by Rania Khalek
Since the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police in Missouri last weekend, the people of Ferguson have been subjected to a military-style crackdown by a squadron of local police departments dressed like combat soldiers. This has prompted residents to liken the conditions on the ground in Ferguson to the Israeli military occupation of Palestine.
And who can blame them?
The dystopian scenes of paramilitary units in camouflage rampaging through the streets of Ferguson, pointing assault rifles at unarmed residents and launching tear gas into people’s front yards from behind armored personnel carriers (APCs), could easily be mistaken for a Tuesday afternoon in the occupied West Bank.
And it’s no coincidence.
At least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson up until Thursday evening – the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department – received training from Israeli security forces in recent years.
It all started when a yet-to-be-named Ferguson police officer (the name Darren Wilson was released this morning – ed.) killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. According to witnesses, Brown was attempting to surrender with his hands up when a Ferguson police officer emptied his clip into Brown’s body, shooting the teen up to 10 times.
For hours police left Brown’s lifeless body sprawled in the street uncovered as a growing number of residents gathered nearby, demanding answers from authorities. Police responded by deploying K-9 units and riot squads to crush the crowd, predictably inciting a riot, which police used to justify more brute force.
But the people of Ferguson refuse to submit and have mobilized every single day to demand justice for Brown and an end to the racist, undemocratic regime they live under.
“Hands up, don’t shoot“ has become their rallying cry, a symbol of Brown in his last moments and what it means to be Black in America, where every 28 hours an African-American is killed by a self-styled vigilante, security guard or police officer.
Still, police did not relent, prompting one Ferguson protester to shout at a row of military-style tactical vehicles, “You gonna shoot us? Is this the Gaza Strip?”
“Will we as a people rise up like the people of Gaza? Will our community be bombed like last night with tear gas? That was a terrorist attack,” remarked another Ferguson protester to The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, journalists were manhandled and detained. Police were caught on video deliberately firing tear gas at an Al Jazeera America film crew as they were setting up their equipment.
Even elected officials weren’t spared. Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal was tear gassed and St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who had been documenting the unfolding police repression in Ferguson on social media since just after Brown’s murder, was arrested.
As the situation spiraled further out of control, Palestinians began tweeting advice on dealing with tear gas to the people of Ferguson.
Cops become soldiers
Domestic policing in the U.S. has a long and sordid history rooted in the violent control and subjugation of communities of color, so the police violence directed at the predominantly Black residents of Ferguson is nothing new.
But the widespread militarization on display in Ferguson is part of a more recent trend that began three decades ago with the introduction of the disastrous “war on drugs” and dramatically escalated with the “war on terror” – leading directly to the counterinsurgency-like tactics deployed against the people of Ferguson by civilian police officers who more closely resemble combat soldiers in Afghanistan than domestic cops.
This cop-to-soldier transformation has been facilitated by the U.S. government through mechanisms like the Pentagon’s 1033 or military surplus program, which funnels excess military gear to law enforcement agencies across the country. The program’s motto: “From warfighter to crimefighter.”
In 2013 alone, the program showered U.S. police departments with nearly $450 million worth of military equipment.
St. Louis County law enforcement agencies, including the Ferguson Police Department, participate in this program and have received military-grade rifles, pistols and night vision equipment in recent years, though it’s unclear if the equipment is being used in Ferguson now.
As The New York Times reported in June, the scaling down of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan means “former tools of combat – M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more – are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.”
“During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft,” the newspaper added.
Ferguson police also receive money from the Department of Homeland Security as part of a grant program that has doled out billions to U.S. law enforcement agencies to purchase military-style equipment, like the APCs charging through the streets of Ferguson.
In the last five years alone, Missouri has received nearly $70 million in DHS money for law enforcement related programs.
While there is a wealth of scholarship on police militarization in the U.S., there has been little to no examination of the ways Israel’s security apparatus facilitates it.
Decades of testing and perfecting methods of domination and control on a captive and disenfranchised Palestinian population has given rise to a booming “homeland security industry” in Israel that refashions occupation-style repression for use on marginalized populations in other parts of the world, including St. Louis.
Under the cover of counterterrorism training, nearly every major police agency in the United States has traveled to Israel for lessons in occupation enforcement, a phenomenon that journalist Max Blumenthal dubbed “the Israelification of America’s security apparatus.” Israeli forces and U.S. police departments are so entrenched that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has opened a branch in Tel Aviv.
In 2011, then St. Louis County Police Department Chief Timothy Fitch attended the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) National Counter-Terrorism Seminar, an annual week-long Israeli training camp where U.S. law enforcement executives “study first hand Israel’s tactics and strategies” directly from “senior commanders in the Israel National Police, experts from Israel’s intelligence and security services, and the Israel Defense Forces,” according to the ADL’s website.
Until Thursday night, the St. Louis County Police Department appeared to be the largest, most militarized and brutish force operating in Ferguson. “St. Louis County Police” was scrawled across the side of most of the tactical unit vehicles and appeared on the combat-style uniforms of officers aiming assault rifles at peaceful protesters.
The ADL boasts of sending more than 175 senior U.S. law enforcement officials from 100 different agencies to the seminar since 2004, who are “taking the lessons they learned in Israel back to the United States.”
The ADL is just one of several pro-Israel groups forging close ties between U.S. cops and Israel’s security and intelligence apparatus.
Another is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a neoconservative think tank that claims to have hosted some 9,500 law enforcement officials in its Law Enforcement Exchange Program (LEEP) since 2004.
LEEP “takes delegations of senior law enforcement executives to Israel to study methods and observe techniques used in preventing and reacting to acts of terrorism” and “sponsors conferences within the United States, bringing Israeli experts before much larger groups of law enforcement leaders,” according to JINSA’s brochure.
Former St. Louis Police Chief Joseph Mokwa is listed as having traveled to Israel as part of a LEEP conference in February 2008.
Following nationwide outrage and embarrassment, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pulled St. Louis County Police forces out of Ferguson and placed the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of policing demonstrators. The St. Louis Police Department voluntarily removed its officers from Ferguson.
As a result, Ferguson no longer looks like occupied territory, though the underlying issue, Michael Brown’s murder, has yet to be addressed.
Meanwhile, the scope of Israel’s influence on U.S. law enforcement remains virtually ignored by the media despite the troubling implications of emulating an apartheid regime actively engaged in ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
The culture of racism and impunity that has long plagued American policing is deadly enough as it is. Adding Israeli-style repression to an already dangerous mix guarantees disaster.
Rania Khalek, who describes herself as “an independent journalist covering the plight of the underclass and marginalized,” blogs at Dispatches from the Underclass and on The Electronic Intifada, where this story first appeared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Truthout, Salon, AlterNet, Extra, Citizen Radio and more.