The U.S. has erupted in protests over the brutal killing of George Floyd by police. The protests have largely been peaceful. The police response has not.
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Over the past week, widespread police violence has gripped the nation. Police have shot protestors with rubber bullets, tear gassed them, and beat them with batons. Using live bullets, police shot and killed David McAtee, a black chef in Louisville, and left his body in the streets for 12 hours. Armored vehicles and cops in tactical body armor have taken over the streets in response to protests that are specifically about police violence against black communities.
The war zone look of police departments is the inevitable endpoint of a Pentagon program that has transferred more than $5 billion in military surplus equipment to local police and a decade-plus of Department of Homeland Security funding to help police buy even more. It’s why calls for justice from violence have been met with more violence: This is the only “tool” police have.
There are many very good reasons to defund and demilitarize police forces across the country, including the fact that research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows it provides “no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction, on average.” But there’s another reason that’s also tied to the disproportionate suffering of black and brown communities. The climate crisis is exacerbating existing inequalities, and a militarized police force will only make those inequalities worse. There’s a better way forward, though, one that prioritizes resilience—taking funding away from the force that is over-policing and racial profiling black communities, and putting that funding into preparing them for a 21st century of dangerous weather driven by the climate crisis.
I’m loathed to invoke the military in a post about demilitarization, but the Department of Defense does get one thing right on climate change. It often refers to it as a “threat multiplier”—climate change makes existing crises worse, particularly where people lack access to resources. The Syrian Civil War is one example of how climate change can act that way, helping fuel a drought that in turn contributed to tipping the region into conflict. There are everyday examples, too, like how wildfires affect those with respiratory issues or how incarcerated people are often left in harm’s way during hurricanes.
Even before the Pentagon began shoveling military gear to police forces in the 1990s, American police helped enforce a system that has been designed to keep communities of color down, particularly black communities. The concept of policing itself is rooted in violence against black people. Slave patrols were some of the earliest forms of policing in the U.S., and city police departments have targeted black and poor communities from more than a century. Today, these communities typically have lower levels of income and investment by banks and the government, less access to healthcare and transit, and higher rates of pollution. Much of that is a legacy of segregation and makes it that much harder for people to simply live a normal life. It’s against this backdrop that violent police act as a threat multiplier.
The PNAS paper found that black neighborhoods were more likely to have SWAT teams deployed than white ones. A 2018 study found a stark correlation between segregation and the ratio of police shootings of unarmed black vs. white victims. Those metrics don’t even capture the everyday trauma and violence of racist policies like stop-and-frisk and broken windows policing and the systematic brutality with which these policies are enforced.
Militarization has only made police violence worse. There’s a long history of police terrorizing people of color and peaceful protesters. Now, though, dogs and fire hoses have been supplanted by much more high-tech and costly weaponry. The vast majority of the more than $5 billion in military gear sent to police forces around the country under what’s known as the 1033 program has happened since 2010. As of 2016, the Department of Homeland Security has given police forces $39 billion to buy their own military swag, a total that the New Yorker notes is higher than the entire defense budget of Germany. Meanwhile, city government spending on police also outpaces other municipal expenditures to help communities where basic needs like access to clean water aren’t being met.
Rather than investing all those billions of dollars in de-escalation training, police forces have become miniature armies. Ostensibly, the federal programs that provide military-grade gear to police districts are there to help with counterterrorism and anti-drug operations. In practice, some of the biggest deployments of military-level hardware happen to quell peaceful protests like those in Ferguson in the wake of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown and now in Minneapolis and other cities across the country.
The militarization doesn’t just extend to the equipment. It extends to the way police are trained to think, with a focus on a “warrior mentality.” In essence, force is a foregone conclusion because interactions with citizens are perceived as a battle.
This constellation of factors poses a huge risk in the face of a changing climate. Whether it’s hurricanes, wildfires, floods, or any other type of climate disaster, police are first responders. That stacks a threat multiplier on top of a threat multiplier in black and brown communities. We’ve seen the dangerous and deadly results in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which caused widespread destruction in black communities where many residents were unable to evacuate. New Orleans police officers killed three black men in broad daylight and tried to cover it up. And we’ve seen what it can look like when protesters attempt to take on the fossil fuel system driving the crisis. Peaceful indigenous-led protests at Standing Rock trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline were met with militarized violence, including violence perpetrated by the same sheriff’s department that’s now violently going after protesters in Minneapolis, under the guise of defending private property that is destroying the climate.
In the coming years, it’s all too likely we’ll see more protests fighting to stop fossil fuel infrastructure that’s driving the climate crisis. Historical carbon emissions have already locked in even more dangerous weather—weather that will only get worse the longer that infrastructure is built and used. That means the risk of a violent response from militarized police will almost certainly increase.
It’s why stopping the transfer of military-grade equipment to police is a first step to just climate adaptation. It’s why ending bail and asset seizures that needlessly land people in jail is good climate policy. And it’s why the growing number of laws that criminalize protests are bad climate policy and should be rolled back.
At the end of the day, adapting to the risks of climate change means giving people the chance to be safe in the face and aftermath of a storm, fire, or other unnatural disasters. Cops with rocket launchers ain’t it, especially for black and brown communities.
Beyond that, defunding the police is another key step. A number of groups have been calling for a divest-invest strategy where cities pull money from the police and put it into community programs that actually make those places better (groups are advancing a similar policy for fossil fuels). In the context of climate change, that could include everything from improving access to healthcare, transit, and open streets. Ultimately, how that money is spent is a decision that’s best left to communities themselves.
It’s impossible to disentangle the various threads of environmental racism and its ties with policing. The history of redlining and police-enforced segregation has led to massive hotter neighborhoods and more people with chronic health problems tied to air pollution. Despite that, large parts of the climate movement have so far remained silent about the current wave of protests and the role of policing in climate policy. But without defunding the police, let alone more direct ideas of abolishing them altogether, there can never really be climate justice.
Windmills may slow the globe from heating, and seawalls may keep at least some neighborhoods dry when the next storm hits. If the same violent policing system exists, however, there will still be only more danger for the very people climate change will hit the hardest.
Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.