Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing
University of California Press, $34.95 (paper)
In 1967 the United States was rocked by a series of urban revolts against racial injustice and economic inequality known as the “long, hot summer.” In response, in July, with smoke still rising over Detroit, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a suite of domestic policies, including both expanded poverty relief and a military crackdown by National Guardsmen trained in riot control. Shortly afterward, Johnson’s advisor Walt Rostow wrote to him, comparing these new domestic policies with the counterinsurgency tactics that the administration was employing in Vietnam. “At home your appeal is for law and order as the framework for economic and social progress,” Rostow wrote. “Abroad we fight in Vietnam to make aggression unprofitable. . . . The equivalent of domestic law and order on the world scene is that nations forego the use of violence.” Rostow was apparently unembarrassed to compare the government’s response to citizens expressing their outrage in the streets of Detroit with the brutal guerrilla warfare being waged by the military in Vietnam. But he did have a point about the strategic parallels between domestic law-and-order politics and Cold War geopolitics: in both arenas, the U.S. federal government trained and equipped local police forces, either in the states or abroad, as the front line to suppress left-wing dissent.
The militarized policing deployed against Black Lives Matter is far from new and was never just a domestic affair. Instead, it draws on decades of experience abroad repressing the leftist political movements of postcolonial nations.
This shift to a law-and-order mindset, Stuart Schrader argues in his new book Badges Without Borders, transformed the United States. By 1968 Johnson had declared a War on Crime and overseen the passage of the watershed Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which channeled massive federal funds and military-grade equipment to local police forces. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, who campaigned specifically on a platform of law and order, then declared a War on Drugs that his advisor John Ehrlichman later admitted was designed to “disrupt” and repress “the antiwar left and black” activists. The result of these policies has been both an enormous expansion of the U.S. prison system and the normalization of police using military counterinsurgency technologies, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, against progressive protesters. That history continues to shape contemporary events in profound and disturbing ways. Over the last month, as a vast coalition of protesters has marched against police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racial inequality, police officers clad in heavy riot gear have gassed and beaten peaceful demonstrators with the blessing of government leaders: Senator Tom Cotton called for an “overwhelming show” of military force, Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged state governors to “dominate the battlespace,” and peaceful protesters were forcefully cleared from Lafayette Square so Donald Trump could have a photo op.
Although Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis, vehemently denounced any attempt to “militarize our response to protests,” the martial rhetoric and militarized force that have been deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters over the last month is far from new. As Rostow’s comparison of domestic policies with the Vietnam War in 1967 shows, the law-and-order crackdown that has stretched from Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump was never just a domestic affair. Instead, as Schrader contends in Badges Without Borders (and as I explore in a longer essay forthcoming in Michigan Law Review), the Johnson and Nixon administrations designed the War on Crime and the War on Drugs by drawing on decades of experience abroad repressing the leftist political movements of recently postcolonial nations. Mass incarceration and militarized riot control emerged hand in hand with neo-imperial hegemony in the Cold War.
Consequently, understanding and resisting racist state violence within the United States today requires contesting the brutality of both domestic policing and U.S. foreign policy. The history that Schrader’s book tells is a crucial piece of that project.
Schrader’s story begins in Germany and Japan in 1945. As part of its postwar effort to reconstruct the Axis powers, the United States sought to reform police in both countries. To accomplish this, the United States sent police experts who had been involved in policing reforms in U.S. cities in the 1930s. Notable among them were August Vollmer, the godfather of modern police professionalization and a veteran of counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines at the turn of the century; Vollmer’s student, O. W. Wilson, the chief of police in Wichita, Kansas; Wilson’s own mentee, Theo E. Hall, a Wichita cop who coauthored a 1944 report on U.S. race relations and urban unrest entitled The Police and Minority Groups; and Byron Engle, head of Kansas City’s reform-minded police training program. In the United States, these men had led a nationwide movement to professionalize policing by purging political corruption, routinizing tasks to limit officers’ discretion, building expert bureaucracies and disseminating expertise through manuals and periodicals, and generally creating a neutral cadre of beat cops evenhandedly enforcing the law. Now, they would apply their experience to the projects of denazification and global democratization.
U.S. police assistance blanketed the globe. Fifty-two countries received some form of “public safety assistance” between 1962 and 1974, which helped limit labor activism worldwide.
Subsequently, the United States came increasingly to rely on police training as a way to intervene abroad. In 1954 the Eisenhower administration promulgated National Security Council Action 1290–d, which called for a formal program of police assistance to help foreign nations maintain internal security. Eisenhower also created the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), which worked with the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA to construct the 1290–d program. It aimed to equip foreign police forces and to train them in surveillance, crime control, riot control, and anti-guerilla action. The ICA was just the first of many federal agencies founded in the following two decades to train foreign cops, including the Overseas Internal Security Program (OISP), the Special Group (Counter-Insurgency) (SGCI), the Agency for International Development (AID), and the Inter-American Police Academy (IAPA). Through these groups and many others, foreign police assistance became a cornerstone of Cold War policy.
The foreign police assistance program was eventually consolidated in the Office of Public Safety (OPS). It was founded in 1962, and Engle, veteran of police professionalization in both Kansas City and Japan, became its first director. Over the next decade, hundreds of OPS advisors trained local police in countries around the world, including Guatemala, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, among many others, teaching them traffic control, riot control, marksmanship, surveillance, statistics gathering, and the use of technology to monitor the population and to coordinate police action. OPS built a regional teletype system in the Americas to track criminals and it distributed 30,000 police radios worldwide, a communications revolution that helped inspire the creation of the 911 system in the United States. OPS also developed new tear gas technologies for riot control, which were then brought back to the United States and are still used on protesters today. And it ran the International Police Academy (IPA), which trained foreign and domestic cops through simulations in the futuristic Police Operations Control Center that challenged them to manage urban unrest in a fictionalized Baltimore. Eleven IPA graduates went on to become the heads of their home countries’ police forces.
U.S. police assistance ultimately blanketed the globe. Schrader counts fifty-two countries that received some form of “public safety assistance” between 1962 and 1974. The program helped limit labor activism worldwide, and it groomed police advisors who went on to work everywhere from wartime Vietnam to present-day Iraq. Critically, OPS was also accused of supporting brutal dictators and of teaching techniques for torture and assassination. On the basis of such criticisms, Congress shut down OPS’s foreign operations in 1974. But in its twelve-year lifespan, Schrader shows, OPS’s foreign adventures remade the world. They also provided a template for potent new forms of policing back home.
In 1964, after a summer of riots in Harlem, Philadelphia, Jersey City, and elsewhere, Arnold Sagalyn, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Law Enforcement Coordination and a friend of Engle’s, wrote to one of Johnson’s aides that “a basic need . . . exists to help our police departments cope with increasing crime, and to maintain the standard of law and order in our ‘Great Society’.” Sagalyn therefore proposed a series of police reforms based on the overseas police assistance program. The “expertise and resources” of OPS, he wrote, “could provide a nucleus” for a “technical police assistance program which could provide local and state communities with the guidance, training, and help they urgently need.” Using “police training grants,” the federal government could fund and train local cops from Los Angeles to Boston just like it did in South America and South Vietnam. In short, OPS was the model for the War on Crime.
Tear gas is banned by the laws of war but is routinely employed by U.S. police against domestic political demonstrators. Schrader describes this as “a stark repatriation of counterinsurgent knowledge as domestic policing.” Or, to adapt a Vietnam-era phrase, the war came home.
Sagalyn’s reform proposals eventually took shape as the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which was created by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. LEAA distributed grants to local police forces, and in the 1970s, Schrader reports, it was the fastest-growing federal program—an impressive feat given the boom in federal agencies and agency budgets during that decade. LEAA’s block grant approach also fulfilled the longstanding conservative dream of undermining the (already woefully limited) federal welfare state by replacing federally run poverty relief programs with grants made directly to local governments acting on their own initiative. LEAA embodied Nixon’s New Federalism by wielding the federal purse through decentralization and devolution to the states. Moreover, just as counterinsurgency strategy abroad posited that security must come before economic development, Schrader writes that policing grants “inserted a division between social-welfare programs and law enforcement,” making it easier to cut federal welfare funding while boosting spending on security. Police reforms in the 1970s consequently helped to alter central features of the structure of U.S. government: they weakened the federal welfare state; they changed the relationship between state and federal governments; and they rearranged the lines of accountability between citizens and their local and national representatives, as local discretion increasingly became the primary channel for federal spending.
Substantively, LEAA grants funded police training and helped local police departments purchase tear gas and surplus military body armor, vehicles, and gas masks. The massive post-9/11 federal programs that provide surplus military gear to local cops today simply echo these earlier policies that shipped equipment from Vietnam back home. Tear gas in particular was developed as a weapon of war in Vietnam—the military pumped it into tunnels and blanketed whole battlefields with it to drive guerrillas out into the open—and then it was loosed on U.S. streets, where it’s still used on protesters today. Tear gas is banned by the laws of war, and the U.S. military refrains from using it in combat under an executive order issued by President Gerald Ford, but tear gas is routinely employed by U.S. police against domestic political demonstrators. Schrader describes this as “a stark repatriation of counterinsurgent knowledge as domestic policing.” Or, to adapt a Vietnam-era phrase, the war came home.
It was not just the LEAA that repatriated techniques developed by the overseas police assistance program either. OPS, the Army, the FBI, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police all ran foreign and domestic police training programs in the 1960s and ’70s. And under Ronald Reagan’s governorship, California used LEAA grants to build the California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI), which trained cops from across the country and around the world in disaster response, counterterrorism, and especially riot control.
CSTI also revealed the politics of the new movement toward police professionalization. A handwritten note from a meeting of a Gubernatorial Task Force in California, Schrader reports, stated that CSTI was “created” in response to “Watts” and “People’s Park,” referring to the urban black rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965 and the student demonstrations at Berkeley in 1969. The riot control training provided by CSTI was meant to repress such protests in the future. Tellingly, when President Reagan nominated Louis Giuffrida, who had been the first director of CSTI, to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Giuffrida faced backlash for having once advocated a plan for the mass internment of “American Negroes” in the event of civil unrest. In the guise of law and order, policing would now help to maintain racial hierarchy and to suppress left-wing dissent.
The many Cold War innovations in domestic policing and foreign police assistance that Schrader describes still shape the U.S. approach to both domestic policy and foreign affairs. OPS was shuttered under charges of complicity with human rights abuses in 1974, but the War on Drugs waged in South America by the Drug Enforcement Agency continues OPS’s counterinsurgency tactics and foreign police training abroad. And on the home front, the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the Reagan-era evisceration of the welfare state, and the rise of “broken windows” and stop-and-frisk policing have honed U.S. criminal justice into a system of structural violence with a severely disproportionate impact on racial minorities. Policing, Schrader’s history implies, has been a tool of both a racialized project of neo-imperial hegemony abroad and a racialized project of social control through mass incarceration here at home. Those two projects, indeed, were conceived together. Unwinding their pernicious effects will require tackling them together, too.
Schrader concludes Badges Without Borders by arguing that, in light of this history, scholars and reformers alike should emphasize the thickly interwoven connections between domestic and foreign policy in their work. He writes that “to dismantle the carceral state, the national security state will also have to be dismantled.” It may ultimately be impossible to completely deconstruct either one—though calls for defunding police departments are gaining traction today, and utopian thinking is critical to any progressive project. But at the very least, we might say that any major reforms in the criminal justice system should proceed hand in hand with the reformation of the national security state. The national security state and the carceral state spring from the same history and ideology of order, exclusion, and control. They will consequently have to be democratized together.
“To dismantle the carceral state, the national security state will also have to be dismantled.”
Progressive activists, of course, have understood that necessity for more than a century. From at least the late nineteenth century, in the face of shifting forms of domestic policing and military adventurism abroad, a combination of antiracist and antiwar activists have seen domestic racism and imperialist foreign policy as two sides of the same coin. A long civil rights movement and a long antiwar movement have consistently worked together to contest Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and the evolving phases of U.S. imperialism. In the early and mid-twentieth century, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois connected the ravages of global imperialism and world wars with domestic Jim Crow, while at the end of the twentieth century, Audre Lorde drew links between racism, sexism, homophobia, the rollback of the welfare state, and the stealth invasion of Grenada, arguing that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” As the platform of the Movement for Black Lives put it in 2016, “militarism . . . and white supremacy know no borders,” so progressive activists today have to “demand an end to the wars against Black people,” wherever they occur. The recent international protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States are an inspiring effort to put such cross-border thinking into action.
Democracy and justice are, by nature, open-ended projects. We will always have to struggle to democratize our government, our society, and our economy and to make our political community more inclusive. But to move forward, we also have to look back, to understand how our problems arose and how earlier activists tried to bend the arc of the universe toward justice. Schrader’s new history of the carceral state is therefore an important resource for scholars, public policy reformers, and political activists alike. An extension of Schrader’s project would include as well the urgent history of activists such as Lorde or Du Bois who fought against the interwoven excesses of U.S. policing, mass incarceration, and the expanding national security state. Those activists’ work illuminates how to resist the myriad forms of excessive force that are employed by the state today, and their successes in the face of often overwhelming odds offer a source of hope.