A former Seattle police chief says that the post-9/11 militarization of police forces across the U.S. has led to the abuse of non-violent activists in the Occupy movement.
Author and activist Norm Stamper told BBC that he resigned as Seattle’s police chief after the tear gas used on demonstrators at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting caused a passive protest to turn violent.
“After the tear gas, many previously non-violent demonstrators turned much more active, much more militant and in some cases violent in response to the violence they experienced,” he recalled. “We saw what looked and felt very much like a war zone over the next three days and in effect we started it.”
“The cop in me had made that decision not to step in and stop it,” he added. “But as police chief, I should have done precisely that, and I will regret forever that I didn’t do it.”
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government provided military-grade equipment to local law enforcement, which Stamper says just made the problem worse.
“What we see now is even the tiniest rural police department dressed out in battle fatigues and Swat uniforms, sometimes driving armored personal vehicles and making every marijuana bust a military operation,” he explained.
That mindset has also been applied to the Occupy movement, where in city after city, authorities have used tear gas, pepper spray, projectiles, and batons against peaceful activists.
“It is clearly an abuse of tear gas when it is used against passive demonstrators who are taking part in acts of civil disobedience which are such a rich part of our democracy,” Stamper observed. “Today it is being used indiscriminately and that is really appalling.”
“We should recognize that we are a tool of community in the advancement of public safety and good. Police today have lost sight of their purpose.”
Since leaving the department, Stamper has served as an advisory board member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Listen to this audio from BBC’s World Service Witness, broadcast Nov. 29, 2011.
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