As City Council debates demilitarizing the Columbus Division of Police, one essayist reflects on her background as a military kid and the death of her soldier brother in light of the current Black Lives Matter protests
So one question that we abolitionists ask ourselves is: What are the conditions under which it is more likely that people will resort to using violence and harm to solve problems? This is a question we ask ourselves. What can we do about it so that there is less harm? And one thing that we have learned is where life is precious, life is precious.
-Ruth Wilson Gilmore
My brother was driving an MRAP, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected military truck. To call it a truck is to minimize the size, heft and commanding presence of the vehicle. It is armored and bulbous, encased in near-impenetrable materials, dressed in desert aesthetic. MRAPs tower as high as 10 feet. They weigh 14 to 18 tons. The frame is set upon the meatiest tires. An MRAP costs anywhere from $500,000 to a slick million. The windshield is bulletproof, resistant to blasts and projectiles. A roof-side circular release hatch is a way to exit and enter the vehicle, but mostly a place for the gunner to work the rotating machine gun. The MRAP has flood lights, quick release ramps — for emergency exit out the back of the tank-turned-truck — and GPS communication antennae. It comes equipped with sensors meant to track Improvised Explosive Devices before the vehicle is within range of explosion. Grated armor decorates the windows, rendering the inside a kind of prison for the crew compartment: three to four people waiting below the gunner, behind the passenger, and my brother, Ronnie, who was the driver.
I live in Columbus now, but my siblings and I grew up in the foothills of the Rockies, just downwind of three military bases. We knew MRAPS, the sounds of war, early. When the soldiers went “off to the field,” they were playing war games a handful of miles from my house, usually two weeks at a time. They set off flares at night and practiced running, crawling and rolling, equipment dangling from their uniformed backs. The cannons sounded all day, and booms echoed off the mountainside into my neighborhood.
The soldiers were our dads, moms, grandpas, neighbors, teachers. Sometimes they’d disappear into a desert for months and only mostly return. Sometimes they stayed, pretended war from 9 to 5, arriving home in time for dinner. They cleaned their guns, shined their shoes and pressed their camo, all for housing, insurance, steady pay and the promise of an education. Perhaps this is what their parents did, and their parents, too; this, in the hope of escaping the violence of cyclical poverty, as their parents hoped, and their parents, too.
When I was a kid, we climbed the 1990s Gulf-Kuwait-Bosnian-version of an MRAP. We cheered as they rolled down the parade route. We clambered happily over the sides and into the bowels of tanks at Veterans celebrations, on Independence Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day.
What is war when a tank is a weapon of mass destruction, then a playground?
On Saturday, May 30, I watched an MRAP growl down High Street in the middle of Columbus.
That morning, I attended a peaceful protest for George Floyd. Thousands of us gathered outside of the Ohio Statehouse. I witnessed 20 or more police cars following protesters before 10 a.m., lining the streets in preemptive battle. More arrived throughout the morning. The protest remained peaceful that Saturday, but the police tear gassed and maced and assaulted the mass of us before noon. A Black congresswoman and City Council members were also targeted, and so our localized violence would make national headlines by Monday. This behavior and notoriety is not unusual for the Columbus police, one of the deadliest police forces in the country.
For Black people, that is. I am white.
When protesters arrived at the Statehouse, all took note of several dozen bike cops dressed in Batman-like, militarized full-body armor. Protesters remained on the sidewalk, as the police demanded, and still the cops circled again and again, pushing us with their bikes. Snipers watched from the roofs of surrounding buildings, watched us through the scopes on their guns, pointed in our general direction.
In the military you are taught to never, ever, point a gun — unless you intend to use it.
We thrust cardboard signs in the air. We chanted.
“Black Lives Matter!”
“Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”
It was during this last chant, and not long before they unleashed chemical warfare, when I noticed the MRAP truck rolling casually toward us. It rumbled and slowed to a stop near the Downtown Tim Hortons. Broad daylight, blue sky, before noon, no violence but police violence, and another war truck arrives in the streets of Ohio. No machine gun turret atop the MRAP, but instead, a PA system. This, the smallest comfort.
The protesters, the police, fade. I see my brother driving. I see my brother on fire.
What does a cop see — confined to the MRAP, ready for battle — when he looks out at us, protesting the systemically racist brutalities he understands as his profession?
The definition of the word systemic is: In a way that relates to or affects the whole of something.
The word is used to denote problems with a collective; there are individual police, yes, but they all operate under a collective understanding of supposed law and order.
People often address issues of police brutality by suggesting there are merely a few bad apples. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs reminds readers the original phrasing is: The rotten apple injures its neighbor.
In other versions of the proverb, “injures” is replaced by “quickly infects.” Another appropriate word would be “corrupts.” The original phrasing declares that even a single rotted or rotting apple systemically corrupts other apples in the barrel.
Policing in America is, by design, a system created to keep Black people in check, and poor people, too. If one were curious enough to map the rotted history of policing in America, we’d begin with white men patrolling the Black people they once enslaved, and recognize: The apple has evolved — there are endless varieties today — but the apple is still rotten, to its core.
I believe understanding language is important, and central to our understanding of one another. Sometimes we do not communicate as well as we would like to, so we resort to metaphors — one thing used as a symbol for another — or simile, where something is stated to be like or as another thing.
This essay is not about reinforcing overused metaphors or forcing empty similes. I am not using my brother and his death in Iraq as a symbol or connection to unjustifiable policing in America, or to the horrific murder of George Floyd.
In no way should the reader replace or conflate George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police, or the systemic oppression of Black Americans, with my brother’s death in Iraq.
I am not suggesting that the constant traumas Black Americans face daily have anything in common with my personal trauma and loss. These are incomparable things. I have felt great loss and pain, and I am also white, and so I can exist in America without constant fear for my safety, for my life.
I am recounting what it’s like to see a weapon of war in the streets of America, and what I have realized as a result. What I am proposing is this: To be Black in America is to be terrorized by a legalized, racist war.
Black Americans are terrorized for the color of their skin by a police force which sees itself as a military fighting a White supremacist war, endless and systemic, even when they do not recognize it as such.
To be an American police officer is to believe you are a soldier in this war, without consideration, question or critique.
American police are, and have always been, at war with Black people and poor people in America. They believe they have a right to battle Americans who question their actions or authority. They’ve misunderstood their problematic work as their patriotic duty, protecting and serving the rich, the white and their things, brutalizing anyone else they care to.
White Americans have allowed, and benefitted from, the militarization of police. White Americans have encouraged the unchecked authority and long, unnecessary reach of the police. White Americans have been content to mind the crossfire, to see the war as over there or not our problem. Our inaction condones, propagates and justifies this war.
What do you call a people who deny the existence of a war they both profit from and help sustain?
Police departments across the country have shelves and shelves of war toys: grenade launchers, bayonets, body armor, M16s. Unlike the military, training on use of these weapons is not common for police departments. When tactical or SWAT teams take an MRAP out for a spin on these American streets, police are proud to gear up and pack their various inherited weapons into what they call “War Bags.” These war bags are very sturdy, nondescript, black canvas. They are otherwise known as “bags,” but police have really taken to the nickname.
I saw the faces of Columbus police just before, and right after, they tear gassed a thousand peaceful protestors. They saw our criticism as a declaration of war, and they were emboldened by it. Their training tells them everyone wants to kill them. What is more satisfying than being proven right?
They closed ranks around us on Saturday, May 30. They shoved us off the sidewalk and into the very street they banned us from. We had signs. We asked them to stop killing Black people. They had horses, batons, shields, helmets, gas masks, bulletproof vests. They came ready to fight.
Some MRAPs, the police paint royal blue. They proudly stencil POLICE across the driver’s side door. This one they left as is, a monstrous war vehicle in familiar desert beige. Metal made to withstand blast. Tires thick and combative. Prison bars trapping those inside. A mercenary look to challenge everyone.
Sometimes a metaphor is a metaphor.
Other times: It’s a war.