the government opens its doors to this autumn’s major NATO exercise?