What I learned from Ferguson: Now’s the time to get the tanks off our streets and the money out of politics

As the story in Ferguson continues to evolve, one thing has become clear to me… Now is the time to move against the increasingly militarization of America’s local police forces. The public awareness has never been higher, and, for the first time, I feel like momentum is on our side.

Before we get into that, though, quite a bit has happened in Ferguson, Missouri since we last discussed the killing of Michael Brown. Not only do we now know the name of the officer who shot and killed the unarmed 18 year old, but we also have an increasing number of firsthand eyewitness accounts of the shooting. And, as of this morning, we have an autopsy report, which says that Brown was shot at least six times from the front, with the last shot entering through the top of his head, likely as he fell forward, toward the officer who was shooting at him.

We also know from preliminary autopsy reports that Brown had marijuana in his system. In and of itself, that may not mean much, but, taken together with the fact that surveillance camera footage has surfaced which appears to show Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and roughing up one of the store’s employees just prior to his altercation with police, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a growing acceptance of the fact that he wasn’t just a good kid walking to his grandmother’s house a few days before heading off to college, as we’d originally been led to believe. This isn’t, of course, to say that he should have been shot down. It merely adds a level of complexity to the story, which didn’t exist late last week, when the people of Ferguson began to rise up, only to be beaten back down by a police department equipped for war.

As it stands, at least from my perspective, it would appear that the officer in question, Darren Wilson, likely acted out of anger, chasing Brown, and shooting at him, in spite of the fact that he was not in any immediate danger. (According to witnesses, Brown was fleeing the scene when the officer, who had been fighting with him through the window of his squad car, exited his vehicle and continued shooting, causing Brown to turn around, at which point he was shot several more times in the head and neck. (The shots to his arm, which can be seen in the medical examiner’s drawing below, were likely received as the two men fought through the window of the car.)) Of course, as of right now, no one really knows what happened. Hopefully, however, the investigation will be both thorough and transparent, and we’ll soon have a better sense of what took place that afternoon, and why. In the meantime, there are a few things that we know right now to be true.

We know that a young, unarmed, black man has died at the hands of a white cop in a city that, despite being 67% black, only has three black police officers on a force of 53… a city in which 47% of young black men between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. Furthermore, we know that the police of Ferguson, Missouri have been known to abuse black men in the past. And we know, since the shooting, that Ferguson’s police force has been hostile to outside observers, first keeping news helicopters from areas of citizen protest, and later going so far as to arrest reporters without cause and fire tear gas at news crews. Oh, and there are also the stories of the police threatening violence against reporters and denying access to reporters of color. And it’s all of these things, in my opinion, that are keeping the grass roots movement in Ferguson going. It’s not just about a young, unarmed black man being shot anymore. It’s about the growing income inequality in in this country, the growing disenfranchisement of the urban poor, the rise of the American police state, and any number of other things. Brown’s death may have been the spark, but it’s not what keeps the fire burning. If this were just about Brown’s death, I doubt we’d be reading today about how Amnesty International, for the first time in their history, made the decision to deploy trained observers within our country. This could well be the start of our Arab Spring, and the folks in power know it. And that, I suspect, is why the National Guard was called to Ferguson today.

Here, with more on the broader context of the uprising in Ferguson, is a clip from the New Yorker.

…The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics. Two men I spoke with pointed to the disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby. Another talked about being pulled over by an officer who claimed to smell marijuana in the car as a pretense for searching him. “I’m in the United States Navy,” he told me. “We have to take drug tests in the military so I had proof that there were no drugs in my system. But other people can’t do that.” Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.

…More than one person in the streets of Ferguson has compared what is happening here to the chaotic days of the Birmingham desegregation campaign in 1963. And, like that struggle, the local authorities, long immune to public sentiment, were incapable of understanding how their actions reverberated outside the hermetic world where they held sway—how they looked to the world. That incomprehension was the biggest asset the protesters in Birmingham had. Michael Brown was left lying in the street for hours while a traumatized community stood behind police tape in frustration, grief, and shock: an immobile metaphor for everything that was wrong in Ferguson, Missouri…


Everything came together in Ferguson. To use a much overused analogy, it was the perfect storm. When you have an increasingly poor and desperate community under the authority of an increasingly militarized police force, it’s only a matter of time before there’s a clash. And, given the shifting demographics of America, it’s something we’re likely to see more and more of in this country. Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to make that less likely in the future. First, we can ensure that working people make a living wage. Second, we can roll back the tax breaks on the wealthy so that we can once again make education a national priority. Third, we can enact laws that incentivize companies to stay in the United States and create jobs here. And, fourth, we can stop our local police forces from becoming quasi military units. And, here, with more on that last point, is a clip from Vanity Fair.

…As protesters around the country march in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, Missouri, politicians and the media are suddenly railing against the long-developing militarization of the American police force. But a revealing vote this past June shows just how uphill the battle is to stop the trend of turning police into soldiers. On June 19, progressive House Democrat Alan Grayson (FL) offered an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would block the “transfer” of “aircraft (including unmanned aerial vehicles), armored vehicles, grenade launchers, silencers, toxicological agents, launch vehicles, guided missiles, ballistic missiles” from the Department of Defense to state and local police forces.

The amendment attracted the support of only 62 members, while 355 voted against it (14 didn’t vote). Included among those voting against it was Rep. William Lacy Clay (D), who represents Ferguson. Clay was joined by every senior member of the Democratic Party leadership team, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (CA), Steny Hoyer (MD), and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (SC). Democrats did form the bulk of support for the amendment (with 43 votes in favor), with 19 Republicans supporting as well—led by libertarian-conservative Rep. Justin Amash (MI), who lamented that “military-grade equipment . . . shouldn’t be used on the street by state and local police” on his Facebook page…

Biden was the author of the 1994 crime bill, which vastly increased the numbers of police on the streets, eliminated Pell grant access for prisoners, expanded the death penalty, and increased Border Patrol presence. This criminalization and militarization of Americans’ public-safety concerns has continued under President Obama. As Radley Balko writes, the Obama administration has increased the budget for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and Byrne grants, both of which finance local police departments in their efforts to wage heavy-handed drug and crime war operations.

All of this provides a windfall for both security and arms companies and police departments, who are often enormous spenders against reforms that would curtail the militarization of public safety. Hoyer is one of the two members who have received thousands of dollars from the National Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) in this campaign cycle. As tensions continued to mount in Ferguson, F.O.P.’s executive director Jim Pasco defended the militarization of police officers. “All police are doing is taking advantage of the advances of technology in terms of surveillance, in terms of communication and in terms of protective equipment that are available to criminals on the street,” Pasco told The Hill on Thursday…

Fortunately, we may have another chance to do the right thing. Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) is presently drafting a bill that would limit the transfer of military goods to America’s police forces. Here’s a clip from the Associated Press.

…Johnson said city streets should be a place for businesses and families, “not tanks and M16s.” He said a Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement has led to police agencies resembling paramilitary forces.

“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said. He said his bill would limit the type of military equipment that can be transferred to law enforcement, and require states to certify they can account for all equipment received.

The bill targets a 24-year-old military surplus program that transfers equipment from blankets to bayonets and tanks to police and sheriff’s departments across the country. An Associated Press investigation last year of the Defense Department program found that a large share of the $4.2 billion in surplus military gear distributed since 1990 went to police and sheriff’s departments in rural areas with few officers and little crime…

Maybe I’m naive, but this seems to me like something that the Liberals and the Libertarians of America should be able to come together on. I know our politicians like the financial contributions that keep coming in from the military industrial complex, but I’d like to think that even they can look at the events in Ferguson and see that a line’s been crossed… No one, regardless of party affiliation, should want to see an America that looks like this.


I know it’s a tall order, but it all comes back to campaign finance reform. That’s the key to it all. Until we can get the money out of politics, the heads of the Hydra we’re fighting will just keep growing back. For now, I’d be happy to have legislation passed that keeps military grade hardware out of the hands of America’s local police forces. In the future, though, we need to aim higher. We need to remove the money from American politics so that our elected officials begin to legislate with our interests in mind, and not those of the ruling 1%, who have an interest in selling military arms, closing down public schools, killing unions, and all of those other things that we’re so used to discussing on this site. I know it’s difficult, but we need to step back from the fight for a moment and focus on the money that keeps the Hydra alive, and not just the immediate threat posed by each of its heads. To you the analogy of Grover Norquist, we need to take a page from the conservative play book and starve the beast.

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  1. tommy
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Radley Balko is quoted in the article from Vanity Fair. I highly recommend his book ‘Warrior Cop’ for a historical chronicle of the militarization of the police in the US. Great read.

  2. wobblie
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 4:16 am | Permalink


  3. anonymous
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    I would contend that the militarization of our local police forced isn’t an accident. People know that riots are coming.

  4. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I have been part of protests and part of one protest that turned into a small riot. Obviously there are layers of complexity which can be used to explain these riots. However, don’t underestimate one simple fact: Most people enjoy protesting and a percentage of people love to riot for its own sake.

  5. anonymous
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    The underlying message coming from Ferguson:

    its really difficult for white liberal bloggers to look into their own racist attitudes towards the murder of unarmed people of color

  6. Meta
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:

    Will the recent rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, be a tipping point in the struggle against racial injustice, or will it be a minor footnote in some future grad student’s thesis on Civil Unrest in the Early Twenty-First Century?

    You probably have heard of the Kent State shootings: on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters at Kent State University. During those 13 seconds of gunfire, four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was permanently paralyzed. The shock and outcry resulted in a nationwide strike of 4 million students that closed more than 450 campuses. Five days after the shooting, 100,000 protestors gathered in Washington, D.C. And the nation’s youth was energetically mobilized to end the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and mindless faith in the political establishment.

    You probably haven’t heard of the Jackson State shootings.

    On May 14th, 10 days after Kent State ignited the nation, at the predominantly black Jackson State University in Mississippi, police killed two black students (one a high school senior, the other the father of an 18-month-old baby) with shotguns and wounded twelve others.

    There was no national outcry. The nation was not mobilized to do anything. That heartless leviathan we call History swallowed that event whole, erasing it from the national memory.

    And, unless we want the Ferguson atrocity to also be swallowed and become nothing more than an intestinal irritant to history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: class warfare.

    By focusing on just the racial aspect, the discussion becomes about whether Michael Brown’s death—or that of the other three unarmed black men who were killed by police in the U.S. within that month—is about discrimination or about police justification. Then we’ll argue about whether there isn’t just as much black-against-white racism in the U.S. as there is white-against-black. (Yes, there is. But, in general, white-against-black economically impacts the future of the black community. Black-against-white has almost no measurable social impact.)

    Then we’ll start debating whether or not the police in America are themselves an endangered minority who are also discriminated against based on their color—blue. (Yes, they are. There are many factors to consider before condemning police, including political pressures, inadequate training, and arcane policies.) Then we’ll question whether blacks are more often shot because they more often commit crimes. (In fact, studies show that blacks are targeted more often in some cities, like New York City. It’s difficult to get a bigger national picture because studies are woefully inadequate. The Department of Justice study shows that in the U.S. between 2003 and 2009, among arrest-related deaths there’s very little difference among blacks, whites, or Latinos. However, the study doesn’t tell us how many were unarmed.)

    This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

    And that’s how the status quo wants it.

    The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals. So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.

    One way to keep these 50 million fractured is through disinformation. PunditFact’s recent scorecard on network news concluded that at Fox and Fox News Channel, 60 percent of claims are false. At NBC and MSNBC, 46 percent of claims were deemed false. That’s the “news,” folks! During the Ferguson riots, Fox News ran a black and white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the bold caption: “Forgetting MLK’s Message/Protestors in Missouri Turn to Violence.” Did they run such a caption when either Presidents Bush invaded Iraq: “Forgetting Jesus Christ’s Message/U.S. Forgets to Turn Cheek and Kills Thousands”?

    How can viewers make reasonable choices in a democracy if their sources of information are corrupted? They can’t, which is exactly how the One Percent controls the fate of the Ninety-Nine Percent.

    Worse, certain politicians and entrepreneurs conspire to keep the poor just as they are. On his HBO comedic news show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver ran an expose of the payday loan business and those who so callously exploit the desperation of the poor. How does an industry that extorts up to 1,900 percent interest on loans get away with it? In Texas, State Rep. Gary Elkins blocked a regulatory bill, despite the fact that he owns a chain of payday loan stores. And the politician who kept badgering Elkins about his conflict of interest, Rep. Vicki Truitt, became a lobbyist for ACE Cash Express just 17 days after leaving office. In essence, Oliver showed how the poor are lured into such a loan, only to be unable to pay it back and having to secure yet another loan. The cycle shall be unbroken.

    Dystopian books and movies like Snowpiercer, The Giver, Divergent, Hunger Games, and Elysium have been the rage for the past few years. Not just because they express teen frustration at authority figures. That would explain some of the popularity among younger audiences, but not among twentysomethings and even older adults. The real reason we flock to see Donald Sutherland’s porcelain portrayal in Hunger Games of a cold, ruthless president of the U.S. dedicated to preserving the rich while grinding his heel into the necks of the poor is that it rings true in a society in which the One Percent gets richer while our middle class is collapsing.

    That’s not hyperbole; statistics prove this to be true. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, just half of U.S. households are middle-income, a drop of 11 percent since the 1970s; median middle-class income has dropped by 5 percent in the last ten years, total wealth is down 28 percent. Fewer people (just 23 percent) think they will have enough money to retire. Most damning of all: fewer Americans than ever believe in the American Dream mantra that hard work will get them ahead.

    Rather than uniting to face the real foe—do-nothing politicians, legislators, and others in power—we fall into the trap of turning against each other, expending our energy battling our allies instead of our enemies. This isn’t just inclusive of race and political parties, it’s also about gender. In her book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, Laurie Penny suggests that the decreased career opportunities for young men in society makes them feel less valuable to females; as a result they deflect their rage from those who caused the problem to those who also suffer the consequences: females.

    Yes, I’m aware that it is unfair to paint the wealthiest with such broad strokes. There are a number of super-rich people who are also super-supportive of their community. Humbled by their own success, they reach out to help others. But that’s not the case with the multitude of millionaires and billionaires who lobby to reduce Food Stamps, give no relief to the burden of student debt on our young, and kill extensions of unemployment benefits.

    With each of these shootings/chokehold deaths/stand-your-ground atrocities, police and the judicial system are seen as enforcers of an unjust status quo. Our anger rises, and riots demanding justice ensue. The news channels interview everyone and pundits assign blame.

    Read more:

  7. Bob Krzewinski
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    What some veterans think of police militarization – http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2014/08/veterans-ferguson-matthew-farwell

  8. Lynne
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    You make a good point that getting the money out of politics will help. It will help with a LOT of other issues too, dare I say most of them. It is time for the people to take back the power of this country.

  9. Sam
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    In addition to assault rifles, Washtenaw County has apparently acquired a Mine Resistant Vehicle. Anyone know what agency controls it and what it is used for?


  10. John Galt
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    If you had any brains, you’d invest in defense contractors like the rest of us, and make enough cash so you don’t have to live in a shit hole like Fergusilanti. We don’t have tanks where I live on Geddes Road.

  11. Posted August 19, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting how people have swung from thinking he was, as you say, a good kid headed off to college walking to grandma’s to someone who possibly just committed a crime and smoked some weed to boot.

    Here is my own story ~ we had a student get shot and killed when I was teaching in Detroit. If I just say that he was walking home from the gas station where he had just bought some pop, the most people are like “oh, sorry”. If I add that he had just graduated high school, got an award for attendance, he and his dad had signed him up for courses at WCCC, he had just cashed a paycheck from the summer program he was working in, and we think he was targeted because he was low vision and would look really closely at money then people are like HOLY FUCKING SHIT OH MY GOD BIGGEST TRAGEDY EVER I’M SO SAD NOW YOU RUINED MY LIFE TEACHERPATTI.

    It’s a very interesting peek into the human race, isn’t it?

  12. Posted August 19, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    After other wars, didn’t they just drag the old cannons to parks and let kids play on them?

  13. K2
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I’d still rather be a journalist in America than in Syria.


  14. Erika Nelson
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    You hit the nail on the head. I have been waiting for a nuanced discussion of this whole thing that acknowledges that both Brown and Wilson were fallible human beings, and moves to discuss larger issues such as income inequality and socioeconomic instability as well as racial tension in our society. This is it.

  15. somethign to ponder
    Posted August 19, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    “Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying….All over the country, unarmed black men are being killed by the very people who have sworn to protect them, as has been going on for a very long time now.”


  16. alan2102
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    “Biden was the author of the 1994 crime bill, which vastly increased the numbers of police on the streets, eliminated Pell grant access for prisoners, expanded the death penalty, and increased Border Patrol presence. This criminalization and militarization of Americans’ public-safety concerns has continued under President Obama. ”

    I say it is time to cut out the bleeding-heart BS and get behind our VP and President in their noble efforts to militarize the police and generally to lay the essential foundations of a well-disciplined fascist society. That namby-pamby GWB didn’t have the BALLS to do what needs to be done. For the future, Hillary is looking good and should carry on in the tradition of Obama/Biden.

    “During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft”

    “Under the Obama administration the transfer of military surplus has greatly expanded. Among other items transfered to local law enforcement agencies have been assault rifles and grenade launchers, even Blackhawk helicopters and .50 caliber machine guns–a weapon so powerful the U.S. military has restrictions on how it can be used in combat zones. In fiscal year 2011 alone, the Pentagon transferred almost $500 million worth of materials to domestic law enforcement–nearly double the previous year’s total. This number was expected to grow in 2012.”

  17. alan2102
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    PS: echoing Galt’s wise suggestion (above), here’s more from my second link:

    “Many large defense contractors have shifted at least in part away from military contracts toward domestic law enforcement due to the billions of dollars available through DHS grants, and several new companies have arisen specifically to supply military-grade assets to police agencies.”

    Investments in the militarization/fascization of America are a slam-dunker, for those of you worried about the performance of your portfolios. You can increase your exposure to this growth area with the following ETFs:

    iShares U.S. Aerospace & Defense ETF (ITA)
    Aerospace & Defense Profile (PPA)
    SPDR S&P Aerospace & Defense ETF (XAR)

    … they should do extremely well for at least another 2-3 years, i.e. until the dollar comes under heavy pressure. Even then, they might do well. They represent one of several sectors (along with banking, and the medical/industrial complex) of the disintegrating U.S. economy that will do well right up to the end.

  18. EOS
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    The solution to the problem is always in place before they create the problem to justify its use:


  19. Lynne
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Cameras are the solution! Every police officer should be required to wear a camera that uploads directly to a server that the PD does not have access to.

  20. EOS
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink


  21. Mr. X
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Not to be left out of the conversation, Ann Arbor cops decided that today would be a good day to roll their urban assault vehicle into town.


  22. alan2102
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    re: ann arbor urban assault vehicle:

    Let us pray only that it has dual .50-caliber machine guns with full complementary 180-degree fields of fire.

  23. Meta
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Audio of the Michael Brown shooting, recorded by someone living nearby, has been released.


  24. anonymous
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Maybe this is part of the problem.

    “Court OKs Barring High IQs for Cops”

    It’s OK for police forces to turn away smart applicants.


  25. Posted August 4, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    The Space Between: On the Ground for Michael Brown

  26. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 4, 2015 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Close the gap: A public reading of the witness interviews.

    Why not?

  27. Posted August 5, 2015 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Yum, Frosted Flakes! Nom, nom, nom! The Ferguson Protests Worked

  28. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 5, 2015 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Some good things did come out Ferguson. Unfortunately, the phrase “chickens come home to roost” is applicable in a variety of contexts…

    And it was not a rhetorical question. Why don’t you have a marathon-public-reading of the witness interviews?

  29. Posted August 5, 2015 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Black Lives Matter! (Thanks for sharing, D’Real!)

  30. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 5, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Moving forward I would appreciate it if people other than myself refrained from posting stuff under the name “Frosted Flakes”. I do not pose as other people so I would appreciate it if others did not pretend to be me. It really shows a lot about the kind of person someone is if they are willing to further muddy already muddy waters with such a lame tactic.

  31. site admin
    Posted August 5, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    We’ve edited the comment that you’re referring to, Frosted Flakes, so its clear that it didn’t come from you.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] vehicles, did anyone happen to see today’s SWAT training in downtown Ann Arbor? In light of what’s going on in Missouri right now, the timing seemed odd to me, but I guess they don’t have to worry too much about public […]

  2. […] every cop with a gun also has a body camera, address the inequality in our educational system, and get the money out of politics, which, when you really get right down to it, is what’s keeping us from having a true […]

  3. […] how, in the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, we discussed, among other things, the need to demilitarize our police forces? Well, earlier this year, President Obama took a step in that direction, signing Executive Order […]

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