Today Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration has reversed an Obama-era policy that banned the sale of certain types of surplus military equipment from the federal government to local police departments. By reversing the Obama administration policy, President Trump is allowing local law enforcement agencies to acquire, from the U.S. government, items such as tanks, weaponized vehicles, high-caliber firearms and ammunition, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage uniforms.
The president of the United States wants to arm the police like they’re fighting a war, not like they are protecting communities. That would be worrisome enough on any given day, but Trump’s timing reveals his broader vision of “law and order” to be even more brutal and brazen in its intentions.
The new announcement comes just after Trump’s Friday pardon of former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the events in Charlottesville two weeks ago. In this context, it can be read as an alarming signal that Trump is amping up more than just his rhetoric. He is giving law enforcement explicit permission to treat policing like a war in which the president of the United States has defined enemies and allies.
It was just three days ago that Trump pardoned Arpaio, who had been found in criminal contempt of a federal court order barring him from continuing his serial abuses and violations of the constitutional rights of Arizona citizens he suspected of being undocumented immigrants. The Arpaio pardon was a clear sign that not only is Trump willing to countenance the trampling of citizens’ constitutional rights and our constitutional system of checks and balances, he is especially eager to do so to repay a campaign supporter and fellow traveler in his long-held campaign against immigrants.
In the course of three days, then, Trump not only subverted the rule of law by pardoning the lawless sheriff. He signaled to all would-be lawless, abusive law enforcement officers that he has their backs, all the while offering to arm them with military equipment — designed for battlefields — that, in the wrong hands, might further intimidate and mistreat their citizens.
The timing of the announcement should also be seen in light of Trump’s responses to Charlottesville, in which he refused to unambiguously condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the violence that took place there. Instead, he blamed “both sides” and “many sides.” Don’t blame white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Trump is saying; the left is also to blame.
To bolster this claim, Trump has lumped a small number of violent anarchist activists affiliated with the antifa movement in with a much larger, nonviolent movement opposed to racism and neo-Nazism, using the former to smear the latter. Indeed, Trump has seized on antifa to shift his supporters’ attention away from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who organized the Charlottesville rally and have been implicated in violence there. Today, Trump retweeted the conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, who had suggested that “the violence is coming from” antifa. (In a Trumpian bit of large-scale “both sides-ism,” D’Souza has a new book out that claims to expose “the Nazi roots of the American left.”)
In this context, consider that, after white supremacists terrorized black residents of Charlottesville, Trump — at a moment when he should be seeking to calm racial strife — is now sending them a message that they should be policed in a more militarized way.
The lifting of the military equipment ban is even more worrisome when you recall what prompted Barack Obama to implement it in the first place. Obama instituted the ban in May 2015, following the aggressive, militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., because “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.” Those protests, of course, unfolded after a white police officer shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, and were intended to draw attention to police mistreatment of Ferguson’s black residents.
That context was missing from the speech Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered today to a conference of the Fraternal Order of Police, announcing Trump’s reversal of the Obama ban. In fact, Sessions made no mention of race at all. Instead, he focused more on other challenges to policing — like drugs and gangs — and appeared disengaged from the recent events in Charlottesville and what they mean.
What’s more, Sessions intimated that the ban on military equipment hampered police from doing their job, claiming that the banned equipment was needed, for example, for rescue efforts in flooded Houston. Sessions said that Trump “is rescinding restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agencies’ ability to get equipment through federal programs, including life-saving gear like Kevlar vests and helmets and first responder and rescue equipment like what they’re using in Texas right now.” Surely the attorney general knows, though, that grenade launchers are not needed to rescue anyone from a flood.
Trump is steering law enforcement in a dangerous, incendiary direction. It’s frightening to imagine the sorts of catastrophes that could ensue on American streets from this new policy, given that the president himself has endorsed lawless policing — and now appears to be taking steps to ensure that police are outfitted with more military gear.