Posse Comitatus, Ferguson, Missouri, and Racialized Military Policing

Many United-States-of Americans like to think that they are fortunate to live a nation where the military is prohibited from interference in domestic civil affairs. Thanks is often given to the 1875 Posse Comitatus Act (hereafter “PCA”), commonly seen as prohibiting the use of the US Armed Forces in domestic policing. US citizens are fortunate, the narrative runs, not to face the threat of a military police state – of military rule on their streets. The PCA is credited with keeping the US military out of the business of “executing the laws” (language from the act).

Posse Comitatus Act Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The narrative should be rethought for at least three reasons. First of all, the PCA is loaded with qualifications and limits that render it far less than a comprehensive ban on the “homeland” use of the military. As the civil libertarian journalist and author Radley Balko explains, the PCA is “commonly misunderstood to bar the president or Congress from using the military to enforce federal or state law. That isn’t quite correct. The law only prevents domestic law enforcement officials from using the military to enforce the law without authority from the president or Congress. It puts no restrictions on the president or Congress.”

US courts have held that the phrase “executing the laws” refers to “hands-on policing”: searching, arresting, and coercing citizens. But the PCA does not bar the military from giving equipment and training to domestic authorities – or from working thereby to cultivate a warrior culture among local, county, and state “peace officers.”

The PCA applies only to Army regulars and federalized National Guardsmen. If Guard units stay under the authority of state governors, the legislation is null.

The PCA does not ban the domestic employment of the military in “hands-on policing” as long as Congress passes a statutory “exception.” There are numerous such exceptions in place, including a “military purpose” allowance. When the Army is used domestically “to achieve a military purpose” and incidentally reinforces civilian policing, it does not violate the act.

And despite the fact that the PCA has been clearly violated many times since its passage, the US Department of Justice has never once prosecuted anyone for violating the legislation.

“Homeland” Military Deployments: A Short History

Second, there is a rich history of the US military being deployed in domestic policing and repression both before and since the PCA. Leading past incidents of military deployment in the “homeland” include:

  • The use of federal militia to put down the agrarian Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
  • Frequent military deployments in the 1850s to enforce the odious Fugitive Slave Act by dispersing abolitionist protests and forcibly returning alleged escapade slaves to bondage.
  • Repression of nationwide railroad worker strikes in 1877.
  • Repression of striking workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892.
  • Repression of railroad and other workers during the 1894 Pullman Strike.
  • Repression of striking miners, followed by two years of federal martial law in Coeur d’Alene, Utah, 1899-1901
  • Repression of striking mineworkers in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914.
  • Numerous crushed strikes, occupation of the copper mining regions of Arizona and Montana, and destruction of the International Workers of the World (IWW) during and after World War I (historian Jerry Cooper notes that “unrestrained federal military intervention… substantially slowed unionization for more than a decade.”)
  • The deployment of the US Army infantry and cavalry (under the direction of US Army chief of staff Douglas MacArthur) to crush the unemployed veterans Bonus Army camp in Washington DC in July 1932.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1943 Detroit race riot.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1965 Los Angeles Watts riot.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1967 Detroit race riot.
  • Numerous Army National Guard deployments to repress antiwar and urban black protests during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1992 Los Angeles (Rodney King) riot: the US Army 7th Infantry and the 1st US Marines Division were deployed along with the California Army National Guard

Rise of the Warrior Cop

A third reason not to get too proud of the United States’ purported grand civil-libertarian tradition of keeping the military out of law enforcement is more indirect in nature. As Radley Balko notes in his useful recent book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013):

“the principle of keeping the US military out of law enforcement [has] remained largely intact. Despite the best efforts of too many politicians, [the] public has still tended to recoil at the idea of putting soldiers on city streets, even for a brief time, much less for day-to-day law enforcement…That’s the good news. The bad news…[is that] we’ve done a poor job, to borrow a bit of martial rhetoric, of guarding our flanks. The biggest threat today…comes from indirect militarization. Instead of allowing our soldiers to serve as cops, we’re turning our cops into soldiers. It’s a threat the Founders didn’t anticipate, that nearly all politicians support, and that much of the public either seems to support or just hasn’t given much attention….No one made a decision to militarize the police in America. The change has come slowly, as a result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring wars on abstractions like crime, drug use, and terrorism. The resulting policies have made those war metaphors increasingly real” (emphasis added).

Dystopian Scenes: Ferguson as the West Bank

The recent flood of clips and images (on television and online) from the predominantly black and poor St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri are all too consistent with Balko’s observation. They promise to increase public attention to the problem of police militarization. In response to legitimate black popular anger and protest over yet another fatal shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in the US (an endemic problem in not-so “post-racial” America), predominantly white police from Ferguson, other jurisdictions, and (above all) St. Louis County went into paramilitary and anti-insurgent mode – reminding many viewers of Israel’s repressive tactics in Gaza and the West Bank. The police donned helmets, shields, flak vests, gas masks, and shields, using armored vehicles as they dispersed crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons. SWAT team members brandished high-powered assault rifles, aiming their deadly military-issue weapons at unarmed fellow civilians.

Apparently the Israel connection is more than mere analogy. According to reporter Rania Khalek at the Website Electronic Intifada:

“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, prompting 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” (emphasis added).

From Warfighter to Crimefighter…and Back

Two Ferguson images I just can’t shake: the picture of a St. Louis County sniper sitting with his state-of-the-art killing machine attached to its elaborate stand like a US Marine pausing between fatal shots in Fallujah; the picture of a young longhaired black man wearing blue jeans, a bright blue t-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap with a cloth bag over his left shoulder and both hands in the air while five white para-militaries wearing gas masks move aggressively towards him with assault rifles pointing at his chest and face.

In Ferguson and St. Louis County as in thousands of other jurisdictions across the country, local authorities have received significant amounts of military equipment from the Pentagon. The materials obtained range from pistols and automatic rifles to heavy armored vehicles used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The surplus military disbursements have been coming into local police departments in rising quantities ever since Congress created the “1033” program in the early 1990s. The program’s motto: “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.” The equipment and the training required to use it often come with deadly culture baggage, helping turn local police from civilians engaged in law enforcement to soldiers involved in the control of subjects.

By 2005, Balko reports, 80 percent of US towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000) had SWAT teams, up from 25 percent in 1980 (the number is certainly close to 100% in cities above 50,000). In 2005 alone, an astonishing 60,000 local SWAT raids (most undertaken to serve a drug warrant) took place across the nation.

It Helps But You Don’t Have to be Black to Face the New Warrior Cops

Across the nation as well as in Ferguson, the militarization of US local police has been a strongly racialized phenomenon. To no small extent, the process was sparked off by white racist reaction to the Black Civil Rights movement and the urban Black uprisings of the 1960s. Warrior-style policing has been fueled ever since by the racially hyper-disparate so-called War on Drugs – the leading force behind the ugly facts that the US is now far and away the world’s leading incarceration state while 1 in 3 black adult males carry the crippling lifelong stigma (what law professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

At the same time, you don’t necessarily have to be Black or Latino to get on the wrong wide of the new military police state. Besides the many Caucasians who have been killed and maimed by local, state, and country drug warriors, predominantly (though not at all exclusively) white US protestors have faced off against significantly militarized local, county, and state police (and mercenary corporate security forces) in Seattle (the WTO protests of 1999, when para-militarized police famously tear-gassed middle class neighborhoods), New York (the Republican National Convention, when the NYPD first rolled the Long Range Acoustic Device [sound cannon – LRAD] for domestic crowd control purposes), St. Paul (the 2008 RNC), Denver (the 2008 Democratic National Convention), Pittsburgh (2009 G8 protests), and Chicago (2012 anti-NATO and anti-plutocracy marches and demonstrations).

There are limits to the honorary Blackness you will be granted by the militarized police if you are a white protestor in the US today. While you may get tear-gassed, billy-clubbed, shoved to the ground, handcuffed, and briefly imprisoned, it is extremely unlikely that you will be shot dead or choked or tazed to death like hundreds of Black victims of police (and private security) violence each year. The Malcom X Grassroots Movement’s finds that a Black American is killed by a police officer, a security guard, or a self-appointed vigilante guards once every 28 hours (on average) in the US (see MXGM’s study “Operation Ghetto Storm,” at http://mxgm.org/operation-ghetto-storm-2012-annual-report-on-the-extrajudicial-killing-of-313-black-people/http://mxgm.org/operation-ghetto-storm-2012-annual-report-on-the-extrajudicial-killing-of-313-black-people/). The Kent State slaughter (of four white antiwar protestors by the Ohio National Guard in May of 1970) remains a great anomaly – a tiny Caucasian taste of the deadly violence that US police have long used and still routinely use against Black Americans on a regular basis.

Which is not to say that a white man cannot get a positive chill down his spine from the nation’s new breed of warrior cops. Having attended and participated in the last protest noted (Chicago 2012), I can personally testify to the positively dystopian feel of seeing unarmed peaceful marchers surrounded by legions of heavily equipped para-militarized Darth Vader-like “local” police from numerous jurisdictions. The officers glower at you from behind plastic face shields, with giant batons in hand while jackbooted commanders survey the scene atop horses. Black police vans speed through the street with recently arrested insurgents. The ever-present police helicopters whir high above, watching every move. Police teams stand nearby with the city’s recently acquired sound cannons, ready to be deployed to ear-splitting effect in case things get “out of control.”

It doesn’t take much to feel like an official Enemy of the State and when you do it doesn’t seem to matter all that much if the spiteful-looking agent of repression is glowering at you from behind a uniform that says “POLICE” or one that reads “ARMY.”

Besides being overrated on its own terms, the Posse Comitatus Act is somewhat beside the point in this Brave New World of militarized policing.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014,http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)



  1. george patterson August 23, 2014 4:55 pm 

    Concerning the “Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1967 Detroit race riot”, let us set the record straight that the mass media was incorrect to state only about forty + African American protestors were killed during that riot. According to the late Reverend John Russell, an American episcopalian priest, who was present there during the riot, the US military massacred hundreds of African Americans, including those who were not involved in the riot. They pursued them like Ku Klux Klan night riders and butchered them Many of them took shelter in the Episcopalian Church that the late Reverend David Gracie, an American Episcopalian priest, servd in in that city in order to escape the slaughter, according to Reverend John Russell.

  2. george patterson August 23, 2014 4:52 pm 

    Concerning the “Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1967 Detroit race riot”, let us set the record straight that the mass media was incorrect to state only about forty + African American protestors were killed during that riot. According to the late Reverend John Russell, an American episcopalian priest, who was present there during the riot, the US military massacred hundreds of African Americans, including those who were not involved in the riot. They pursued them like Ku Klux Klan night riders and butchered them Many of them took shelter in the Episcopalian Church that the late R

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