Protesters in Ferguson, a small municipality outside of St. Louis, Missouri, were met in August with a police force reminiscent of recent demonstrations in Cairo or Kiev: law enforcement arriving to the scene in military-style armored vehicles and weapons-clad officers pointing their rifles at peaceful activists. As demonstrators decried the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, the cry against police brutality quickly morphed into a larger discussion about the militarization of America's local police departments.
That discussion was quickly magnified months later following news that there would be no prosecution of the officers who choked to death another unarmed African American, Eric Garner, who had been caught selling black market cigarettes. As the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, grappled with the ensuing protests, he disclosed that as the parent of a young African American male, he too has warned his son to be particularly cautious around law enforcement officers. Soon after the remarks, and following the assassination of two New York police officers in Brooklyn, a rebellion broke out among rank-and-file officers. The mayor, the top police union lobbyist said, “had blood on his hands.”
Which brings us to the latest policy battle to reduce the deadly might of America’s police units. Under the so-called 1033 program, created in 1997 as part of the defense budget re-authorization, the Pentagon has transferred over $4.3 billion of excess military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Through this effort, tiny towns in New Hampshire and Georgia now exercise routine police activities from behind the protection of mine-resistant tanks once destined for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Representative Hank Johnson, an outspoken critic of the defense industry and Democrat from Atlanta, is one of the few lawmakers attempting to rollback 1033. But new lobbying disclosures, obtained by The Progressive, show that local law enforcement won't give up their free lethal toys without a fight. In the latest disclosure report, filed with the Secretary of the Senate, the National Fraternal Order of Police, the umbrella police union lobbying group, reveals that the group has been actively persuading members against supporting Johnson's bill, known aptly as the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.
Though the bill has garnered support from Congress' most left-leaning members, along with a few maverick conservatives, such as Justin Amash and Walter Jones, the bill has not moved far. In a recent comments to Bloomberg News, the police union has been active behind the scenes, as their lobbying report suggests. A lead police union lobbyist has said that his members have reached out to close to 80 percent of senators and half of the entire House of Representatives, pressuring both chambers to drop interest. Though the tragic events in Ferguson and New York appeared to kick off a national movement for reform of police behavior, yet again, the influence of organized money in politics may stymie progress.
Lee Fang, a San Franciso-based journalist, is an Investigative Fund Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right, and a contributor to The Nation, VICE, and Salon, among other outlets. He is also the co-founder of a blog covering political corruption, which can be found at RepublicReport.org.