It has been almost half a century since the world last thought of American cities as conflict zones. But starting this past August, events in Ferguson, Missouri, changed that rapidly.
The appearance of armed personnel carriers, Humvees and other military equipment reveal to Americans—and the world—that U.S. cities are indeed the new war zones.
A key part of the problem is the pervasive access to heavy weaponry by local law enforcement after 9/11. Instead of focusing on community policing—getting closer to the people—law enforcement has actually distanced itself and “tooled up.”
It is scant comfort that local law enforcement agencies sell this as their approach to “homeland security.” The weaponization of law enforcement— and indeed, the militarization of civilian security, as actions to “defend” oneself against protestors show—is a bridge too far.
Next Stop: Mexico
Switch of scenery: Twenty-five hundred miles away, the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, a small city that in southwestern Mexico, has also shocked the world.
It is unfathomable to hear that students can go from participating in a peaceful demonstration to falling victim to a savage massacre under any circumstances—never mind in such a quick, clandestine, vicious and yet systemically embedded fashion.
The brutal murders of these youth, allegedly perpetrated by the town’s mayor, his wife, local police and a drug trafficking ring, Guerreros Unidos, all working in tandem, unleashed a series of events that has turned Mexico’s political situation on its head.
The Dangerous Urban/Military Nexus
According to security expert Robert Muggah, 88 percent of the lethal violence that countries experience today arises from situations other than war.
This underscores that cities have become the new battleground. And while this phenomenon is more pervasive in the developing world (think Brazil), it is happening here in the United States as well.
To boot, the U.S. military considers urban warfare to be its most challenging theater, and trains for it. The ample resources the military has at its disposal stand in stark contrast to the simultaneous lack of other services being provided to citizens.
In addition, the recession that significantly reduced employment and diminished the revenue base also dented the way in which the U.S. addresses the needs of its poorest citizens, most of them living in urban areas. Offering militarized security adds insult to the persistent injury.
As cities in the developing world expand, they also grow more fragile. The pressure of unchecked growth without public services, employment or physical space leads governments to violent solutions, but also shifts policing to a military activity, as we have seen in countries like Mexico and Brazil.
On to the Big Apple
The brutal and violent use of excessive force to arrest Eric Garner, an unarmed citizen, in New York City was inhumane. The illegal chokehold that ultimately killed Garner despite his last words, “I cannot breathe,” reflect two trends that policy analysts have known for a long time.
First, U.S. cities are the newest zone of conflict. And second, this new type of urban warfare mentality has gone hand-in-hand with a greater tolerance by the U.S. legal system when it comes to holding police accountable for their actions.
Unless we are completely blind, we Americans must urgently realize one painful global reality: What we now see—and practice—at home is precisely the impunity which we Americans so frequently deride in places like Mexico.
There, we know that preservation of the rule of law is often the exception in cases of police corruption or police complicity in murder.
But now the shoe is on the other foot: The failure of grand juries to indict policemen in both Ferguson, Missouri, and now in New York City all point to a dangerous conclusion: We Americans are now treating our policing activities as acts of war, and thus hold any offending acts committed against the police to different standards than the civilian system used to prosecute criminal acts.
Unfortunately, the urban wars of 2014 are not armed conflict as we know it. Instead, they are manifestations of ideological divides, like the racism of the police in Missouri or in New York.
These citizen actions are but a mirror of the divisions across the country. Whether they are a matter of color or class, all these actions, from Iguala to Ferguson to New York, send a powerful message of exclusion and hopelessness.
And, lest we want to blind ourselves, we must recognize that it is precisely this type of sentiment that lays the groundwork for unrest and instability in any political system.
These incidents reflect how the toxic brew of 1) arming police forces as though they were at war; 2) ignoring urban violence that results from the presence of transnational criminal groups; and 3) unabashed racism within the ranks of the police, is giving birth to a movement against corruption, lack of accountability and the illegitimacy of the judicial system.
The result is a potentially dynamic international movement of citizens who have had enough of the status quo and are taking to the streets to make their voices heard.
The demonstrations in New York City and Washington DC over the failure to indict police for acts of violence will only grow stronger, unless citizens regain a sense of legitimacy in our criminal justice system.
In Mexico, the ongoing protests in two states, Mexico and Guerrero, with hundreds continuing to march and block streets, recall the power of mass movements to instill social change.
While these demonstrations have been peaceful to date, unless the governments respond with actions that lead to overcoming injustice, we will certainly see the urban landscapes become war zones.
What is at Stake for the United States
What is at stake for the United States goes to the core of our national values. If we allow racism to manifest itself through the actions of those whom we trust to protect us, then we must urgently ask ourselves these questions:
1. How can we expect to overcome generations of intolerance, if the failure of a judicial system to speak truth to power is the most recent iteration of that intolerance?
2. How can we expect to be a standard bearer for human rights globally when our own institutions are unresponsive to doing what is right?
3. Have we not recognized that the United States has recently become a nation that is “majority minority”—indicating that this problem will grow exponentially, unless tackled at the root now?
These last few weeks have laid bare divisions in American society that will ultimately bring our society down, unless the voices of those who protest and of those who seek justice are heard.
Mexico as a Warning Sign
Watching events in Mexico is to see what could happen in the U.S.—and how quickly it can all happen. All it takes to unravel support for a system that is thoroughly corrupt is one horrific incident as a tipping point—an act of violence and terrorism that has awakened citizens to the reality of a damaged political and judicial system.
The urban revolts of Mexico are like those of Ferguson or New York. They are reactions that will ultimately transform a reactionary mindset or reform a corrupt government.
Will the situation in Mexico actually create a chain reaction elsewhere? It is difficult to second-guess the protestors. What is clear, however, is that there is little time left for the Mexican government to continue business as usual. And if that is the case, watch out for a second Mexican Revolution that may set the pace for real reform in the 21st century.
Hopefully, we can avoid this type of urban warfare—but for that to happen, American citizens must wake up from their slumber and insist that we first open up our political system to greater diversity and greater inclusion.
And second, we need to ensure the willingness of government at all levels to take responsibility for the acts of racism that run counter to the American sense of fairness and human dignity.
The original version of this blog appeared in The Globalist.