Fernando García Bielsa
Protestors block military training program for police in California. Photo: Bill Hackwell
Militarism permeates a good part of U.S. society under the accumulated influence of its permanent warlike deployment throughout the planet.
The issue of militarization and the resources allocated to police services in the United States has received some increased attention in the context of protests against the racist brutality displayed by many of these bodies supposedly intended to ensure citizen security.
As these issues come to the fore, there is also a denunciation of the scandalous increase in allocations to finance what constitutes a kind of domestic repressive complex, the sophisticated border control apparatus, the abusive criminal justice system, as well as the increase in resources and the privatization of the prison system.
The brutal murder of George Floyd in late May 2020 in Minneapolis is but one dramatic moment in a sequence of similar murders of African-American citizens by police that have occurred repeatedly over the years.
A similar killing, which occurred in the state of Missouri in 2015, and under the Obama presidency, gave rise to a new national movement known as Black Lives Matter, which gained the support not only of black populations but also of progressive groups in the country and, later, of some liberal political sectors.
The degree of impunity of the perpetrators of these acts is scandalous and fuels the anger of broad social strata.
The anger accumulated over the years, and the brutality exercised against Floyd widely visualized in social networks, has made these the most nourishing and shocking popular demonstrations carried out in the United States in several decades. Young people and white people are participating in these demonstrations beyond what is customary, along with Americans from many different ethnic backgrounds. Ethical, humanistic and solidarity motives are present in these demonstrations that have taken place in some 2,500 cities and towns in the country.
The domestic face of the “war on terrorism”
The use of the “war on terrorism” with a broad and imprecise definition originating in September 2001 would serve as an additional justification for racism against blacks, Muslims and Latinos. It has redefined the repression of immigrants, and led indirectly to the militarization of the border with Mexico and local police departments across the country. These have been reinforced with equipment surplus from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including tanks and drones.
According to Black Agenda Report, a think tank with ties to Black communities, there has been a huge increase in such allocations, particularly during the Obama Administration, which in 2014 reached $787 million in military hardware for local police departments. The Pentagon’s 1033 program for the supply of “surplus military equipment” since 1997 has funneled weapons (including jet guns, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers) worth about $7.4 billion to some 8,000 local law enforcement agencies.
In most states, in many of their municipalities, funds dedicated to paying for police functions and services consume more than one-third of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities, programs and social services. In New York City, for example, funding for police department expenditures and operations costs about $10 billion a year-that’s more than the federal government allocates to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nationally, well over $100 billion goes to police services.
It has been shown that the mere possession of equipment of a military nature has fostered in many of these agents a kind of “culture of war” such as that which now characterizes police departments in many cities of the country which promptly and repeatedly resort to violence. They have formed units specialized in the use of Special Tactics and Weapons (SWAT), and deploy their routine activities with military weapons supposedly for anti-drug actions.
This militarization is also evident in the type of training that such agents receive (often through private security companies), generating a warlike mentality through which part of the people are perceived as the enemy, generally those from marginal sectors or so-called “minorities of color.”
Those agencies with functions assigned to provide order and protection, to the extent that they have been militarized, are perceived and act as occupying forces in those communities. However, they act as guardians of property in the white, middle class neighborhoods.
An abusive and shameful criminal justice system
There is a criminal justice system, overwhelmingly composed of white men, with marked bias and duplicity based on class and racist considerations: one that applies to black citizens and another for whites. Studies have shown a tendency among federal judges to reject, in very high proportion and without further ado, cases of racial discrimination brought before them.
The result is manifested in the discriminatory disparities that cut across all aspects of U.S. jurisprudence. In this inherently racist institutionality, the courts play a major repressive role. What does it mean to pretend to be a nation of rights when the law is applied unfairly and unequally?
Hence the racist distinction evident in the prison system, the entire corrupt judicial system, and the mass incarceration of black citizens. They make up 40% of the prison population, while African Americans make up 13% of the population of the US. Some two and a half million people remain in prison; an increase of almost 700% since 1972, under the impetus of the so-called war on drugs, which is disproportionately directed against non-white communities.
One in five inmates in the world is in a US prison (according to the Pew Research Center on the States). More than half are incarcerated without having been convicted. On the other hand, more than 7 million – one in every 33 Americans – are under judicial supervision (in prison, on parole, or in legal proceedings). The annual cost of administering the prison system is approximately $120 billion.
A very influential factor has been the multiplication of private prisons: profit-driven enterprises, always in need of more labor to exploit. In the United States, incarceration is big business.
The political analyst and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan administration, Paul Craig Roberts, points out that such imprisonment rates are due to the fact that “the justice system in the U.S. is corrupt and largely indifferent to whether the accused is guilty or innocent”, which is a worse problem or goes beyond the current racism. Over 95% of serious crime charges are resolved by plea bargaining, often under duress to the innocent, without presenting or testing evidence.
It is an abuse of power and procedure of the American judicial system which finds merit in forcing people to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed with a view to avoiding the expense of a lengthy trial and avoiding potential friends and family debts and financial obligations.
The Militarization of the Mexican Border
In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, which is also on the table due to the debate around the border fence and the application of anti-immigrant measures and deportations by the Trump government. Similar actions have also been implemented by the Obama administration and its predecessors, since it is actually a long-standing and bipartisan policy, although with double standards given the country’s need for cheap labor to take on menial often dangerous jobs.
The U.S. already spends more money on immigration enforcement and border control than all other federal law enforcement programs combined. It is one of the most militarized surveillance systems in the world, consisting of thousands of sensors, night vision cameras and motion detectors, monitored by helicopters and drones, and patrolled by a record 21,000 agents. The beneficiaries of this militarization are the big arms producers and security companies that, with their great ascendancy in Washington, are promoting this repressive policy, and hindering other possible solutions to the immigration problem.
ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) is sustained by some $24 billion each year, and is, along with the Border Patrol, a part of the immigration control system and the horrific practices of family separation, migrant repression, and human rights violations that occur. In the last 25 years, the crossing of the 1944 mile border between Mexico and the United States has claimed the lives of some 11,500 immigrants.
For decades there has been a clear intention to criminalize undocumented migrants. Trump’s insulting verbiage against Mexicans has recently fed the xenophobic attitudes of those who seek a scapegoat for evils that affect society. Added to that are vested interests in what is a lucrative business. There are nearly 250 detention centers (either county jails or larger centers run by private companies), which operate with little federal oversight and where migrants are sent before deportation.
Private prison companies charge an average of between $122 and $164 for each night that migrants are detained, so their income depends directly on the number of prisoners and how long they stay in their facilities. They are part of a national security network. They are known for their political connections and their electoral donations to favor restrictive state immigration legislation or the application of measures that facilitate the detention and deportation of migrants.
These private companies receive government contracts for the design, construction, expansion and management of prisons and detention facilities. Others for providing prisoner transportation or other services on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Much of the border militarization is mixed or sheltered by anti-drug policies and the fight against organized crime that reinforces the militarization of the area and the presence on both sides of the border of DEA agents, CIA agents and private security contractors with retired Pentagon personnel and others. A surveillance post of this type south of the border with Mexico was characterized a few years ago as being based on the model of the intelligence centers that the United States operated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is an internal political and socioeconomic fabric that nurtures and guarantees the permanent growth of military spending as one of the foundations for recycling the system, as a counter-cyclical element and source of immense profits for its most powerful corporations, with a strong impact on the pockets and minds of millions of Americans.
This is an important factor in getting politicians from both parties to support aggressive strategies and defend projects and contracts that benefit their districts. To make the conspiracy viable, industry leaders are brought into the Pentagon as directors, and vice versa, high-ranking military officers are integrated and re cycled onto the boards of the industry’s corporations.
The Military Industrial Complex companies make billions of dollars in profits each year from generous contracts with the Pentagon and other agencies for the development and production of weapons and military and repressive equipment, as well as from the sale of weapons abroad.
The most frequently mentioned part of this budget is that allocated to the Pentagon (contracts for arms production and support for the Armed Forces, among others) – which exceeds $730 billion each year, equivalent to almost 40% of the world’s military spending. The United States is also the largest international arms dealer.
There are repeated reports of lack of control, debauchery and corruption in the handling of the huge military budgets, particularly the Pentagon’s procurement and contract system. Part of this has to do with the speculative contagion that exists, with Wall Street and its pressures on executives to make decisions designed to impress (and take short-term advantage of) the financial markets.
On the other hand, reporting on the country’s total war spending generally fails to take into account the huge military appropriations allocated to the budgets of other ministries and agencies. The Energy Department pays for nuclear weapons, the State Department is allocated much of the cost of mercenaries and foreign military assistance, military base expenditures are manipulated or hidden in the budgets of various departments, while other agencies assume the costly Space Program or the Veterans Administration’s $243 billion (costs of past wars).
There has been a brutal increase in funds allocated to institutions that are part of the U.S. national security state, such as the $92 billion to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the others allocated to the FBI and the anti-drug agency, among others.
As we mentioned earlier, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has an annual budget of about $24 billion. Within the criminal justice system, the annual cost of administering the prison system alone is approximately $120 billion. According to modest estimates more than $100 billion goes to law enforcement.
Some experts point out that, intertwined with the Military Industrial Complex and the war machinery, there exists a “permanent military-industrial network of surveillance and domestic control” of whose machinations and actions make broad sectors of the US population vulnerable.
Translation by Resumen Latinoamericano, North America Bureau