Expect Police-Military Repression Amid the Crisis of COVID-19 and Its Aftermath

Netfa Freeman

The rulers are concerned about the class war becoming sharper in the current crisis and they are preparing to send in the military and police to quell dissent.

“The pre-existing crisis of legitimacy for the rulers is compounded by the government’s inept response to the pandemic.”

News stories about the National Guard assisting with the coronavirus have overshadowed stories about US military plans to join police in stopping expected “civil disturbances.” But eyewitness accounts of trains transporting armored vehicles and other equipment into their communities prompted posts to social media about the threat of martial law.

The Department of Defense responded with a media defensive to dismiss the concerns as conspiracy theories, sticking to the strict definition of martial law. They assure that the duties of the reserve National Guard personnel are only for things like disinfecting public spaces, delivering food to homes, and erecting provisional medical facilities. Semantic games and a neglect to connect the dots are meant to assuage public concerns.

Martial law is the imposition of direct and temporary military control of normal civilian functions — although to argue whether or not military involvement means direct control is to split hairs. The outcomes are the same for Black and First Nations working class people in the US settler colonial state. Those communities live under constant police-state control designed to maintain the Pan-European white supremacist colonial/capitalist patriarchy. The only “normal” civilian functions for them are to serve the industrial metropole. Otherwise, to neoliberal capitalists they are a surplus population.

“Black and First Nations working class people live under constant police-state control.”

In December prior to the pandemic Attorney General William Barr launched Operation Relentless Pursuit , a “surge” in seven US cities of federal agents, more enforcement funding, police department access to more equipment, and an ability to hire more police. This is another operation meant to deal with the surplus population.

When Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel’s adds the caveat that “the Guard has legal authorities to participate in law enforcement operations, such as crowd control but usually does so under the supervision of local police,” he offers a distinction without a difference. The rulers are concerned about the class war becoming sharper in the current crisis and they are preparing to send in the military and police to quell dissent.

A Washington Post piece warns of “a much larger, and more fraught, role for the armed forces in this crisis: They might need to backstop and backfill police forces…” Shortages of police may mean the military is needed for “…major assistance with patrolling streets, enforcing restrictions on movement, deterring crime and other tasks […which…] might be the most prudent thing we can do to reduce the risk of deteriorating social stability and security,” say the authors of the article.

“Shortages of police may mean the military is needed for major assistance with patrolling streets.”

The treatment for entitled white teenagers refusing to stay home and off beaches will not be the same as the mistreatment of Black and Brown communities expressing their frustrations with second class citizenship.

Mounting dissatisfactions with the system are obvious in the wildcat strikes of workers demanding hazard pay and personal protective equipment (PPE) to safely perform their jobs during the pandemic. Economists are also forecasting that an alarming 47 million jobs will be lost leading to 32% unemployment, the highest figure since the great depression. The pre-existing crisis of legitimacy for the rulers is compounded by the government’s inept response to the pandemic and the private sector’s shameless efforts to profit from the people’s suffering.

The 1968 Kerner Commission Report on civil disturbances warned of what happens when the oppressed have had enough. The impasse, however, is at the solutions. Free healthcare for anyone sick, housing as a human right, and relief money from the government all go against capitalism and are therefore not meant to last.

Society is approaching an ultimate clash between classes that presents the oppressors with essentially two contrasting responses.

People rebelling because they are hungry could be brutally suppressed, or could be given food and democratic control over the production and distribution of food. US white supremacist colonial/capitalist patriarchy tends respond to such crises with the former option.

“Forty-seven million jobs will be lost leading to 32% unemployment.”

Fatalities have always been the result of the police-military mix in response to major unrest in the US: In 2005 in the scramble to survive Hurricane Katrina, 1992 in response to verdicts in police beating of Rodney King, and 1968 after the assassination of Dr. King. And Black people always get the worst of these crackdowns.

The Washington Post article suggesting the USA, “should prepare now to send US armed forces to help police…” concludes in point one-of-four that “Police departments should make plans for apprentice-like training of Guard personnel who probably know a lot about how to wear body armor, operate weapons, maintain discipline, use communications systems and work long hours — but who probably know much less about easing tense civic situations, handling suspects while presuming innocence and securing evidence.”

The assumption that police are adept in easing tense civic situations, etc would be laughable if it weren’t insulting.

All armed forces of the US state –whether police, National Guard, active duty military — serve the same essential purpose, to protect the settler colonial and imperialist paradigm. The distinction between them is like that between the FBI and CIA; one enforces domestic domination and the other foreign.

When the government turns to the military for the economic symptoms of the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath, poor Black and Brown people will be met in city streets by armed troops trained to occupy hostile foreign territory and primed with the racist and classist attitudes inherent in the police.

Netfa Freeman is an organizer in Pan-African Community Action (PACA) and on the Coordinating Committee of the Black Alliance for Peace. And is also co-host/producer of the WPFW radio show and podcast Voices With Vision.