​Militarism and the police: how our streets became battlefields

  • July 13, 2021

Authority & Abolition

As institutions like the police and border patrol become increasingly militarized, anti-militarism needs to become a cornerstone of social movements worldwide.

This is an abridged version of “Militarism and the police: How our streets became battlefields” originally published in TNI’s State of Power report 2021.

Photo: Police in Portland, Oregon, during an anti-KKK protest – February 8, 2020. Doug Brown Media / Shutterstock.com

In 2014, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking mass protests. Although the Ferguson police force numbered just 53, its response was “akin to the deployment of an army in a miniature war zone.” Stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and baton rounds were fired at predominantly young, African American protesters, by police officers driving armored vehicles and carrying automatic rifles. Police snipers aimed their weapons at the crowd. Journalists were arrested and “treated as enemy combatants.”

The events in Ferguson show that militarism and war no longer correspond to the image of two opposing armies lined up on a battlefield, charging at one another in an event with a clear beginning and end — defeat, in which the winner takes all. War is — and has always been — much more pervasive and complex than this, built on processes of militarism and militarization that are experienced in a multitude of ways every day by ordinary people around the world; wars are being fought in our streets, against our communities.

Militarism is rooted in and defined by the norms and values of the traditional state and military structures designed to fight wars. It is characterized by hierarchy, discipline, obedience, order, aggression and hyper-masculinity. A militarized institution is one that has embraced both the overt practice of violence, and the culture and values that justifies it. Militarism is therefore not limited to the armed forces, as other institutions like police and border guards adopt its values and practices.

The militarism that sustains militarized police forces is a problem for everyone. Accepting this means that many more of us are “anti-militarists” than we might think. Feminists have long argued that the “personal is political” — that everything is a feminist issue. I would argue similarly that “anti-militarism” needs to be practiced far beyond the traditional “anti-war” movements, and has to become one of the cornerstones of all popular movements.

​What is militarized policing?

Sociologist Johan Galtung’s “typology of violence” is a useful model for understanding the relationship between physical violence and its structural and cultural conditions. Galtung uses the image of an iceberg; direct, physical violence sits above the surface of the water while, beneath the surface, there is structural violence, which includes systems and structures that are racist, sexist, or in some form treat people as less than fully human.

Cultural violence creates the conditions for both direct and structural violence. Cultural violence resides in our stories and myths and the values and norms they encapsulate. It perpetuates, obfuscates or sustains the different forms of violence experienced by people worldwide — from notions like “poor people are lazy” to “our police need to be able to protect themselves.”

In Galtung’s model, militarism can be seen as cultural violence; as an expression of the values and norms that perpetuate militarization in training, command structures, decision-making and on the streets. It is built, as feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe argues, around a “package of ideas” that “work to inoculate us to the ideas that the world is a dangerous place that there are naturally those who must be protected (‘feminine’) and, conversely, those who must protect (‘masculine’).” These categories mark out clear dividing lines between groups needing protection — the “in” group — and those that pose a threat — the “out” group.

Militarization goes beyond and runs deeper than the practices of particular police units, equipment and weapons, specific crowd-control tactics, or heavily armored vehicles. It includes the underlying cultural assumptions that support and sustain that violence, the narratives that make it appear “normal” or acceptable. Militarism is also deeply embedded in social divisions, whereby groups are targeted because of their ethnic identity, nationality, class, religious faith, gender, or sexuality, or because they challenge the status quo. This is because the role of the police is, ultimately, to protect the state and its economic interests.

While the nature of this militarism is context-specific, the police forces we see today are rooted in long histories of violence, oppression and even genocide. In the US, the police forces emerged from paramilitary slave patrols. The Metropolitan Police in London was modeled on and recruited from the military and drew heavily on the experiences of its founder Robert Peel in Ireland before being replicated in other British colonies.

It is a history that continues. First Nation groups in Canada, for example, who are today non-violently defending their territories against extractivist projects, are being repeatedly attacked by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a unit rooted in colonialist violence.

As academic Mark Neocleous describes in his book A Critical Theory of Police Power, it is a myth that this process is new or constitutes “a break with a past in which police and military powers were more clearly defined and categorically distinct.” The relationship between the police and military has always been deeply intertwined with colonialism, the establishment and maintenance of nation-states, and the protection of capital. These processes and relationships are also continually evolving. For example, in Apartheid South Africa there was “little difference between the army and the police.” Despite post-apartheid attempts to demilitarize the police, such as by changing their ranking system away from the one used by the military, the South African Police Service has since shifted back towards a paramilitary approach, such as when policing protests.

​Violence and conflict

When faced with conflict, human beings respond in various ways and often choose solutions that avoid violence. We are very good at negotiating, communicating, cooperating, as well as, of course, submitting to those more powerful than us. Violence in our societies is pervasive; it is experienced every day by victims of crime, domestic and more. But the systemic way armies and militarized police units plan and prepare for the use of overwhelming violence is specific and unique.

A key example of militarized policing is the suppression of protest and dissent. Social movements come into conflict with the authorities via lobbying, protests or direct actions. Authorities respond to these conflicts in various ways, sometimes reaching for militarized options. This violence is planned, trained for, repeatedly rehearsed and often delivered in a calculated way that aims to disorientate, overwhelm or eliminate the perceived enemy or threat.

Through the lens of militarism, conflict stops being something that drives change and transformation; it becomes a threat to be neutralized and the individuals and groups driving conflict become enemies akin to a foreign invading army. Violence of this nature relies on its perpetrators’ obedience to orders, the dehumanization of its victims, and a heightened perception of threat.

The experiences of the democracy movement in Hong Kong serve as one particularly extreme example. While in Hong Kong these tactics have been deployed by an authoritarian government, we have seen similar examples of police violence leveled against activists across the world — in Chile, France, Germany, Indonesia, Myanmar, South Africa, South Korea and the US, to name but a few.


Police training is an essential mechanism of militarization as every year police forces worldwide receive training from the military. Thousands of US police officers have received training from the Israeli military in crowd-control tactics, the use of force and surveillance. According to Amnesty International, this has led to US police officers being placed “in the hands of military, security and police systems that have racked up documented human rights violations for years.”

Police trainers like David Grossman drive a “warrior mentality” into policing at workshops, seminars and training where participants are told: “We. Are. At. War… And you are the front-line troops in this war. There is no elite unit showing up to save your bacon when the terrorists attack. You are the Delta Force. You are the Green Beret. You are British SAS. Can you accept that?”

Such training seeks to reinforce a worldview in distinct binaries — “us versus them,” “friend or foe,” “enemy or ally” — which is a key feature of a militarized mindset that is often strengthened by a sense of impunity. These narratives drive home the perception that police officers on the street are akin to soldiers on a battlefield, where poor and marginalized communities as well as people engaging in protest and activism quickly take on the role of an advancing enemy.

National and international state agencies and governments play a significant role in supporting the militarization of police forces. For example, the Jakarta Center for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC), which provides police units involved in violent oppression of the people of West Papua, was founded by the Indonesian and Australian police forces and lists among its partners the Canadian RCMP, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO – now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office).

Yet, these transnational policing networks also offer key opportunities for solidarity. The Make West Papua Safe campaign works with activists worldwide to hold foreign governments accountable for their support for Indonesian police violence.


Research conducted in 2017 shows a clear link between the nature of the equipment police officers have in hand and the number of people they kill. The authors of the study argue that this is similar to the “law of the instrument” — when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you have the sort of equipment an army uses, everything looks like the sort of threat faced by military forces in war zones.

Another important feature of militarized policing is the use of “non-lethal” weaponry, including projectiles like rubber and plastic bullets, baton rounds and bean bags; chemical weapons like pepper spray and tear gas; and vehicle-mounted weapons like water cannons. There is a growing market for such weapons, and companies are providing an increasing range of products to meet the demand.

The Flash-Ball, for instance, has been used by police forces in France against movements like the Gilets Jaunes. The manufacturer claims that this gun has the stopping power — i.e. the ability of a firearm to stop a target — equivalent to a .38 millimeter handgun. According to Laurent Thines, neurosurgeon and chief clinician at Besançon teaching hospital, being hit by the Flash-Ball is “like having a 20 kilograms of concrete block thrown on to your face or head from one meter.”

In addition to “non-lethal” weapons, it is common for police officers to carry weapons identical to those used by military forces. Since 1997, the US Department of Defense has transferred more than $7.2 billion in military equipment to police forces around the country through the 1033 Program. Research has shown that the police forces which receive this equipment become more violent. Equipment is also routinely traded around the world; it is very common to find weapons produced in one country being used by police in other countries. For example, Lebanese security forces have been documented using a wide range of weapons produced by French companies.

Protecting the “in” group from the “out” group

As we have already explored, militarized police forces often stand at the dividing line between “in” groups and “out” groups, sustaining inequalities and oppressive relationships. We can expect that climate breakdown and endemic economic inequalities will make these divisions even starker in the future. Another contributing factor is the increasingly extreme methods of energy extraction through which states and private companies are penetrating new areas — digging deeper, moving fossil fuels over greater distances, and destroying more environments on which people depend for their survival.

This is clearly playing out in Canada, where Indigenous peoples like the Wet’suwet’en in British Colombia have been resisting the occupation and destruction of their lands by companies intent on mining minerals or using their land as routes for gas pipelines. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which was formed as the “North-West Mounted Police” in 1873, just six years after the establishment of Canada as a nation state, have been enforcing an injunction brought by CoastalGaslink Pipeline. The RCMP have repeatedly supported extractivist projects including pipelines and hydroelectric dams, and have been compared by Indigenous communities to “an occupying foreign army.”

Notes from an RCMP strategy session show that officers argued for the use of “lethal overwatch” — meaning the deployment of officers prepared to use lethal force — during the operation to clear the Wet’suwet’en’s Gidimt’en roadblock. The raid was conducted by RCMP officers dressed in military fatigues, carrying assault rifles. 14 people were arrested. The raid prompted a huge wave of direct action across Canada and beyond, with street protests and activists blocking railway lines.

Militarism struggles with difference and diversity because, at its root, it is defined by conformity and order. Those who do not conform are soon perceived as a threat — or a potential threat — to be eliminated. Militarization thus takes the logic of the battlefield and transposes it into streets and communities. With this heightened sense of threat, police officers are more likely to make mistakes, misread situations, and rapidly escalate to lethal violence; and all of this happens invariably along lines of deeply embedded discrimination.


Writing in the New Statesman, the British political journalist Paul Mason describes a scene at a train station in a major city:

Three cops from the British Transport Police ordering flat whites in a cafe, amid a short break on what must have been a busy shift. One was armed with a pistol and kevlared-up, the others were wearing stab vests and bulky tactical clothing. All were equipped with earpieces, tasers, pepper sprays – and all were tense, scanning the busy street intently as they waited for their drinks. Sadly, this level of kit, this intensity and militarisation of policing now looks so normal that few in the coffee bar gave them a second look.

Of course, the UK is an outlier. In many countries — if not most — it is simply the norm for police officers to carry firearms. What is significant in this scene is not the equipment, but the normalization of militarization; it is deeply concerning because it suggests that the public accepts, and perhaps even condones, these processes when they need to be confronted and questioned.

Militarization processes are ongoing and continue to pervade our lives as well as political discourse. In the UK, there were significant protests throughout the 1960s and 1970s, yet there were no riot cops. But by the 1980s, the riot shield became “the ultimate symbolic barrier between the powerful and the powerless,” as Mason puts it, while a “presumption towards aggression and offense in riot policing” took hold globally.

In 2006, “temporary” deployments of the military in “auxiliary” roles became a permanent fixture of life in Mexico, with the armed forces “effectively substituting for — rather than merely supporting — the police,” according to Human Rights Watch. In 2018, President López Obrador announced a new 40,000-strong, military-controlled National Guard, which began operations in mid-2019. The Guard is a hybrid force made up of the army police, naval police and federal police, which López Obrador said should show “military discipline.”

Around the world, people are experiencing similar militarization processes of the police forces, redefining what is “normal.” These processes often take place behind the scenes, as political leaders demand more power and control in order to keep some parts of their populations “safe.” They are inherently difficult to challenge or question because dissenting voices are targeted by the very systems they seek to challenge. As soon as these processes come under scrutiny, we see them appear for what they are: violent, oppressive and discriminatory. Of course, militarization benefits some parts of society — assets are protected while inequalities are sustained — while to others it is simply invisible.

​We are all anti-militarists

Our planet is at a junction point. We have stark choices to make as we face complex ecological, social and political challenges both now and in the years ahead. Some power-holders and decision-makers will seek to perpetuate the existing order characterized by rampant economic inequality, racism and other forms of structural discrimination and a destructive, exploitative use of finite natural resources. The “solutions” offered to these problems will be technical and technological, not transformative, and sustaining this status quo will mean increasing reliance on militarized and enforced boundaries between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the “in” and the “out” groups.

Militarism is the glue that underpins the violence that is being meted out to people around the world at the hands of the police and security forces. It will continue to sustain this violent, abusive, and racist policing that looks to uphold an oppressive and destructive status quo. It affects every one of us, so it is everyone’s concern. To challenge this pervasive militarism we will need to confront a number of its key features: the way extreme violence is readily embraced as a response to conflict; the perception of diversity and difference as threats to be subdued or eliminated; the acceptance of control, discipline, hierarchy, and hyper-patriotism; and the way that the behavior and attitudes associated with the military become the norm against which all other behaviors and attitudes are defined and measured.

Understood as an essential supporting pillar upholding much of the world’s injustices and violence, militarism quickly stops being an “issue” for just anti-war movements to consider and challenge, and becomes something that impacts everyone striving for a most just and equal world.

We can only fully respond to the ecological and social crises facing humanity and all forms of life, and do so in ways that are radically transformative, by demilitarizing the institutions that sustain the status quo. We are only just beginning to understand fully what that might mean, but it is clear that a world transformed will be a world demilitarized.

TNI’s 10th State of Power report explores the history, structures and changing dynamics of the military, policing and homeland security in the world today and outlines emancipatory visions and ideas to end the violence of the state.

Andrew Metheven

Andrew Metheven is the Nonviolence Program coordinator at War Resisters’ International, a network of grassroots anti-militarist and pacifist organizations. Andrew’s work focuses on the arms trade, militarized policing and supporting nonviolent movements.

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