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How The War On Terror Also Became A War On Black America

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For those of us who were old enough to experience 9/11 and understand the gravity of what was happening, it was evident 9/11 was a transformational moment that would change America from that point forward. 

Perhaps the most impactful and noticeable impact of the terrorist attacks was the initiation of the War on Terror, a world-spanning campaign to battle terrorism in the name of defending America from another attack.

Meanwhile, the years since 9/11 have seen a host of social movements and protest campaigns in the U.S., from anti-Iraq War demonstrations to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, which emerged in 2013 and became a global movement against police brutality and unjustified killings of Black people. As we reflect on the two decades since Sept. 11, 2001, one of the understated legacies of 9/11 is the way in which the War on Terror has fueled the process of militarization that underlies police violence in Black communities.

Back in 2001, American response to 9/11 very quickly shifted from a manhunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to a larger War on Terror. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and intervened militarily in many other countries. U.S. forces eliminated or captured the people responsible for 9/11, but also imprisoned or killed many who were not connected with the attack, al-Qaeda or terrorism at all. Along the way, people of Muslim faith and/or Middle Eastern heritage were racially and religiously profiled in the U.S. and targeted abroad for indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay or summary execution by drone strikes in their home countries.

Over a 20-year timespan, post 9/11 Islamophobia and racial bias have lingered, as noted by the Trump-era Muslim travel bans or the current fearmongering over Afghan refugees. In addition to its impact on Muslims in America and abroad (including, of course, Black Muslims), the War on Terror had a less direct but equally impactful effect on Black and brown America through the process of police militarization.

Blavity spoke about this particular 9/11 aftermath with Jessica Katzenstein, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Brown University who has studied the link between the War on Terror and police militarization in the U.S. Katzenstein noted that militarization has a long history in American policing, going back to slave patrols and colonial-era militia. In more recent times, Daryl Gates, the infamous police chief of the LAPD during the Rodney King beating, created one of the first SWAT teams in the U.S. with consultation with Marines.

Nevertheless, police militarization was kicked into high gear after 9/11. As Katzenstein noted in her research, the post 9/11 War on Terror contributed to police militarization in three crucial ways.

First, police departments after 9/11 were explicitly trained in counterterrorism and surveillance tactics in order to prevent future attacks. Many departments even sent officers to train in countries such as Israel, where police have an extensive history of using such tactics.

Second, as the U.S. began to draw down its troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan around 2010, there was a surplus of military equipment not being used by the actual military. Much of this hardware ended up being transferred to American police departments at little or no cost through programs that were created in the 1990s but kicked into high gear in the 2010s. Official statistics place the total value of military equipment transferred to law enforcement agencies at $7.7 billion.

Bloomberg documents an additional $24.3 billion in grants provided to state and local law enforcement agencies since 2003 by the Department of Homeland Security, noting that this counterterrorism funding has very little oversight to restrain how it is actually used. Finally, particularly during President Barack Obama’s time in office, police departments were encouraged to hire recent veterans to serve as officers. Obama’s 2012 “vets to cops” initiative funded about 800 law enforcement positions around the country to be filled by military veterans.

All of the aforementioned post-9/11 developments served to transform police departments around the country into de facto paramilitary organizations. Their military training, tactics and equipment soon went from being used for counterterrorism to being deployed for policing in general, and yet again, “urban” areas — that is, Black and brown communities — soon became the primary targets for these military-style techniques and weapons.

New York City offers some of the most extreme examples of this trend. After 9/11, New York created a massive surveillance infrastructure, connecting security cameras, license plate readers and other high-tech forms of monitoring people around the city. In 2012, this $230 million “Domain Awareness System” officially migrated from a counterterrorism tool to a method of policing crime more generally.

Another example is the “stop and frisk” program in New York City, which went into high gear under the city’s first post-9/11 mayor, Michael Bloomberg. As the New York Times reports, over 5 million of these stops were conducted during Bloomberg’s time in office, 2002-2013, with Black and Latino men predominantly being targeted by the initiative. Despite the stops rarely yielding in discovery of weapons, the mayor defended this program as late as 2013 by evoking the risk of terrorism and conflating terror and crime: “Look at what’s happened in Boston,” Bloomberg argued in 2013, referencing the Boston Marathon bombing.

“Remember what happened here on 9/11. Remember all of those who’ve been killed by gun violence and the families they left behind,” he rationalized. 

The targeting of Black folks was perhaps an inevitable consequence of the War on Terror. Every time the U.S. launches an open-ended war against an abstract enemy, it ends up targeting Black people sooner or later.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration went from battling a “War on Poverty” through social programs to fighting a “War on Crime” through programs to expand police presence in urban neighborhoods. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” a policy priority that was greatly expanded under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and continued by Bill Clinton through the ’90s, creating the era of mass incarceration in the United States. In the 21st century, the War on Terror quickly morphed into a war in Black neighborhoods and communities.

Additionally, it wasn’t long before the “terrorist” label was being used to target Black people, and, ironically, used against the Black Lives Matter movement that has been protesting against the terror of police militarization. BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors even titled her memoir When They Call You a Terrorist, in reference to the way that the movement was maligned by right-wing pundits.

This rhetorical trick should not be surprising. It’s useful to remember that in the 1960s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panthers as the “greatest internal threat” to America, and devoted the force of the federal government to destroying it and other Black political organizations and leaders. As Katzenstein noted, “So much of the targeting of Black communities and Black liberation movements and other liberation movements was directed and intentional” during the Nixon administration, among other periods in time. In the 1980s, the Black liberation organization MOVE was labeled a terrorist organization by the government of Philadelphia, although it was Philly police who literally dropped a bomb on civilians during their standoff with MOVE, killing nearly a dozen people — including children — and destroying an entire neighborhood.

Now, the War on Terror and the use of the terrorist label against the current Black liberation movement feeds into a vicious cycle: police militarization leads to more confrontational, violent and deadly policing of urban areas. Unjustified police killings of Black citizens sparks protests against police racism and violence. These protests, in turn, are met by even more violence, with crackdowns that deploy teargas, rubber bullets and other militarized weapons and tactics, creating more battered Black bodies and more reasons to protest.

Such has been the post-9/11 landscape. Perhaps the current political conditions in the U.S. — including withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years and a recognition of the ways in which racism is infused in police and other American institutions — will all help to reverse the two-decade trend of police militarization and de facto police occupation of many urban American neighborhoods. However, both racism and militarization have very deep, long-established roots in American history, and Sept. 11 exacerbated and reinforced these factors of American society.

Katzenstein was measured when asked about the prospects of major police reform to reverse the trend of militarization. On the one hand, she pointed out, ideas that “Black [and] feminist scholars and activists have been talking about for decades,” such as police abolition or defunding, are now gaining larger mainstream traction. “But on the other hand,” she added, “there’s this incredible intransigence that one sees in police departments and police unions but also politicians” that has blocked serious reform from taking place so far.

As we reflect on the legacy of Sept. 11 and the post-9/11 generation comes of age, we will see whether police militarization and the other legacies of the War on Terror can be undone, or if the newest “war” against Black America will continue to be fought in communities across the country.

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