The Civil War

Besides the galling cowardice of elected “leaders” and law enforcement officers who refuse to hold murderous cops accountable, besides talking heads blaming two protesters for their own deaths because they broke curfew, rather than their murderer, Kyle Rittenhouse, who after killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and shooting a third person, coolly walked past cops with his arms raised, I cannot stop thinking about the vehicle he dipped his hand to, a small wave of amicable recognition.

Kyle Rittenhouse approaches a Kenosha County police vehicle; picture via the NY Times (Brendan Gutenschwager, via Storyful)

The United States has been at war most of its short history. Constant combat ensures the military industrial complex and its CEOs stay rich-in 2016, private contractors claimed half the Pentagon’s $600 billion budget. $160 million of that went to ten individuals. In 1997, the Department of Defense started issuing local police forces gluts of surplus equipment. Recipient police departments, as chronicled by Radley Balko in his 2014 book Rise of the Warrior Cop, lack training, maintenance capabilities, and good reason to use this gear, spanning radios to grenades, but do nonetheless, at least partially out of sheer sadism and desire to dominate. Balko recounts an interview with a SWAT team cop who executed no-knock raids, 20,000 of which occur annually. Without irony, this war-on-drugs footsoldier gleefully described the chemical thrill enjoyed from barging, guns blazing, into someone’s house unannounced in the middle of the night – perhaps not even at the correct address.

Police and other terrorist organisations deploy vehicles as weapons against pedestrians and cyclists. Even when not driven by racist, fear-crazed police officers, SUVs are three times more likely to kill people than sedans, but even SUVS are dwarfed by the hulking armored vehicles seen barrelling through the streets of Kenosha. I’m not sure what exact model they are, but they resemble the MRAP, or mine resistant, ambush protected personnel carrier, a truck designed to deflect the blasts of improvised explosive devices, protect against rocket propelled grenades, and machine gunfire. Other similar trucks filmed on American streets this summer used against Americans resemble M-ATVs, another MRAP iteration, and HMMWVs (humvees), the low-slung tottering vehicles M-ATVs replaced in 2009 because of humvees’ inefficacy at protecting soldiers and overall poor design, at a cost of $1 billion.

Armored vehicles are heavy, to the point where putting all 18 tons of them on planes to fly out of warzones is prohibitively expensive. Their weight can damage roads and bridges. They are also difficult to drive: to protect from blasts, the windows are small and the cab is raised far above the ground, giving them narrow fields of vision and high centres of gravity. Nine feet tall, they are prone to flipping and tipping, even when driven by seasoned operators or in ordinary conditions. It is not uncommon for Marines to die in training accidents in tactical vehicles. Very little force needs to be exerted for them to do grave damage. When I was in Afghanistan, a stationary MRAP rolled off a maintenance block into another parked MRAP, crushing the head and nearly killing the Marine working on it.

A turret gunner, often a junior enlisted rank and likely between 19-22 years old, occupying the most dangerous seat of a tactical vehicle, is held to more stringent escalation of force procedures and rules of engagement in a foreign combat zone than a police officer in the United States. Deployment training and mission briefings rigorously delineate under what circumstances, and who, they can and cannot shoot. Servicemembers and their chain of command can be held personally liable for violating these rules. Stateside, police officers, largely immune from prosecution, unapologetically justify shooting their own countrymen because they feel scared. It is easier for an American cop to shoot an unarmed American civilian (especially a Black one) in America, than it is for a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to shoot a perceived enemy in a foreign warzone.

It is difficult to appreciate an armored truck’s size and heft until standing beside one. Videos of protests from Kenosha show young men squaring up to these vehicles. The tires come up to their chests. I watched footage of another man rolling a green metal dumpster in front of him as a shield, the top lip of which comes up to the MRAP’s bumper. As protesters dart around these mammoths, the drivers will lose sight of them. Given how unprofessionally police officers wield their equipment –  they often rely on mobbing a person and brute force in lieu of tactics – it is not hard to imagine a cop, even without murderous intentions, killing someone if a boot slips off the brake, irrevocably rolling 32,000 pounds over flesh and bone. Cops with the same bloodthirsty zeal as those of the NYPD can kill or maim dozens effortlessly with an MRAP.

Videos from the night of 25 August captured people screaming “he’s the shooter” as Rittenhouse strolled, rifle slung across his body, past armored trucks. Why did the police let him pass? Kenosha County Sheriff and virulent racist David Beth mused that perhaps cops, who earlier in the evening had given Rittenhouse a bottle of water in gratitude, ignored both him and the protester’s shouts because of “tunnel vision,” tacitly admitting his own employees are so poorly trained they cannot think sensibly in “high-stress situations.” Consider a previous high-stress situation Kenosha County law enforcement created for themselves: in 2015, Mother Jones reported Kenosha County used an MRAP to raid a no-kill animal shelter for illegally raising a fawn named Giggles, whom they promptly euthanised. I think the cops, too spineless to face the residents demanding accountability for their colleague, Rusten Sheskey, shooting Jacob Blake point-blank in the back seven times in front of his three children, simply didn’t hear them through all the armor they cloistered behind.

Trump dispatched unidentifiable “federal agents,” some of whom I suspect may be contracted mercenaries rather than federal employees, to raging cities around the United States. Badgeless men are abducting people in Kenosha, too. In one video, unmarked SUVs (later claimed by Kenosha police) surround a minivan at an intersection. One cop lamely smashes its passenger window while another screams “get the fuck out,” as if one could reasonably exit a car while someone is swinging a club at her head through a sheet of glass. One cop excitedly leaps about, running to the wrong side of his car in a hapless fit of adrenaline. Another points a handgun into the passenger side of the vehicle, which, if fired with poor aim, would shoot his coworker standing outside the driver’s window. Out of context, the tactical incompetence approaches physical comedy. 

This bellicose, imperial country has been engaged in some kind of armed conflict with foreign adversaries for 222 of its 244 year history. Domestically, however, the United States has waged war against itself for all 244 years. First it looted the land from millions of Native Americans and systematically, genocidally extinguished them and their cultures. On this stolen land, various European and British colonists – the new Americans, including the venerated “founding fathers” – enslaved, raped, sold, tortured, and murdered Africans abducted from their homes. Subsequent generations of those Africans’ descendants, who never received reparations, and who have demanded equal treatment per the country’s foundational rhetoric and promise, are similarly dehumanised and terrorised through the criminal justice and carceral systems, and suffer substandard treatment in every facet of daily life-housing, education, employment, healthcare. 

The first “police forces” in Colonial America were for-profit enterprises of ill repute meant to rein in prostitution and gambling. In the south, police forces began as patrols of white men with guns hunting self-emancipated slaves and crushing slave revolts. In the subsequent century, police forces funded by politicians and business executives quashed immigrant and worker organizing in industrial cities in the name of private wealth and property. Pride began as a riot in response to the NYPD raiding gay bars and assaulting their patrons. As cell phone cameras became ubiquitous in the beginning of this century, circulated footage of Black death and assault at the hands of police has replaced the analog photographs, or actual body parts, taken at lynchings as souvenirs. White Americans across the political spectrum, who range overtly white supremacist, paternalistically racist, indifferent, or performatively outraged, accept this as background mundanity, the correct “law and order” of society, or a national sin that will magically right itself over time through no action of their own.

We have the tools of war, the language of war, the actions of war, and civilian death at the hands of sadistic cops and white supremacist terrorists living out their militia fantasies. Police departments, with less training and more impunity, deploy against their neighbors the same automatic, chemical, and vehicular weapons used by the military in the combat zones around the planet, created by political hawks on behalf of the defense contracting industry. In all but twelve days of 2020, police have killed at least one person, usually more (751 is the total count, not yet nine months into the year). 

Amidst professional athletes striking in response to Kenosha’s state-sanctioned violence, the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers, whose home was burned down in 1997 in an act of racist terrorism, began a three-minute monologue worth watching in full: 

“Watching the RNC, they’re spewing this fear, right. Like, all you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that were denied to live in certain communities, we’ve been hung, we’ve been shot, and all you do is keep hearing of fear. It’s…it’s amazing…why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”