The racist history of police militarization and mass incarceration

Aug 12, 2014

The Black Panter Party Los Angeles office was target of a massive, military-style raid in the first use of SWAT teams.

The following is adapted from Puryear’s book “Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America” (Liberation Books, 2013)

In August 1971, a lawyer for big tobacco in Richmond, Va., sent a memorandum to an acquaintance at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with the ominous title: “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” His memo expressed alarm that not only were the “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries” involved in this attack, but the anti-capitalist fervor drew from “perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences and from politicians.” Taken together, this amounted to a “shotgun attack on the system itself.”

The author of the memo was Lewis Powell, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice several years later. The Powell Memorandum offered not only a diagnosis of the social problem but a comprehensive remedy: for capitalist corporations to launch a counter-attack in all arenas – including advertising and in the education system – to stop the rising tide of revolution.

While it is difficult to measure the impact of the Powell Memorandum itself, the document indicates the mood of the times, including the thinking of the U.S. ruling class. Today the mainstream media portrays the late 1960s and early 1970s through stereotypical cultural and generational clashes, but in reality it was a period of enormous social turmoil that raised the possibility of revolution—both for those who hoped for it, and those who feared it. All the fundamental institutions of society—the government, the “free” market, the military, the police, the nuclear family, white supremacy and others—were challenged.

The phenomenon of mass incarceration is rooted in this period as well, and not by coincidence.

Nixon gets the ball rolling

Reactionary politicians responded to the social disruption with a conservative call for a return to “law and order.” They associated mass protest movements with criminality and, in the case of the Black liberation movement, the dangers of the “ghetto.” In his 1968 election, Richard Nixon promised to reverse the “anarchy” that the Democratic Party had facilitated, to tame the lawless elements, while bringing rising incomes, and an “honorable” disengagement from the Vietnam War.

Nixon aimed to construct a new political constituency from those he called the “Silent Majority”—whom he portrayed as the law-abiding, patriotic and hard-working Americans whose interests had been overshadowed by rioters, radicals, hippies and traitors. The racist implication of this slogan was clear enough and his aim was to take white suburbanites, blue-collar workers and southerners away from the Democratic Party coalition. His platform became a point of unity for Republicans who differed on economic policies, as well as “white ethnic” local Democratic Party machines across the country that were hostile to the rise of African American politics.

There was a simultaneous rise in different types of crime in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nixon and the Republicans used the “breakdown” of law and order to explain rapes, muggings and murders alongside uprisings, campus protests and revolutionary activity.

Republicans blamed liberals for their “excessive tolerance” of “deviant” behavior. Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew said: “By rationalizing crime and violence and attributing it to lofty causes, they have contributed to it.” Time magazine explained the Republican political message: “[T]he permissive attitudes of radic-libs have led to a youth revolution, slackening moral standards, disrespect for order, rocketing rates of crime and dope use.”

Instead of admitting how the system had failed to address widespread social problems, including rising drug addiction, the ruling class increasingly attributed these to the defects of the individual, which had to be addressed through the “corrective methods” of the criminal justice system.

Growth in repressive forces

This ruling-class response to the political crisis was tied directly to the militarization of police, harsher and expanded imprisonment techniques and the elimination of programs aimed at alleviating poverty and other social problems.

Newly militarized and expanded police forces, as well as national law enforcement and intelligence arms, grew in size and strength. Tougher and automatic sentencing laws were passed.

In the 10 years between 1966 and 1976, criminal justice expenditures increased at the rate of five times what it had increased in the previous decade. In the 10 years between 1965 and 1975, the number of police grew by roughly 40 percent nationally. In 1974, $15 billion was spent on criminal justice, 57 percent going directly to police expenditures. On the federal level, President Nixon put in place the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to funnel large amounts to local police agencies. Between 1968 and 1972, this federal agency received $1.5 billion in federal funds, including $850 million in 1972 alone.

These federal programs and the political climate inspired wider funding towards policing and imprisonment from state and local agencies. State and local criminal justice expenditures rose another 150 percent between 1972 and 1982.

Police brutality, mass incarceration are political

The first and primary target of this growing repressive apparatus was the growing revolutionary movement, and Black liberation groups in particular. Agnew described the Black Panthers as “anarchistic criminals,” while the Justice Department branded the BPP as simply “hoodlums.”

Restoring “law and order” was not simply a rhetorical strategy during campaign season. It meant undermining radical movements through subterfuge and extreme violence, strategies that would come to be known collectively as COINTELPRO, after the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program. In league with local police units, the FBI declared war on radicals and militant groups from nationally oppressed communities. Most centrally the government directed its efforts at the Black Panther Party, which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the “greatest threat” to America’s internal “security.”

The Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, which have become ubiquitous worldwide, were first formed in Los Angeles in 1968 against the Black Panther Party offices.

The Black Panther office in Los Angeles

The Black Panther office in Los Angeles

This right-wing counter-offensive against the emerging revolutionary movement laid the basis for current mass incarceration policies. First, it pioneered the “law and order” rhetoric that would be deployed so effectively roughly a decade later when the prison population really exploded.

Secondly, militarized policing became the status quo, creating a massive apparatus that keeps itself going by always creating new “wars.” What started as a war on revolutionaries switched to the so-called “War on Drugs” and now the “War on Terror.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the suppression of the radical wing of the social movements of the era significantly weakened those who would have been the principal obstacles to the mass incarceration policies and police repression against Black America, trends that intensified in the 1980s and continue to this day.

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