By: Chenjerai Kumanyika
October 14, 2017

One in a series of posts featuring writing, music, and podcasting by HILOBROW friend Chenjerai Kumanyika.

Policing and the “War on Black Bodies”

This essay first appeared in College Literature (Volume 43, Number 1), Winter 2016.

I hope it is not controversial to say that any discussion of policing in the United States must proceed from the acknowledgment that there has never been an ethical and effective system of policing in this country. To suggest otherwise is to argue that the lives of those who have been unjustly denied human, civil, political, and cultural rights as a result of policing do not matter.

To continue to state the obvious, it is only during the very short period between the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and now that the question of ethical policing has been entertained at a national level with any pretense of sincerity. In all the years before this period, policing extended from the legally encoded and broadly embraced preservation of an explicit caste hierarchy. It is only during this recent period that ethical and effective policing even enters the legal imagination as a possibility and confronts the modern United States as a problem.

A colleague recently asked me if I thought that the language of war accurately applied to the current spectacle of policing in the United States.(1) He asked this in response to a scholarly presentation that I had just given on a panel about media production in the context of Ferguson and other Black-Lives-Matter-related protests. Even before the many protests that I have attended since August 9, 2014, the analysis of policing as part of a broader “war on black bodies” has been commonly accepted and frequently articulated among politicized Black folk and social justice advocates. Public institutions have also caught on to this war metaphor: “American Policing: The War on Black Bodies” was the title of a September 2014 panel organized by the New York Public Library at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture.

Although the interpersonal violence and militarization of policing in the United States is increasingly visible and disturbing, I have worried that using the term “war” as a primary analytical framework lacks precision and sufficient explanatory power. I have wondered if “war” should be reserved to describe the conditions in places such as the Central African Republic, Yemen, or Syria, where the scale and urgency of everyday danger feel qualitatively different. But my mind also flashed back to the feeling that I had upon arriving in Ferguson, Missouri on the evening of November 26, 2014, the night after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown was made.

On the way to protests in front of the police station, my wife and I passed a Target parking lot that looked similar to how one might imagine central command in Iraq. It was completely filled with news tents and vehicles that looked and felt like tanks but were probably bomb-proof 600 MRAP armored personnel carriers. At the edge of the parking lot, both police and National Guard soldiers blocked off the intersection of West Florissant, making it impossible to enter the street by car and intimidating to enter the street on foot. When we approached that intersection soldiers abruptly advanced on our cars and gestured at us, waving large automatic weapons and ordering us to turn around.

After navigating various road blocks and a neighborhood that seemed drenched in a haze of blue and red lights, the piercing sound of sirens, and the rumbling of large military vehicles, we arrived at 222 South Florissant in front of the Ferguson Police Department. Facing the police station, protesters faced off against a long line of officers dressed in the combination of military-style clothing and weaponry that we have come to call “riot gear.” Helicopters flew ominously overhead and a shrill voice from a bullhorn barked out orders for everyone to evacuate the area because, the voice announced, this was no longer a peaceful protest.

Two different kinds of large black armored personnel vehicles passed slowly back and forth in front of the line of Special Units and Tactics (SWAT) officers. Five police officers on top of the vehicle trained their automatic weapons outward towards us, the protesters. Sandbags stood in piles between the officers on top of the vehicle. Shortly after, the SWAT team advanced on the parking lot. At first, the crowd backed up just slightly, unwilling to give ground. Then, six officers rushed forward to snatch one man who refused to get up from his knees. His offense was that he knelt in the middle of the street, posing with arms extended and head bowed, wearing an electronic crown of thorns made from Christmas lights. Two of the officers aimed automatic weapons at us as they backed away, dragging the man, facedown, across the street and into the police station. When the full SWAT line advanced the second time, faster, unholstering handcuffs, guns, and tear gas dispensers, the crowd scattered. My wife and I retreated to the side of the parking lot with several other protesters and watched as the parking lot was cleared out. The bullhorn voice echoed continuously, repeating that this was no longer a peaceful assembly. We stayed a safe distance from the parking lot until 2.30 am, when it became clear that protesting was over for that night.


The periodic spectacle of collective confrontation between police and citizens does not reflect most US citizens’ quotidian experience of law enforcement. The National Guard in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in other cities with similar protests aimed at returning such cities to different mechanisms of control, ones more reflective of everyday life. These mundane conditions — usually described as “order” by state officials — are ones in which the potential for state violence is internalized by citizens and carried with them into their daily contexts of work, play, and family life. This potential for state violence — the undercurrent to everyday lived experience that recently has spilled over into popular resistance and the kind of overblown police power that we encountered in Ferguson — acquired its current contours in the context of a different kind of war: then-President Richard Nixon’s metaphorical War on Drugs.

To tease out the way that Nixon’s war rhetoric shaped a particular approach to drug policy, social justice advocates must attend to the way that this rhetoric coordinated the policies, funding, fears, narratives, law enforcement strategies, and interactions that comprise everyday policing. Two years before his announcement of a War on Drugs, Nixon’s 1969 “Special Message to the Congress on Control of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs” operationalized (pun intended) imagined drug users as the object of drug policy. Such a focus could have potentially included a wide range of programs to transform the social and economic conditions in which drug use and distribution take place. However, wars need enemies and Nixon’s identification of drug abuse two years later as “public enemy number one” — a phrase typically reserved for dangerous criminals — was therefore not simply a natural extension of drug policies. It was an ideologically informed interpretive logic that foregrounded the use of, and cooperation between, state and local law enforcement as well as the US military. Police were invited and indeed trained to reinterpret their strategies, attitudes, dress, equipment, interactions, and use of force in the “waging” of a “new all-out offensive” against particular populations (Richard Nixon 1971).

Subsequent administrations intensified the blurring of military intervention and local policing that Nixon’s War on Drugs induced. Reagan’s 1982 announcement that he was “running up the battle flag” in reference to drugs justified his previous signing of the 1981 Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Act (quoted in Hudson and Davies, 50). This provided for information and equipment sharing from the military to the police in drug policy efforts. In January of 1989, shortly before the inauguration of George H. W. Bush, a New York Times headline announced “Role in Drug War for National Guard.” According to Ed Vaughn, the National Guard subsequently entered US neighborhoods for drug arrests over 20,000 times (1992). In 1997, under President Clinton, the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990 — specifically focusing on the War on Drugs — was changed to the 1033 Program and expanded to cover all law enforcement agencies. The Defense Logistics Agency’s website states that the program was created “to acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission” (DLA 2015). Under a different metaphorical war — the War on Terror — the 1033 Program allowed St. Louis Police to receive fifty free pieces of tactical gear between 2010 and 2014 (Wofford 2014).

Armed with new equipment and training, local police departments were also deploying their own paramilitary wings. Peter Kraska estimates that between 1980 and 2001, the deployments of SWAT paramilitary units rose from 3,000 to 40,000, with the majority of these focused on drug searches (Kraska 2007). A more subtle effect of this training and equipment was the way that it shifted the self-image, attitudes, communication, and interactions of regular non-SWAT police officers in local departments throughout the country. For example, the annual reports of police departments might be expected to offer a less hyperbolic representation of daily police work for superiors, current and future officers, and the public. Nevertheless, as public defender Arthur Ago pointed out, the cover of the 2013 Annual Report of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police features a police officer in black military-style gear in a helmet rappelling from the higher levels of an unidentified structure. In September 2015, roughly one year after Ferguson, the cover of the popular law enforcement magazine Police featured pictures of officers virtually indistinguishable from soldiers, dressed in green fatigues, helmets, and weaponry, and standing next to an armored vehicle. The cover read “Using Armored Vehicles to Protect Officers and the Public.”


When my colleague asked if the concept of war applied to contemporary conflicts related to law enforcement, I now realize that in my hesitation to answer yes I foreclosed a broad interpretation of his question, insisting on a very narrow and specific one instead. I separated the spectacles of police violence against vulnerable citizens, including democratic protesters, from the inescapable daily destruction in the Central African Republic, Yemen, or Syria. And yet, the Palestinians who sent advice about tear gas to the Ferguson protesters didn’t make that distinction. They recognized the weaponry and responded accordingly. I didn’t think of the “slow violence” of the metaphorical War on Drugs (Rob Nixon 2011), or the “fast and furious” violence of the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as they sold guns to Mexican drug cartel leaders (Los Angeles Times 2012). I felt the need to account for the fact that most police would argue that an ethic of protection and service — rather than war — guides their daily practice even as they don battle helmets and vests, pick up tear gas grenades, and order armored personnel carriers.

Metaphorical wars like the War on Drugs, with vague enemies like drug abuse, differ from formally declared wars and tactical military interventions. They make it possible to deny the ugly intent of the violent repression of specific groups, while unleashing the mindsets, mechanisms, and literal machinery of war. Just as the Cold War simultaneously produced the domestic repression captured in McCarthyism and violence against citizens throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, the War on Terror allows an unquantifiable body count abroad and a domestic US policing policy of overt Islamophobia. Acknowledging this, a federal appeals court recently reinstated a lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslim groups in New Jersey after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In April of 2013, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also spoke of September 11 and the Boston Marathon bombing in defense of controversial and formally racialized “stop and frisk” policing. Responding to city council measures to limit the practice, Commissioner Ray Kelly warned, “Take heart al Qaeda wannabes” (Saul 2013). These examples illustrate the ways that metaphorical wars — the Cold War, the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror — become constitutive of material violence against black and brown bodies, while simultaneously creating the logical possibility of denying that a war on black bodies exists.

But there are other reasons to resist war rhetoric. The context of war legitimizes violations of human and civil rights between warring parties. If there is a “war on cops,” then “militarization” by police appears to be a logical tactical response, rather than a broader political and neocolonial project. For this reason, some protesters have resisted this war framing even while confronting lines of battle-ready police. During the April 2015 Baltimore uprising to protest the police killing of Freddie Gray, a young unidentified African American male pushed back against war rhetoric in a BBC interview. He stepped into the camera frame — twenty feet from a car engulfed in tall yellow flames, and about 100 feet in front of a long line of police in riot gear — wearing a black hood and facemask. In this context, it would have been a perfect time to invoke the war on black bodies. Instead, he clarified his ideological position: “First of all, this is not a war. It’s not a war. We want peace. But y’all got to give us that. And if y’all keep coming and taking everything we got, we gonna take what y’all got. We’re not playing out here. This is not a war. But we want our rights.” (2)


(1) My colleague asked the question in the context of a discussion of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collége de France, published as “Society Must be Defended” (2003) and Security, Terror, Population (2009).

(2) The audio for this sequence can also be found on the “Newshour” program for April 28, 2015, which is available at Elsewhere in this special issue, Patrick Deer provides a related reading of the unnamed man’s resistance to the war metaphor.


DLA (Defense Logistics Agency). 2015. “Law Enforcement Agency 1033 Program: Frequently Asked Questions.” Defense Logistics Agency,

Hudson, Cheryk, and Gareth Davies. Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kraska, Peter B. “Militarization and Policing: Its Relevance to Twenty-First Century Police.” Policing 1.4 (2007): 501-513.

Los Angeles Times. 2012. “ATF’s Fast and Furious scandal.” Los Angeles Times, June 20,

Nixon, Richard. 1971. “Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control, June 17, 1971.” The American Presidency Project,

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saul, Howard. 2013. “Harsh Words as Bills to Curb Stop-and-Frisk Proceed.” Wall Street Journal, June 24,

Trainor, Bernard E. 1989. “Role in Drug War for National Guard.” New York Times, January 8,

Vaughn, Ed. 1992. “National Guard Involvement in the Drug War.” Justicia, December.

Wofford, Taylor. 2014. “How America’s Police Became an Army.” Newsweek, August 13,


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