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The real reason Ferguson has military weapons

By Kara Dansky
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests. Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests.
HIDE CAPTION
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kara Dansky: The militarization of policing has become commonplace across America
  • Dansky: That police departments receive surplus military weapons is not whole story
  • She says the federal government has been trying to fight the failed War on Drugs
  • Dansky: This deliberate strategy negatively impact communities of color the most

Editor's note: Kara Dansky is the senior counsel for the ACLU's Center for Justice and author of "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades. The weaponry has changed, but the target is still the same.

If some of the photos from Ferguson last week were in black and white, you might confuse them with scenes from the 1950s south. White police officers beating black protestors. Young black men lying face down in the street with police officers standing over them with assault rifles.

We have a long history of aggressively policing communities of color in America. Police have treated black and brown people like the enemy for decades. In that context, the recent events in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting come as no surprise. But they go way beyond Ferguson.

Complete coverage of Ferguson shooting and protests

Kara Dansky
Kara Dansky

What we're witnessing is the militarization of policing, and it has become commonplace in towns across America.

Every year, the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice funnel billions' worth of dollars and military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies to help them amass arsenals of combat-ready weaponry, according to our report "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing." Two of the armored vehicles patrolling St. Louis right now were purchased with these federal funds. An estimated 600 police departments have received Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which are tanks built to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs. In the years since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, this sort of federal funding has only become more available for state and local police departments.

Ferguson police tactics under scrutiny

We're told that part of the impetus for the federal agencies is to get rid of surplus military equipment. But that's certainly not the whole reason.

Pentagon to examine weapons program
Stunning images of unrest in Ferguson
Who started violence in Ferguson?
Source: Interview matches cop's account
Who started violence in Ferguson?

At least one third of the wartime weapons flowing to state and local police departments are brand new. The better explanation is that the militarization of state and local police is a deliberate strategy funded by the federal government to aggressively fight the failed "war on drugs." As has always been true of the war on drugs, the battlegrounds are disproportionately in communities of color.

This deliberate strategy explains why almost 80% of the paramilitary raids we studied were to search homes (usually for drugs); why SWAT teams forced their way into people's homes using military equipment like battering rams 60% of the time; and why they were 14 times more likely to deploy flash-bang grenades, originally invented to ambush wartime enemies, in drug raids than during SWAT raids for other purposes.

And just has been true for decades, our police's most aggressive tactics are doing disproportionate damage to communities of color. Overall, 54% of people impacted by the paramilitary searches were people of color. Dumping weapons and equipment designed for overseas combat into local neighborhoods is only adding dangerous fuel to the fire of aggressive policing.

It might be tempting to think that the brutal tactics we've seen are the result of a few bad police officers. It might be comforting to think this is a fluke. And that might be partially true. But when the government arms cops like soldiers, trains them in counter-insurgency tactics, tells them they are fighting an enemy, we should expect this type of combustive, tragic result.

But that doesn't mean we should accept the status quo. We need to change it.

It's time for Congress to rein in its support for programs like the Department of Defense's 1033 program that allows the Pentagon to dole out weapons and stop the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security from handing out cash to police departments.

Cutting this funding is part of a larger recognition that aggressively fighting the war on drugs has failed to abate drug use and instead done incredible damage to communities. The federal government must recognize that the funding currently going toward this war can and should be spent on more effective interventions like drug and mental health treatment and housing.

Concurrently, state and local governments should constrain the ability of law enforcement to raid people's homes and police neighborhoods using wartime weapons and tactics. Part of the reason this hasn't happened yet is that many people were simply unaware of how militarized our police have become. The events in Ferguson should dispel any illusions people may have about that.

It's time for the federal government to stop financing a siege on communities of color.

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Part of complete coverage on
Follow our complete coverage of the protests and aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
updated 9:23 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
The sparks of outrage that started in Ferguson, Missouri, have ignited a firestorm of protests across the country.
updated 10:25 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Did Officer Wilson shoot Michael Brown dead as he staggered to the ground, hobbled by gunshot wounds? Or, did the 18-year-old aggressively charge at Wilson?
updated 11:15 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
The Jenkinses knew their restaurant was not so badly damaged. They'd seen video of protesters locking arms in front of the place to protect it from vandals.
updated 11:12 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson said that he's not tormented by that fateful encounter in suburban St. Louis last summer.
updated 8:06 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
President Barack Obama said he has "no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities."
updated 10:15 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Some people here just wanted the drama to end. Others say it can never end, not as long as a white cop can shoot an unarmed black teenager without consequences.
updated 8:40 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Michael Brown's stepfather consoled the dead teen's distraught mother and then turned to the crowd of demonstrators, saying, "Burn this mother f---er down."
News about the grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson spread quickly nationwide, spurring spontaneous rallies. See a collection of reactions from across the country.
updated 12:24 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Buildings burned. Shops looted. Cars destroyed.
If you are in Ferguson or have witnessed protests where you live, share your story with CNN. Personal essays and video commentary are also welcome.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Violent protests broke out after the grand jury announcement. Protesters looted stores as police tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Transcripts of testimony that jurors heard considering Michael Brown's death have been released to the public.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Photos of Officer Wilson taken after his altercation with Michael Brown have been released.
updated 3:34 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
During the months-long protests in Ferguson last summer, police said demonstrators could protest all they want -- as long as they stayed home after dark.
updated 7:34 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
His mother ran down the street, tears streaming down her face. His father said he was "devastated."
updated 7:13 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
All eyes and ears were on St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch when he announced there would be no indictment.
updated 8:50 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson will either continue to be a free man or will endure one of the most highly publicized criminal trials since Trayvon Martin's killer faced a jury.
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
As tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, have bubbled, one official after another has taken the lead, grappling to figure out how to stop it from coming to a boil.
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
See images of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
"He was funny, silly. He would make you laugh. He'd bring people back together," his father, Michael Brown Sr., told reporters.
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