Many Americans seem to believe that the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the deployment of the U.S. military in domestic law enforcement, including the policing and repression of protests. The statute does no such thing. Its complex terms and judicial interpretations are riddled with limits and loopholes and limits that have left the door open for U.S. military policing and repression inside the “homeland” ever since (notable examples include postwar strikes in 1919 and 1946, urban Black rebellions in the 1960s, mass student antiwar protests in 1970, and the Native American rebellion at Pine Ridge in South Dakota in 1973, the multicultural Los Angeles Rodney King riot of April 1992 and…the list goes on). Thanks to the proclamation of the Drug War in the 1980s and the “Global War on Terror” after 9/11/2011, moreover, the lines between national military operations, federal law enforcement, and local police structures have been hopelessly blurred. The lines are crossed by a giant and growing private-“security” and surveillance sector and new state- and corporate-developed technologies that connect the theory and practice of repressive population control across national, global, and local lines.
The New Military Urbanism
And what would Posse Comitatus protection against domestic military policing really mean anyway today, in a time when metropolitan U.S. police departments have for all intents and purposes become militarized and when high-tech private “security” companies loaded (at all levels) with military veterans proliferate across “the homeland”? As the British urban geographer Stephen Graham recently noted on the left television show Democracy Now, commenting on the findings of his recent book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (Verso, 2010): “there’s been a longstanding shift in North America and Europe towards paramilitarized policing, using helicopter-style systems, …infared sensing, …really, really heavy militarized weaponry. That’s been longstanding, fuelled by the war on drugs and other sorts of explicit campaigns. But more recently, there’s been a big push since the end of the Cold War by the big defense and security and IT companies to sell things like geographic mapping systems, and even more recently, drone systems, that have been used in the assassination raids in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, as a sort of domestic policing technology.”
One among the many weapons of this “new military urbanism” is the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) – a type of high-tech “sonic cannon” developed by “defense” corporations in league with the military and local law enforcement. It emits a focused beam of sound or ultrasound that “incapacitates enemies” by disrupting and potentially destroying eardrums, causing severe pain and disorientation. First developed to help the military defeat adversaries abroad, it has proven irresistible as a weapon of crowd dispersal in the imperial “homeland,” where elites face the task of imposing neoliberal austerity for the many while the wealthy few (those labeled “the 1%” last year) enjoy fantastic profits and opulence.
After initial restrained homeland deployments by the New York City Police in 2004 (during that year’s Republican National Convention) and the Louisiana National Guard in 2005 (in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), the LRAD’s democracy-deterring scream was unplugged for the first time in the U.S. at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in June of 2009. (Paramilitary local and state police also and bizarrely unleashed the LRAD against Western Illinois University students during an annual college beer party last year.) The LRAD was on hand during metropolitan crackdowns on Occupy Oakland and the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City fall.
The LRAD cannon is just one part of a new publicly financed, privately developed arsenal of proto-totalitarian “non-lethal crowd control technologies” within and beyond the U.S. —a chilling new authoritarian munitions store that could prove fatal to free assembly. One day not so far in the future we may see domestic deployment of a technology known as “the microwave” and “the pain ray.” Developed by the U.S. “defense” contractor Raytheon, this new tool of population control (given the name “Silent Guardian”) is what the Pentagon has called a “revolutionary heat-ray weapon to repel enemies or disperse hostile crowds.”It projects an invisible high energy beam that produces a sudden burning feeling” so intense that “even the most hardened Marines flee after a few seconds of exposure” (British reporter Michael Hanlon)
Some day fairly soon miniature drones will likely be deployed against protestors in an American city. Last February, President Barack Obama signed into law an FAA funding bill that will significantly expand the use of drones in the United States, “opening the skies to hundreds — likely thousands — of unmanned aircraft piloted by companies and public agencies” (Fosters’ Daily Democrat). The legislation directs the FAA to “integrate unmanned aircraft into the civilian airspace” by 2015 and will enable police officers to fly small drones to track and spy on suspects without special approval.
“It Harkened Back to Nazi Germany”
Anyone who doubts urban U.S. police departments’ capacity for military-style repression in the “homeland” should reflect on “liberal” Democratic Oakland Mayor Jean Quam’s pre-dawn assault on the Occupy Movement last October. In the still-dark early morning of October 26th, heavily armored and visor-wearing riot police from no less than ten Bay Area jurisdictions attacked Occupy Oakland campers with a barrage of “rubber bullets,” “chemical agents” and “concussion grenades.” The attack was witnessed by a downtown security guard, who described a chilling, high-tech, Nazi-and “Star Wars”-like assault on 100 or so hundred peaceful occupiers:
“I witnessed the raid on the Occupation Oakland camp, at a little bit after 4:30 in the morning, and it was terrifying to see ….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in…. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way….They shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp…and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation, the way they moved in. It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany where…you had the Nazis, the SS going in and picking up innocent people. It had that tenor. …The helicopters, and the lights, and the loudspeaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside….It was something like out of a Star Wars movie except instead of being in white they were all in black. …they were all in riot gear…with the visors, they looked like automatons, they just moved in, in a line…They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my minds eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper…”
Equally chilling was the militarized dissent-cleansing conducted against the original Occupy Wall Street (OWS) site in New York City’s Zucotti Park in the early morning of November 16th under the orders of Wall Street titan-turned New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By one account, “The area around Zuccotti Park was subject[ed] to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown…[reporters] were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the [OWS] kitchen, as well as the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM… police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.” Journalists described the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) tactics as “a media blackout.”
Chicago in the Vanguard
Thanks to the North Atlantic Treat Organization (NATO) summit to be held in Chicago this weekend, that great Midwestern Metropolis is the current leading U.S. showcase for the new military urbanism of the global North. It is also a case study in the blurring of lines between federal, military and local repressive police authority. The NATO summit has been designated by the Department of Homeland Security as a National Special Security Event (NSSE). This designation puts the United States Secret Service (USSS) in charge of “event security,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in control of “intelligence, counter terrorism, hostage rescue and investigation of incidents of terrorism or other major criminal activities,” and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in control of “recovery management in the aftermath of terrorist or other major criminal incidents, natural disasters or other catastrophic events.”
One month ago, a roaring phalanx of Army Black Hawk attack helicopters swept between skyscrapers over the Chicago River downtown, close to the headquarters of their corporate maker (Boeing). According to the city’s Office of Emergency Management, the war choppers were just “taking part in a routine training session… designed to ensure the military's ability to operate in urban environments as service members meet mandatory training certification requirements and prepare for upcoming overseas deployments.”
Not long thereafter, the federal government announced its decision to create a militarized “Red Zone” in and around the city’s Loop (downtown) to “protect federal buildings” in the run up to the NATO summit. “Operation Red Zone” started on May 1st. Federal agents outfitted in “battle dress uniform,” with weapons slung over their shoulders, appeared on downtown streets, far from the summit’s official site two miles south – McCormick Place. They were deployed to send what leading Chicago antiwar activist Andy Thayer rightly calls “a message of intimidation” meant to discourage protest.
Hundreds of soldiers from the Illinois National Guard are being deployed in Chicago “to help move foreign dignitaries around the center of the city, among other duties” (Chicago Tribune). Another contingent of Guard troops will conduct a large-scale “domestic response drill” just outside the city during the summit. They will be on hand to “provide support in the event of any problems.”
Numerous businesses, schools, museums, and other institutions have been convinced to close during the time around the summit. Mail delivery has been suspended in numerous downtown and South Loop zip codes. In coordination with the USSS, the city has constructed barricades to prevent citizens from moving freely around the city’s lakefront and nearby streets. The authorities have built a set of impenetrable “concentric security zones” around the summit site. Harsh security restrictions are being imposed on riders of the Chicago Metra rail line, who will not be allowed to carry “boxes, luggage, backpacks, pocket knives, bikes, food, or liquid.” The city’s NATO host committee has advised local business owners to protect their properties from protestors with a special plastic film that prevents window-smashing. Downtown bank employees have told a local news station that “some banks have covered windows with an anti-shatter protective coating. BMO Harris [a leading metropolitan bank] sent out a memo advising workers to avoid wearing business suits or clothes bearing the company’s logo. And several banks, including Bank of America, have told staff to work from home” (WLS TV, May 2, 2012).
Police in Chicago have spent $1 million on high-tech “riot-control” equipment in the last few months. Protest groups preparing to march and speak have made repeated statements of peaceful, nonviolent intent, but the new military urbanism in Chicago is determined to “leave nothing to chance.” City and corporate authorities have hired private security mercenaries to control those who oppose NATO’s U.S.-led “humanitarian” militarism. Chicago’s arch-authoritarian and super-militarist mayor Rham Emmanuel (“Rhambo”) has secured the services of county and local police from across the Chicago metropolitan area. The Chicago Police Department (CPD) recently announced that it will be receiving assistance from anti-riot cops sent by Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, North Carolina, home of this year’s Democratic National Convention. Illinois state troopers will work “motorcade duty” and patrol the city’s NATO security command center. Officers from across the state have been called in to help as the Associated Press reports that “Chicago Police are planning a range of crowd-control techniques. The methods include: EXTRACTION (the removal of “individual lawbreakers from crowds to keep problems from escalating”), CUT TEAMS (“dispatched to separate protestors who have chained themselves to each other…to block traffic”), TEAR GAS/PEPPER SPRAY (“to thwart assaults on officers”), CORRALING (“surround[ing] a crowd so non one can move, a method known as ‘kettling’” and SOUND CANNONS which “emit ear-piercing noise to paralyze or disperse crowds”)..
The “extraction” term is troubling. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says he is “committed to extracting any troublemakers involved in anti-NATO demonstrations” (Huffington Post, May 14, 2012). Activists I know tell me they have attended marches where police suddenly and mysteriously snatched up individual protestors and whisked them off to places unknown. The CPD is mum on what exactly qualifies a protestor as a “troublemaker” and therefore as a candidate for sudden disappearance – do the criteria include a facial recognition match with a list of activists captured through an airborne surveillance camera and processed through a laptop in the Secret Service and/or CPD’s crowd control command center(s)?
Along with its investment in standard tools of paramilitary repression (shields, masks, helicopters, chemical agents, rubber bullets, tasers, batons, horses, dogs, buses and vans to carry arrestees, video surveillance, geographic mapping, online and cell-phone monitoring, human infiltrating and much more), Chicago has purchased two LRAD devices at $20,000 each.. Claiming it will use their shiny new sonic cannons only “to ensure [that] a consistent message is delivered to large crowds,” the CPD says nothing about the LRAD’s capacity to cripple ear drums and scatter and disorient citizens who dare to publicly assemble. Air Force-strength earplugs are certainly included in the riot gear ordered for city police on “riot duty.”
“Consider Leaving Town”
Security firms and property associations have warned Chicago businesses and residents of the danger posed by demonstrators who might “turn violent” and attack and rob decent citizens. A mailing to owners from a South Loop condominium association (901 South Plymouth Court, where my mother lived for 30 years) offers the following “Personal Safety/Security” tips for the summit period:
· “Consider leaving town between May 18-22.”
· “If you see something, say something.”
· “Shelter-in-place: Should there be civil unrest, the best place for a resident to be is in their unit. Have supplies ready, including food and water.”
· “Monitor the City’s official website for the Nato summit…www.chicagonato.org”
· “Register on Alert Chicago for updates that can be e-mailed or texted to you…”
· “Be aware that violent protest and property damage may result in overnight curfews and/or the calling in of additional forces such as the National Guard.”
· “If possible, consider working from home on Monday the 21st.”
· “Avoid Daley Plaza, the Federal Plaza, and the Federal Reserve Bank (Jackson & LaSalle).”
· “If you elect to walk about the city between May 18-22, dress down. Do not wear expensive clothes or jewelry or carry purses or fancy shopping bags….”
· Carry picture ID with you at all times.”
The mailing includes a flyer titled “NATO Chicago May 2012” from the Chicago-based corporation TITAN Security Group. Big Brother TITAN offers a number of “Pubic Safety Tips, “including:
· “Avoid secluded, dark, or deserted areas; stay on populated, well-lit streets.”
· “Avoid shortcuts through alleys”
· “Be alert [to] those around you; don’t be an easy target.”
· “Make eye contact with those near you; eye contact often deters an attack because you can identify the person.”
· “Look around you before you use an ATM, go into a stairwell or elevator.”
· “Property is not worth your life; limit amount of valuables you carry…”
· “Carry handbags close to your body so they can’t easily be grabbed.”
· “Carry something that can make a loud noise that can scare off possible attackers.”
· “Note location of nearest hospital and/or urgent care facility”
· “Review and practice building lock-down and evacuation procedures.”
Tying Up the Right to Protest
Since last summer, the city and the Secret Service have treated those interested in exercising their quaint First Amendment right to protest NATO as a problem to be controlled and contained. Activists have spent untold thousands of hours protesting simply for the right to protest. Local and federal authorities have fought them at every turn. The methods of suppression have included a maddening permit process, the adding-on of numerous restrictions on permits (including requirements that activists acquire insurance for any damage that might result from marches and protestors provide authorities well in advance with a list of all signs, banners, sound-equipment, and attention-getting devices that require more than one person to carry them), the raising (through a city ordinance forced by Emmanuel last January) raising fines for violation of the City’s parade ordinance Every step of the way toward getting certified to hold carefully controlled marches and rallies has been a nasty bureaucratic and legal battle – as when the city recently tried to block the National Nurses Association from marching to the Loop’s Daley Plaza because they had decided to bring in former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to perform. Recently, Occupy Chicago activists have reported being traffic-stopped by Chicago police who asked them about the upcoming NATO protests.
The legal obstructionism and police intimidation is quite historically suspect. “After all,” a local television reporter had the gumption to note recently in connection with the Nurses’ march, “two million people celebrated a [Chicago Black Hawks] Stanley Cup [victory in 2010] in the Loop; tens of thousands of converged on [Chicago’s downtown] Daley Plaza for a Super Bowl championship [in 1986]; and Oprah Winfrey closed down Michigan Avenue for two days for her show.” (ABC7 – WLS TV, May 9, 2012). The reporter might have added the tens of thousands who came out to celebrate the Chicago White Sox World Series victory in 2005 and the 1 million who came out to glory in current top U.S./NATO war commander Barack Obama’s election victory in November of 2008.
These are the sorts of things many of use were expected to witness on the part of hated totalitarian states like the former Soviet Union.
NATO is Good/Good for Chicago
By my observation, the local media does not want to feed any sense that city authorities do not have things under control. The media want to sell Chicago as a wonderful place to visit and spend tourist and convention dollars this spring, summer, and century. Thus, the local evening news shows and the two city papers have not really joined in the official protest phobia or enlisted in the cause of fanning fears over the protests – at least not yet. I’ve seen, heard, and read a number of half-way decent, almost respectful media reports on the protest groups and some of their concerns. Still, there is northing serious or substantive to be heard of read from the talking television heads or other local mass media outlets about the pathological, mass-murderous violence of the world’s leading war states (all affiliated with NATO), the U.S. above all. The media say nothing about Washington and NATO’s targeting of civilian sites in Libya, or about Washington and NATO’s killing and maiming of civilians and denial of civilian casualties in Libya and Afghanistan, or about the thoroughly illegal and unnecessary nature of the invasion of Afghanistan, or about how Washington and NATO will continue the occupation of Afghanistan (something that will only help the Taliban tighten its grip there) long past 2014, or about how Washington and NATO’s disingenuously named and recently escalated “missile defense” system threatens and provokes nuclear Russia in gravely dangerous ways, or about how NATO is expanding operations to contain and provoke nuclear China, or about the cold petro-imperial ambitions behind these actions and policies, or about the deadly role that NATO states and their militaries are playing in the destruction of a livable natural environment, or about the urgent need to transfer resources from the massive Pentagon System (responsible for roughly half the world’s military spending and the maintenance of more than 1000 military bases spread across more than 130 not-so sovereign nations) to the meeting of social needs in a nation where a record-setting 46 million people live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty line while the nation’s top hundredth (“the 1%”) owns more than 40 percent of all wealth (the bottom 40 percent owns 0.3% of the country’s net worth, basically nothing) – this in a world where billions struggle to live on less than $1 day.
The dominant metropolitan corporate media naturally offers no reality-based challenge to the City of Chicago’s official NATO website’s vapid and doctrinaire description (in a link titled “What is NATO?”) of the militantly expansionist body as a purely defensive and humanitarian alliance dedicated to “peacekeeping,” “security,” “partnership,” “relief,” the “protection of civilians” and the combating of piracy and terrorism. Instead, local news consumers hear and read about how the NATO gathering is a “once-in-a lifetime” chance to see bold “leaders” join together to “confront global challenges.” Chicagoans are read happy, feel-good stories with titles like the following: “Madeline Albright: NATO Good for Chicago,” “Chicago’s Poles Eager for Visit From Their President During NATO Summit.” “City Seeks Love at Summit,” and “CPS Students Make Videos Welcoming NATO Delegates.” Given all the happy and favorable, civic-boosterist vibe about the fun and nobility of NATO, the protestors seem to have no serious reason to protest.
The protestors in Chicago (I will be one) will be confronting the American Empire at home/come home – an inverted form of imperial blowback – in more ways than one. They will be facing off against Empire’s massive domestic social opportunity and justice cost, its dissent-phobic (in)security culture, its Orwellian deception and propaganda, its corporate and state-capitalist foundation, and its authoritarian privileging of force and violence over and against democratic deliberation. Protestors will also confront Empire’s ever-evolving technologies and methods of repression – tools often fashioned with foreign foes in mind but with “mission creep” applications authorities find irresistible for democracy-deterring domestic use. As James Madison once observed, “The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.”
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at [email protected]. In his first appearance in a legendary Chicago Blues club, Street will speak on media coverage of the 2012 NATO Summit at a meeting held by the National Writers Union at Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 West Armitage, Chicago, IL ( on Friday, May 18, 2012 at 6:30 pm.