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Swat Team Essay

The moment the assault rifles surrounded her, Angie Wong was standing in a leafy art-gallery courtyard with her boyfriend, a lawyer named Paul Kaiser. It was just past 2 A.M., in May, 2008. Wong was twenty-two years old and was dressed for an evening out, in crisp white jeans, a white top, and tall heels that made it difficult not to wobble. The couple had stopped by a regular event hosted by the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID), a red brick gallery with the aim of “turning Detroit into a model city,” and arrived to find a tipsy, jubilant scene: inside, gallerygoers were looking at art and dancing to a d.j.; outside, on the patio, several young women were goofily belting out the lyrics to “Hakuna Matata,” from “The Lion King”:

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase.
It means no worries for the rest of your days.
It’s our problem-free philosophy. Hakuna Matata!

Only then did masked figures with guns storm the crowd, shouting, “Get on the fucking ground! Get down, get down!” (I document the basic details of what happened in my story, in this week’s magazine, about the police’s use and abuse of civil-asset-forfeiture laws.) Some forty Detroit police officers dressed in commando gear ordered the gallery attendees to line up on their knees, then took their car keys and confiscated their vehicles, largely on the grounds that the gallery lacked the proper permits for dancing and drinking. (More than forty cars were seized, and owners paid around a thousand dollars each to get them back.) “I was so scared,” Wong told me. At first, she thought the raid was an armed robbery. “Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Paul getting kicked in the face.” In the dimly lit security footage, the scene looks like something out of a thriller about Navy SEALs. Paul said, “I was scared for my life.”

In my magazine article, I focus on one key question about the raid, and about countless others like it across America: Does it make sense that civil-forfeiture laws, which allow police to confiscate and keep property that is allegedly tied to criminal activity, are often enforced at gunpoint against, say, nonviolent partygoers? But there’s another important question, highlighted by the operation at CAID: What, fundamentally, are SWAT teams for? When does it make sense to use machine guns, armored vehicles, and flash-bang grenades on a crowd of people or on a family, and how are these warfare-inspired approaches to law enforcement changing America?

In 1972, America conducted only a few hundred paramilitary drug raids a year, according to Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” By the early nineteen-eighties, there were three thousand a year; by 2001, Alexander notes, the annual count had skyrocketed to forty thousand. Today, even that number seems impossibly low; with one annual count of combat-style home raids hovers around eighty thousand. (The title of Alexander’s book reflects the racially disparate impacts of these policies.)

In some cases, the rationale for using military weapons and tactics on domestic soil seems obvious: look no further, proponents argue, than the recent hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers after the Boston Marathon bombings. But what’s remarkable is how routine these tactics have become as a means of pursuing nonviolent suspects and low-level investigations, particularly in the war on drugs. Thousands of police departments nationwide have recently acquired stun grenades, armored tanks, counterattack vehicles, and other paramilitary equipment, much of it purchased with asset-forfeiture funds. In addition, as ABC reports, a U.S. Department of Defense program, often called the Pentagon Pipeline, has redistributed billions of dollars’ worth of surplus military gear to local police forces, a significant portion of it repurposed from Iraq and Afghanistan. (For example, a Humvee was used to patrol a school campus.) These acquisitions have no doubt helped to transform full-scale, bust-down-the-door raids on homes and businesses from red-alert rarities, reserved for life-threatening scenarios, to commonplace occurrences.

Few people understand this change as well as Radley Balko, the author of a fascinating and at times wrenching new book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” For years, Balko has been an incisive chronicler of the drug war. In the course of the past few months, on the Huffington Post, he’s featured the “raid of the day,” cataloguing examples of SWAT operations gone hauntingly wrong. (One involved an unarmed twenty-one-year-old named Trevon Cole, who was shot dead during a botched drug raid on his Las Vegas apartment; his name had been confused with that of another man. In another case, a forty-one-year-old computer engineer named Cheryl Ann Stillwell was killed during a SWAT raid in Florida, based on a tip alleging the sale of two Oxycontin pills.) Balko’s raid taxonomy seems almost endless, and, indeed, his book situates these violent incidents in a history that stretches back to the years preceding the American Revolution. The Founders, Balko notes, evinced a clear “wariness of standing armies … born of experience and a study of history,” and they designed the Constitution expressly to guard against the home raids, property seizures, and other routine indignities to which the Britain subjected its colonists. “If even the earlier attempts at centralized police forces would have alarmed the Founders, today’s policing would have terrified them,” Balko writes.

“This is not an anti-cop book,” Balko stresses more than once in “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” His point, rather, is that “systems governed by bad policies and motivated by incentives will produce bad outcomes.”

There is still a lot that we don’t know about what these policies and their outcomes look like. Transparency has been mostly lacking. In March, affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union filed more than two hundred and sixty public-records requests in twenty-five states, seeking information from law-enforcement agencies and National Guard offices on how federal funding has helped to drive the militarization of local and state police departments. Kara Dansky, the senior counsel of the A.C.L.U.’s Center for Justice, told me that the resulting data have just begun to pour in, and many agencies have proved to be coöperative. The biggest surprise thus far, Dansky says, is how little uniformity and clarity there is about when officers are advised to use extreme SWAT tactics, particularly in cases where mentally ill or suicidal individuals are the targets. “One major trend that we’re seeing is that police departments across the country vary tremendously in terms of how, if at all, they document information pertaining to their SWAT deployments,” Dansky said. “We have very little doubt that there are circumstances where the use of military tactics or equipment would be an appropriate response to a domestic law-enforcement situation.… But there aren’t always clear standards in place for when certain tactics are appropriate.”

One thing that is in place is a growing cadre of citizens who are willing to document their own daily encounters with militarization, and, in some regions, police are willing to engage in critical dialogue about it. (The new film “Fruitvale Station” begins with cell-phone footage of Oscar Grant’s shooting, in San Francisco.) In several of the cases I write about in this week’s magazine, individuals who felt unfairly subjected to hyperaggressive law-enforcement tactics and to racial profiling snuck recording devices into their cars or documented the damage later, with cell-phone cameras. Groups like Copwatch are encouraging people to think of their cell phones as devices for capturing these experiences; there is already a proliferation of such videos on YouTube and elsewhere on the Web.

The raid at CAID took place in the dark, at a moment when cell-phone-camera footage was not yet standard currency. Today, the watched can watch back, on repeat. The next time a young woman starts singing “Hakuna Matata” in a courtyard somewhere, then finds herself thrown to the ground with an assault rifle to her head in the name of public safety, we may be able to see footage of it, and to ask ourselves: Does this approach to keeping the peace make sense?

Photograph by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty.

( 2 of 7 )

Why should anyone care today that the pundits were unkind to Bernie Sanders? The primaries are long over. Even the senator’s most die-hard fans suspect that he is unlikely to run for the presidency again. His campaign is, as we like to say, history. Still, I think that what befell the Vermont senator at the hands of the Post should be of interest to all of us. For starters, what I describe here represents a challenge to the standard theory of liberal bias. Sanders was, obviously, well to the left of Hillary Clinton, and yet that did not protect him from the scorn of the Post—a paper that media-hating conservatives regard as a sort of liberal death squad. Nor was Sanders undone by some seedy journalistic obsession with scandal or pseudoscandal. On the contrary, his record seemed remarkably free of public falsehoods, security-compromising email screwups, suspiciously large paychecks for pedestrian speeches, escapades with a comely staffer, or any of that stuff.

An alternative hypothesis is required for what happened to Sanders, and I want to propose one that takes into account who the media are in these rapidly changing times. As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views. He seems to have represented something horrifying, something that could not be spoken of directly but that clearly needed to be suppressed.

Who are those people? Let us think of them in the following way. The Washington Post, with its constant calls for civility, with its seemingly genetic predisposition for bipartisanship and consensus, is more than the paper of record for the capital—it is the house organ of a meritocratic elite, which views the federal city as the arena of its professional practice. Many of its leading personalities hail from a fairly exalted socioeconomic background (as is the case at most important American dailies). Its pundits are not workaday chroniclers of high-school football games or city-council meetings. They are professionals in the full sense of the word, well educated and well connected, often flaunting insider credentials of one sort or another. They are, of course, a comfortable bunch. And when they look around at the comfortable, well-educated folks who work in government, academia, Wall Street, medicine, and Silicon Valley, they see their peers.1

1 The professionalization of journalism is a well-known historical narrative. James Fallows, in Breaking the News (1996), describes how journalism went from being “a high working-class activity” to an occupation for “college boys” in the mid-1960s. The Washington Post’s role in this story, as a compulsive employer of Ivy League graduates, is also well known. Indeed, the concentration of obnoxious Ivy Leaguers at the Post was once so great, Fallows writes, that editor Leonard Downie (who went to Ohio State) was known among his colleagues as “Land-Grant Len.” At present, five of the eight members of the Post’s editorial board are graduates of Ivy League universities.

Now, consider the recent history of the Democratic Party. Beginning in the 1970s, it has increasingly become an organ of this same class. Affluent white-collar professionals are today the voting bloc that Democrats represent most faithfully, and they are the people whom Democrats see as the rightful winners in our economic order. Hillary Clinton, with her fantastic résumé and her life of striving and her much-commented-on qualifications, represents the aspirations of this class almost perfectly. An accomplished lawyer, she is also in with the foreign-policy in crowd; she has the respect of leading economists; she is a familiar face to sophisticated financiers. She knows how things work in the capital. To Washington Democrats, and possibly to many Republicans, she is not just a candidate but a colleague, the living embodiment of their professional worldview.

In Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” on the other hand, I believe these same people saw something kind of horrifying: a throwback to the low-rent Democratic politics of many decades ago. Sanders may refer to himself as a progressive, but to the affluent white-collar class, what he represented was atavism, a regression to a time when demagogues in rumpled jackets pandered to vulgar public prejudices against banks and capitalists and foreign factory owners. Ugh.

Choosing Clinton over Sanders was, I think, a no-brainer for this group. They understand modern economics, they know not to fear Wall Street or free trade. And they addressed themselves to the Sanders campaign by doing what professionals always do: defining the boundaries of legitimacy, by which I mean, defining Sanders out.

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Thomas Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books). His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Nor a Lender Be,” appeared in the April 2016 issue.

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