On the Militarization of the Police: An Interview with Kristian Williams

Kristian Williams, Life During WartimeKristian Williams is an anarchist activist, public intellectual and has been a supporter of the struggles of oppressed peoples for decades. He wrote Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination and co-edited Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency. He has dedicated the last two decades of his life to working with both Rose City Cop Watch and the Committee Against Political Repression in Portland, OR. We wanted to interview him to get a slightly deeper look into his theories of police, militarization and how wars abroad inform wars at home. This is a follow up to a book review on Life During Wartime (https://www.warresisters.org/life-during- wartime-resisting-counterinsurgency) that ran in the Spring edition.

Kristian, you’ve written a great deal on the police and counter-insurgency. Could you tell us your over-arching theory of the police in the United States? What is counterinsurgency?

The main argument of Our Enemies in Blue is that if you want to understand what the cops do, you are better off looking at the distribution of power in the society as opposed to the law or demands for public safety or anything like that. The US being stratified largely by race and class, those are the things that have shaped the way this institution was formed and the way it functions.

Counterinsurgency is a type of warfare and a theory of that type of warfare concerned with how states respond to rebellions among the population. The theory is that rather than just coming in and trying to put them down with brute force, it’s more effective to engage the political aspect of the conflict as well, and that means doing things like offering concessions, co-opting leaders, responding to grievances in a way that will undercut support for the rebels. Also, controlling the narrative -- how it is people talk about the rebels, how it is that people understand the rebellion. One result of this theory is that rather than waiting till rebellion breaks out in the form of armed struggle or riots or whatever that may be, authorities are better off working to address the grievances and neutralize the trouble-makers in advance of any movement taking hold.

How does war and counterinsurgency intersect with domestic repression of social movements?

The theory police were looking at as they were trying to reinvent themselves in response to the crisis of the 60s was a specifically military theory. Interestingly, at the same time that the military was giving up on counterinsurgency because they were losing in Vietnam, the domestic police were trying to take lessons from Vietnam and were incorporating counterinsurgency.

In Vietnam, there was a program called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), which provided intelligence. It specifically matched focused intelligence collection with direct action and integrated activities aimed at winning the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese. It was by current standards fairly rudimentary social mapping. Its stated objective was to identify enemy infrastructure. And by infrastructure they meant people. So, they were looking for the Communist underground in Vietnam and trying to identify them and trying to identify their support groups and trying to figure out how they communicated and all that kind of stuff. It fed intelligence into what was called the Phoenix program, which was the CIA assassination program that killed about 23,000 people. They figured out that someone was a courier, for example, and then tracked who else they talked to. Then they’d figure out who the important nodes in the network were and wipe those people out. People who had particularly valuable positions would be referred to as “cut points”. That provided the theory for some of the early gang tracking stuff. Then the cops here kept developing that, whereas the military overseas was doing primarily aerial bombardment because no one wanted to have troops on the ground after Vietnam. The cops here kept refining that kind of social mapping, so that when the military then found itself at a loss in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were then turning to the cops to learn how to do it.

In your article “The Other Side of the COIN” published in the book Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (co-edited with Lara Messersmith-Glavin and Will Munger), you talk specifically about those ways anti-gang efforts in American cities are shaping and being shaped by military counterinsurgency operations abroad. There seems to be more to that relationship.

So, the police were involved in this two-part re-formation where structurally, and to some degree tactically, they were becoming militarized and they were strategically participating in community policing largely throughout the 1970s. During the 80s there was also a renewed focus on drug crime and the drug trade and, with that, a new focus on street gangs. The place where we saw that most dramatically was in Los Angeles. The cops were given this national agenda to target drugs, which in practice meant targeting communities of color in total. Because, again, the theory of counterinsurgency isn’t about finding individual bad guys; it’s about shaping social conditions. So the cops largely waged a kind of low-intensity warfare --especially against the black population-- around the country throughout the 80s.

More recently, for example the Naval Postgraduate School was loaning advisors to the Salinas, CA police department to help Salinas manage their anti-gang effort, modeled explicitly on counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. Similarly, the Pentagon has been pouring money into developing technology that is then coming back and being used in police departments here. So, the cycle really does go in both directions.

You also argue that non-profits play into the counterinsurgency model. What does that look like?

The shift in social justice work from popular social movements to the professionalized non-profits and non-profit government partnerships that we see now also started during the same time, in the 1970s. In order for the police to form these kinds of partnerships with the community that I was talking about earlier, it also requires that the partners exist to partner with. The emergence of the non-profit sector provided for that. It provided a way for those relationships and private foundation funding to institutionalize social movement practices and agendas and in many cases to also limit the kinds of tactics, strategies, even the goals,social movements were willing to take up. Usually, non-profits do that on their own, without anyone having to tell them to, because of the effect of institutionalizing dissent. But sometimes they do that in active collusion with police departments. The example I pursue in the chapter of Life During Wartime is the relationship between the cops and non-profits in response to the Oscar Grant shooting in Oakland.

What did counterinsurgency against Occupy look like?

We certainly saw the militarized features and the crowd control operations. But probably more important were the attempts, to use the military term, to control the narrative.

The way that went down was actually pretty interesting. It started off with usually liberal politicians aligning themselves with the movement. And then, withdrawing from it, and taking some of their liberal constituency with them and using their withdrawal to construct what was left as dangerous or criminal or misguided. This then opened the door for a police attack to seem legitimate because the ‘good protestors’ had left.

Built into that was the need to identify the groups that would continue to be ‘bad protestors’. That builds into the crowd control strategy that the police have developed, really, since the World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstrations in ‘99, which Pat Gillham and John Noakes have characterized as ‘strategic incapacitation’.

It took them a while to get that right in Occupy. Interestingly the first Occupy Wall Street was largely ignored by the media until the police started using force against it. So, the initial effort at applying this strategy went badly for the cops because they just attacked this crowd, which produced this enormous wave of sympathy, which shifted the legitimacy from the state to the social movement. It took them a couple months to recalibrate and shift that legitimacy back.

What do you see as the most useful forms of resistance to the militarization of the police?

At the end of the day, most of the valuable intelligence that they get is still human intelligence. They can’t operate if they don’t have informants. And the whole counterinsurgency theory is premised on the possibility of being able to win the cooperation of the community. So fighting for the community to identify with the social movement rather than the state is both the means and the end.

It isn’t a matter of being more competent than the cops. It’s a matter of being less incompetent. When police attacked Occupy Oakland and hit Scott Olson with a tear gas canister, that was enomrously discrediting [for them], not just in Oakland but around the country. And it had an immediate effect in popular perception. It had an immediate effect in participation in Occupy encampments. But being able to capitalize on that, that is what a social movement needs to be able to do -- to seize those opportunities when they’re presented.

Is there a way for people with a moral commitment to nonviolence to build in a principled way for those whose struggle is not within a nonviolent framework?

I think so. If you are opposed to armed struggle, does that mean you can’t buy John Brown guns? Does that mean you couldn’t work as a medic? People sometimes think that if violence is needed, then violence is all that is needed, and that is never true. So if violence isn’t all that is needed, then there is plenty of work for those who aren’t interested in or don’t have the skill or physical capacity for militarystruggle. Looking back at counterinsurgency theory, the main struggle is the political struggle, the military struggle is secondary.

Xloi Fayre

Xloi Fayre has worked in CopWatch and anti-eviction organizing in Chicago, Portland, and Western Massachusetts. She currently lives in Oakland, where she teaches dance to children.