From Gaza to Ferguson: A Pattern of Increased Militarism and Brutality

In the summer of 2014, the people of Ferguson were brutally subjected to a military-style crackdown by local law enforcement following the murder of teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Police officers who appeared more like combat soldiers pointed military-grade assault rifles at peaceful protesters. Paramilitary units dressed in camouflage fired tear gas into residents’ front yards, and armored personnel carriers (APCs) rampaged through the streets of residential neighborhoods.

In the summer of 2015, at a weekend pool party in McKinney, Texas, police officer David Eric Casebolt brutally took down a fifteen year-old girl.  Arriving at the pool party to which police had reportedly been called for noise complaints, Casebolt showed up on scene and did a barrel roll as if he were under fire. After cursing at the girl and violently slamming her into the ground, Casebolt pulled out his gun on the bystanders who attempted to diffuse the situation and get the girl out of harm’s way.

What do these two examples of American police brutality have in common? Both the tactics and military equipment deployed by the St Louis County Police Department, in charge of “occupying” Ferguson in the summer of 2014, as well as the form of martial arts called Krav Maga which Casebolt used to take down the 15 year-old, originally came from Israel.

With more than 60 years of experience in military occupation, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, racial profiling, and apartheid, the Israeli security and intelligence apparatus has made a killing out of exporting their repressive tactics and militarized products to other nations. Israel’s war economy — which includes the exportation of drones and weapons, as well as military, police, and “counterterrorism” training — has not only profited from increased militarism and brutality across the globe, but it has also had a significant impact in shaping transnational policing norms. Israel participates heavily in international arms, drones, and policing realms and as a result more and more police departments across the globe are beginning to mirror Israel’s apartheid tactics. This rise in “emulating apartheid” has been particularly troubling in the United States, where the militarization of police forces has reached a terrifying peak.

Since the attacks of September 11th, more than 300 high-level sheriff and police officers from agencies across the country have been sent to Israel on privately funded trips to receive training from Israel’s military, intelligence apparatus, and police force. Over 9000 American police officials have trained with Israeli police and military units in “counterterrorism” response.

Three American organizations are responsible for providing these training opportunities and seminars: the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. These organizations tout Israel’s long-standing expertise in dealing with terrorism and national security issues as they seek to facilitate relationships between two of the most racist, militarized, and brutal police forces in the world.

Many of the largest police departments in the United States have connections to Israel’s war economy. After 9/11, the New York Police Department (NYPD) created the now-disbanded “Demographics Unit,” which was designed to spy on Muslim and Arab citizens in New York. The NYPD’s Demographics Unit was modeled after an Israeli program which had been used to spy on Palestinians in the West Bank since 1967. In 2013, executives from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) traveled to Israel on a private trip to learn about drones and other surveillance technology. Just a year later, in May 2014, the LAPD added drones to its expanding collection of militarized weapons. The head IT person for the LAPD on the trip commented:

Now let’s be honest … This whole idea of best practices is just a euphemism for: We’re here to steal some of your great ideas. And a lot of great ideas and technology, indeed, you do have here in Israel. I would hope that you do not view this as a negative, because in this day and age of globalization, our needs are truly similar. In fact, we are much more alike than dis-alike. As civilized nations, we are all confronted with, in many cases, the same enemy: The ever-growing threat of terrorism and other major criminal elements.

The notion that American police officials should learn how to respond to “the ever-growing threat of terrorism” from an apartheid state which is engaged in an illegal and brutal military occupation of Palestine is deeply troubling. As Israeli policing norms are exported to the United States, we see an increase in occupation-style policing, which directly targets the populace with militarized tactics and equipment. Occupation-style policing does not  respect the right of people to engage in peaceful protest; rather, it views the people as a “problem” who need to be dealt with using force. Shakeel Syed, president of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, articulates the way in which American policing increasingly mirrors that of Israel:

Whether it is in Ferguson or L.A., we see a similar response all the time in the form of a disproportionate number of combat-ready police with military gear who are ready to use tear gas at short notice. Whenever you find 50 people at a demonstration, there is always a SWAT team in sight or right around the corner.

The exportation of the Israeli security and intelligence apparatus’ tactics to the United States has been complemented by programs such as the 1033 program, which provide local law enforcement departments with military-grade weapons, gear, and vehicles. With the motto, “From warfighter to crimefighter,” the 1033 program has facilitated a massive increase in the militarization of police agencies across the country. Now, our police departments are beginning to look more like standing armies.

Through the 1033 program, the very same weapons which have been used by the Israeli military for decades to disperse protests in the West Bank — tear gas grenades, triple chaser gas canisters, and stun grenades — have now found their way to American protests. At protests in Ferguson, Anaheim, and Oakland in the summer of 2014, police used all three of the former to disperse protesters. The LRAD (long range acoustic device) which was used to disperse protests in Ferguson was reportedly first used by the Israeli military in the occupied Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 2005.

Though American law enforcement’s relationships with Israel have contributed to a massive increase in militarization, the militarism and brutality that we see in our police force today is homegrown. As American citizens, the question before us is: what does it say about our police forces that they would seek training from an apartheid, occupying, fully-militarized regime? Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, comments that, “If American police and sheriffs consider they’re in occupation of neighborhoods like Ferguson and East Harlem, this training is extremely appropriate – they’re learning how to suppress a people, deny their rights and use force to hold down a subject population.” When you look closely, the geography of the American police force looks like the geography of an occupying military.

I see this in the way that the police force protects white communities while targeting, attacking, monitoring, and spying on communities of color. I see it in the way that gentrification, displacement, poverty, and segregation have fractured communities along the color line — literally creating a geography that is based on race — and then policed communities according to that particular, calculated fracture.

I grew up in a small town in western North Carolina, in a mostly middle class white neighborhood. My neighborhood was in the outer reaches of the downtown area. In one direction, you would find more white middle class neighborhoods, the main high school, the hospital, lots of businesses, and the “center of town.” In the opposite direction, you would find the projects, whose residents were Black and Latinx folks.

One main road divided my neighborhood from the projects. On this road, you would find cops constantly, patrolling the border between what needed to be protected and what posed a threat.  It was clear from the way the cops operated in my neighborhood that they were there to “protect and serve”: any time the cops were in my neighborhood, they were there because someone who felt threatened had called them. They would smile at us and tip their caps as we played in the streets, and so we learned that cops were good, that they were there to ensure our safety and keep things in order.

Across the road and into the projects, cops were anything but guarantors of peace and justice. In the projects, cops were there to keep an eye on things; to monitor an ever-lurking threat; to suppress and control; and to prevent any trouble from spilling across the border and into my neighborhood.

This is the geography of occupation policing, where certain (read: white) communities are maintained and protected from the communities (read: of color) which supposedly pose a threat. This is the geography of occupation policing, where the way in which the police operate in a community depends fundamentally on race. It should come as no surprise that the American police force has such a strong relationship with the Israeli security and intelligence apparatus– an expert in military occupations, apartheid, and racial profiling– because the geography of American policing itself tells us that the police are there to carry out an operation that looks something like apartheid, occupation, and racial profiling. But when combined with Israeli tactics, counterterrorism training, and militarized weapons, this geography spells out something truly terrifying: a police force that acts more like a standing army, complete with military-grade weapons and equipment, that increasingly protects white communities while targeting communities of color.

Baheya is an anti-Zionist, anti-racist, and feminist student organizer. In the summer of 2015, they co-led a project in Palestine called BINAT: Play for Peace, which was aimed at providing young refugee girls and women with access to leadership training and development as well as strategic community building and political organizing networks through soccer. Read other articles by Baheya, or visit Baheya's website.