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Nathan Bradley Bethea: Echoes of Blackwater in Ferguson, Missouri

August 15, 2014

A veteran of Afghanistan on the botched militarization of the Ferguson police.

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Image from Flickr via smilecreek

By Nathan Bradley Bethea

When I was deployed to Afghanistan, my battalion commander—that is to say, the senior American soldier for half of Paktika province—made it a point to remove his protective gear when meeting with Afghans. If we attended a meeting inside an Afghan compound, even in the open air, he removed his helmet and vest, his gloves and ballistic eye protection, everything. He left his weapon with a guard. He was not being naïve; he did it because he wanted to build rapport with his Afghan counterparts. Mutual respect was integral to our mission.

My commander understood something that the police in Ferguson clearly don’t: it doesn’t make sense to dress like you’re expecting an automatic-fire gunfight if such a threat is highly unlikely.

My commander wasn’t taking unnecessary risks: he made an assessment of what was a credible threat, and he took steps to mitigate it. He understood something that the police in Ferguson clearly don’t: it doesn’t make sense to dress like you’re expecting an automatic-fire gunfight if such a threat is highly unlikely. In fact, to do so is not just counterproductive, but dangerous. To dress this way and enter a conference room full of Afghans in traditional pajamas and vests would be both absurd and insulting. It would suggest that we thought all Afghans, even the government members risking Taliban assassination, were terrorists. How could we build trust with a restive population while constantly threatening to deploy instantaneous deadly force? That’s an easy one: we couldn’t.

You do not point a weapon at anyone you do not intend to kill.

The images of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri have stunned and disappointed me, both as a military veteran and as a human being. Defense technology journalist Kelsey D. Atherton assembled a collection of tweets by other military veterans showing similar reactions. To the untrained eye, these police in these images are indistinguishable from the U.S. military. They have identical equipment, and recent stories by the Atlantic and the New York Times show that the Department of Defense has transferred hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to local police departments across the country. However, it does not appear that they spent a commensurate amount on training these policemen. From a professional military standpoint, their conduct is absolutely indefensible. Here’s why:

First, the absolute most fundamental rule of weapon safety is that you do not point a weapon at anyone you do not intend to kill. As such, the scenes of St. Louis County policemen aiming military assault rifles and sniper rifles at protesters horrify me. That the police would threaten protesters with death as a means of shooing them back to their homes indicates an indescribable training failure, not to mention a total lack of human decency.

That the police would threaten protestors with death as a means of shooing them back to their homes indicates an indescribable training failure, not to mention a total lack of human decency.

Second, there is the question of the equipment. I have not seen any pictures of Ferguson police using actual machine guns, which are weapons that fire linked bullets at high speed. I have mostly seen M4 carbine assault rifles, which make sense for a police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to use in a dangerous raid, but not for routine patrols or riot response. First, arming every police officer with an assault rifle is a wildly inappropriate level of force, akin to putting nails into drywall with a sledgehammer. For riot police, I can understand helmets, in case rioters throw projectiles. I can understand bulletproof vests, in case rioters are in fact armed. I can understand shields for the same purposes, and batons, too. I can even understand a SWAT team on standby in case it does turn in to a shooting engagement. But, why have police with assault rifles respond to a protest? Those M4 carbines, whose manufacturer Colt calls “the weapon of the 21st century warfighter,” have magazines that typically carry thirty rounds, and they can fire as quickly as the firer can pull the trigger (they are typically not fully-automatic). From a tactical standpoint, this misapplication of force is beyond counter-intuitive. It’s negligent. It’s criminally stupid. A protest is not a riot—and if a riot does occur, it’s not military operation. The level of force should reflect that.

The Ferguson PD doesn’t look like the police. It doesn’t even look like the military. It looks like Blackwater, kitted up in expensive gear, ready to deal death with impunity.

Most of the helmets in images from Ferguson are not even riot masks like those seen in the Albuquerque police brutality protests. They’re Advanced Combat Helmets, made by a variety of prison-labor manufacturers for military use. And those vests they’re wearing are, too—they’re Improved Outer Tactical Vests stuffed with armored plates meant to stop high-powered rounds. Their camouflage is military-issue, and not even patterned in a way that would provide any tactical advantage beyond intimidation. They’re driving vehicles designed to endure anti-tank mines. There is no possible anti-tank mine threat in Ferguson. Those weapons are in many instances newer and better than the ones used by active-duty Army units. To me, the Ferguson PD doesn’t look like the police. It doesn’t even look like the military. It looks like Blackwater, kitted up in expensive gear, ready to deal death with impunity. It looks like amateur hour, except the amateurs have live ammunition.

The Ferguson PD have decided to treat protesting citizens as an enemy formation, which they are not.

The Ferguson PD have decided to treat protesting citizens as an enemy formation, which they are not. I can’t help but think about my battalion commander in Afghanistan. We were an occupying military force in a foreign country with an active insurgency. There were regular bomb detonations in our province, many of which were revenge attacks against Afghans who collaborated with the Karzai government. The enemy didn’t wear a uniform. We didn’t speak their language. And yet, we had leaders who made it a point to engage with the civilian population as human beings, the kind of leaders that the Ferguson police department does not have. There is no language barrier in Ferguson, nor is there an insurgency or an occupation. This is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. This is not a war zone. This is not Gezi Park or Tahrir Square. This is America, though you wouldn’t know it.

Nathan Bradley Bethea is a creative writing MFA student at Brooklyn College. He previously served as a U.S. Army infantry officer from 2007 until 2014. His work has appeared in the Daily Beast, The Morning News, the Iowa Review and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Follow him on twitter at @inthesedeserts

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