The shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, a district of St Louis County in Missouri, and the spate of civil unrest that followed, could set a precedent for the future of American society, according to a senior Iraq war veteran and Pentagon defense analyst.
Terron Sims, an African-American active in local Democratic politics who had served five years in the U.S. Army, told me that without a fundamental cultural and institutional change in policing nationwide, the country could see more Ferguson-type events in the near future.
I asked him whether the Ferguson crisis offered a taste of things to come. “This is a taste of the present. We’re already here. This is America today,” said Sims, who is president of the North Virginia Black Democrats, and on the board of principals at the Truman National Security Project. “If we don’t deal with the root cause in terms of widespread racial discrimination against black people, this will be our tomorrow.”
The Ferguson crisis has sparked a national debate on the culture of policing toward black communities, as well as the increasing militarization of the police due to a federal Pentagon program providing military-grade equipment to local police forces at little or no cost.
Lt Col Jon Belmar, the top police officer in St Louis County, has justified the extensive deployment of military-grade equipment to respond to the Ferguson unrest. “Had we not had the ability to protect officers with those vehicles, I am afraid that we would have to engage people with our own gun fire,” Belmar told USA Today.
“I really think having the armor gave us the ability not to have pulled one trigger… I think the military uses armor to be able to provide an offensive force, and police departments use trucks like that so they don’t have to.”
The recent provision of three grenade launchers, 61 rifles and a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle to the Los Angeles school police department prompted civil rights and education groups to write to the U.S. Defense Department demanding an end to the federal supply program to the LA school system.
One unidentified police official reportedly said the weapons were needed “for the safety of staff, students and personnel,” and the grenade launchers and armored vehicle would only be used in “very specific circumstances,” but did not elaborate.
In contrast, Sims - a West Point Military Academy graduate and company commander during the 2003 Iraq war - said: “Police conduct in Ferguson is a travesty and wake-up call. There are simply no circumstances in the United States where the use of military-grade equipment could ever be justified to police civilian communities.”
During his Iraq service, Sims was principal civil military officer responsible for liaising with civilians and civilian authorities in Baghdad. He went on to become deputy chief of the U.S. Army’s Joint Training Readiness Center at Fort Polk, finally serving as a senior Pentagon analyst before retiring into civilian life.
“Our squadron had an exemplary record,” Sims said. “We had to deal with far worse than what the cops on the streets of Ferguson were facing. I’m talking about U.S. troops faced with swarms of angry civilians who look at you as invaders. Riots? Protests? You name it. But we had to be disciplined.
“My squadron didn’t use force against a single civilian. In fact, part of my job was making sure that our squad worked with and alongside the civilians in Tisa Nissan district, in Baghdad, to ease the transition from a military-run institution to civilian-led government. I can’t speak for the whole U.S. Army in Iraq, but if our squadron could do it, I don’t understand why American cops can’t.”
The problem, he said, is that racism continues to be a major problem in American police forces: “This is about an entrenched culture of policing that doesn’t work with and alongside communities. Instead, we have police officers roaming around seeing the local community as outsiders, or even worse, as a homogenous enemy. The cops that are capable of shooting peaceful, black Americans don’t have relationships with the black community. They don’t have any outreach.”
I asked him how the police should have handled the situation in Ferguson. “The first thing I would’ve done if I was the police chief was reach out to black community leaders,” he said.
“Get their take on things and work with them to restore justifiable confidence in the police’s ability to actually behave lawfully and accountably. But obviously in this case, the police clearly don’t have the first idea who the community leaders are. If I was the police chief, I’d be asking myself hard questions about how I’d allowed it get to this point in the first place.”
Sims is hardly an ‘anti-establishment’ activist. A believer in the political process, he is outreach director for the Arlington County Democratic Committee, and chairman of the Veterans and Military Families Caucus for the Democratic Party of Virginia. In that context, his verdict on what Ferguson means for the state of America today is damning.
“The shooting of Michael Brown did not come out of the blue,” he said. “It came about through a deepening culture of unaccountable racism, and it’s not just about police racism. Obviously in Ferguson we’re looking at years of police repression targeted largely at black people, but it goes deeper than that.”
Police repression, Sims said, must be understood as part of a wider racial crisis in American society. “You look at a place like Ferguson and you see rampant unemployment, poverty and illiteracy in the black community. These trends have persisted and worsened for years, and there’s no money to improve things,” he said.
“Local government isn’t investing in education. It’s not investing in jobs, in infrastructure. But Ferguson is not an isolated case. Shootings of innocent black people in the United States by cops is at epidemic levels. That follows on the back of massive inequalities between white and black people across America.”
In 1970, 33.6% of blacks and 10% of whites were impoverished. In 2012, 35% of blacks lived in poverty, compared to 13% of whites. While 5% of white Americans are unemployed, more than double – 11% – are black. Nearly three quarters of whites own their own home, compared to just 43% of blacks. In the last 25 years, the wealth gap between whites and blacks has nearly tripled. Median household wealth for whites is about $91,400, but a measly $6,400 for blacks.
Economic inequalities are compounded by the acceleration in police repression of black and ethnic minority communities over the last two years. Official police records demonstrate that, notwithstanding deficiencies in the way information is catalogued, the victims of police shootings are overwhelmingly male, heavily young and disproportionately black.
A startling independent report into “extrajudicial killings” of black Americans by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) raises deeper questions. The report, released in May 2013 – months before the outbreak of violence in Ferguson – found that an African-American male is killed every 28 hours by police or vigilantes, with little or no accountability. In 2012, 313 blacks were unlawfully killed in this way.
The report contextualizes this systematic violence against black communities by police as part of a wider system of racist repression, in which local police departments are entwined with a network of domestic security structures encompassing “the FBI, Homeland Security, CIA, Secret Service, prisons, and private security companies, along with mass surveillance and mass incarceration.”
Together, this domestic national security apparatus “wages a grand strategy of ‘domestic pacification’,” through endless “containment campaigns” against groups designated as problematic or dangerous to the system.
The MXGM analysis coheres disturbingly well with mounting evidence of Pentagon contingency planning for “domestic insurgencies” triggered by social, economic or food shocks, or natural disasters.
U.S. federal government planning documents suggest that the Pentagon’s role in militarizing local police forces is linked to growing concerns about domestic civil unrest due to the state coming under increasing strain from elevated climate, energy and economic risks.
My in-depth investigation last month into the Pentagon’s controversial Minerva research initiative has exposed how the U.S. Defense Department is funding universities to develop complex new data-mining tools capable of automatically ranking the threat level from groups and individuals defined as politically “radical.”
Such tools - which according to National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake could feed directly into the algorithms used to fine-tune the CIA’s drone kill lists abroad - are increasingly being used to assess threats from activist and civil society groups in the United States.
In a society where racial tensions are intensifying, this dynamic inevitably affects marginalized black and ethnic minority communities disproportionately. Police forces end up being brought into black communities “with the marching orders, equipment and the mentality of an occupying army that inevitably results in systematic extrajudicial killings of citizens without respect for their human rights,” the MXGM report found.
“The adoption of military tactics, equipment, training and weapons leads to law enforcement adopting a war-like mentality,” said journalist Adam Hudson on the MXGM report’s conclusions. “They come to view themselves as soldiers fighting against a foreign enemy rather than police protecting a community.”
Given the extent of America’s racial divide, does this suggest that the civil rights movement has failed? I put the question to Sims. “It’s not that the movement has failed – it’s that it’s not over,” he replied.
“In Ferguson, the conditions have been brewing for a while. Black people are being shot all across America, but the reason it hasn’t kicked off everywhere is because the demographics aren’t the same. Ferguson has a fairly sizeable and concentrated black population, unlike with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in a district in Florida, where the black community is more dispersed and certainly more affluent than in St Louis.”
Ferguson represents a microcosm of these problems, with wealth inequalities markedly worse than the national average. For example, census figures for 2012 in St Louis County show that nearly half of all African-American men were unemployed, compared to just 16% for white men.
“At those levels of poverty and inequality, with no jobs available and nothing to do all day, that’s a serious level of despair and hopelessness,” said Sims. “You prod and poke a situation like that, and it’s going to start simmering. You shoot a kid in the street in a situation like that for no good reason, then it’s going to explode.”
For Sims, the only solution is for black communities to mobilize socially and politically: “Part of the reason there’s no money going into these communities is because there are no black political representatives on the scene advocating for those communities. That needs to change. We need to compel change by engaging with these institutions.”
If nothing is done to address these deeper issues of racial discrimination and inequality, does Ferguson represent the future of the United States? “Of course it could,” said Sims.
“I’m not saying Fergusons could happen everywhere, but for sure if things continue as they are, there’ll come a point where the combination of unaccountable, rampant and racist police repression will inflame community tensions in circumstances of growing levels of deprivation and hopelessness. That’s where race riots could become far more of a norm than we might expect, so unless something changes, Ferguson is our future.”
Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. He has contributed to two major terrorism investigations in the United States and the UK - the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest, respectively - and has advised the Royal Military Academy Sandhust, British Foreign Office and U.S. State Department, among government agencies.
Ahmed is a regular contributor to The Guardian, where he writes about the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises via his Earth Insight global column. He has also written for The Independent, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, Prospect, the New Statesman and Le Monde Diplomatique, among many others.