A month has passed since the shooting of Michael Brown, an event that sparked outrage and fueled protests that continue today.
The nation stands captivated in morbid fascination at a town in tumult, and the general public has more questions than answers. While Ferguson, Missoui may seem a distant place, a disconcerting commonality exists. Montana police forces, like law enforcement agencies across the nation, are becoming militarized, a practice that lines corporate coffers at the expense of lives and civil liberties.
In the 1960s, President Nixon declared a war on drugs. Soon, police forces around the nation were joining the “war” effort. Tactics escalated. SWAT teams emerged. In the 1990s, Congress instituted the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, also know as the 1033 exchange program, allowing the Department of Defense to transfer property to local and state agencies. Police departments can request anything from night vision goggles to guns and armored vehicles.
The War on Drugs soon made way for the War on Terror, and the federal government felt it prudent to increase the number of grants and grenade launchers flowing to Main Street. According to the Defense Logistics Agency, the 1033 exchange has supplied law enforcement with more than $4.3 billion in equipment since 1997. The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, has handed out $34 billion in grants since 2002.
Nearly $200 million of this funding made it to Montana. Helena and Billings each received roughly $400,000 to purchase BEAR (Ballistic Engineered Armored Response) vehicles. These tank-like titans can hold 15 officers and are built to withstand the blast of a roadside bomb. It’s certainly hard to imagine a situation in our communities that would necessitate this drastic of a response.
Who actually benefits from this perpetual war funnel? Surely not the federal government. On-record defense spending accounts for roughly 20 percent of the national budget, an amount nearly twice that of the oft-debated safety net programs. Nor does the American public gain from local PDs being armed to the hilt. In fact, the opposite is often true. The 2012 flash bang grenade injury of a 12-year-old in Billings is just one of many cases of raids gone awry. Accidents such as this undermine police-community relationships and erode the foundation of trust on which our collective safety is built.
The truth is that the real victor in this scenario bears no risk but reaps the reward. Indeed, those who benefit the most are profit-driven corporations and their executives and shareholders. They are the contractors who sell military-grade tanks to safe communities like ours. They supply the tear gas used on protestors in Ferguson. They -- companies like Blackhawk Industries and Lockheed Martin -- pedal weapons of war to unsuspecting and unassuming communities on the government’s dime.
In other words, the very companies that pocket millions from the U.S.-driven conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan also profit when the U.S. turns these tools of conflict lose on domestic streets. To these companies and their executives, there is no difference between the streets of Fallujah and Ferguson. There is no accountability when lives are lost. There is only money to be made.
We should not allow this to happen. The transfer of tax dollars from the government agencies charged with keeping us safe to war profiteers masquerading as corporate executives is reprehensible. Advancing corporate profits should not come before keeping our communities safe.
Our neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers are not soldiers. Until the American people speak out, the government will continue to value corporate profits over people, and calamity will continue to triumph over calm.
Kristie Smith is the executive director of The Policy Institute.