When state officials say they face “a sophisticated network of urban warfare,” they’re looking through the lens of a militarized police force.
This is what escalation looks like. “The situation on the ground in Minneapolis & St. Paul has shifted & the response tonight will be different as a result,” the Minnesota Department of Public Safety tweeted as businesses boarded up their windows and the Saturday sun sank low over the Twin Cities. The National Guard and law-enforcement presence would “triple in size,” the state agency warned, “to address a sophisticated network of urban warfare.”
“Urban warfare” is a striking choice of words for a state agency, and one that cable-news anchors seized on and repeated in the fiery hours that followed. For the fifth straight night, Americans marched and chanted—and some rioted and looted—overwhelmed with frustration and rage by the Monday killing of George Floyd, who died while a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Prosecutors charged Chauvin with manslaughter and third-degree murder on Friday, but three other police officers involved in the incident remain free. And the current protests are about not one black man’s death, but thousands of them, and centuries of discrimination, dehumanization, and denial of basic civil rights.
The police and the U.S. military are separate institutions because policing a community and fighting a war are supposed to be separate jobs. In traditional “wars,” both sides are heavily armed. In Minnesota, only the agents of the state appear to be wearing body armor and carrying long guns. And yet: State officials are calling this “warfare” on official public channels. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety and a spokesperson for Governor Tim Walz did not respond to requests for comment about the language.
“War” is not how public officials have referred to the protests by pro-Confederate and white-nationalist groups in recent years; those gatherings have not generally been dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. Nor were the armed “Liberate” protesters who swarmed the Michigan statehouse earlier this month removed by force; instead, the legislature canceled its session. But perhaps it was inevitable that officials would turn to military language as demonstrations spread across the country this week. In cities large and small, police departments are now outfitted like military units. When you’re driving an armored vehicle down Main Street, civilians can begin to look like insurgents.
Militarization can escalate already tense situations. Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown escalated dramatically on their second day, when police showed up in Humvees, wearing camouflage, and carrying M4s. This can be taken to even more absurd extremes: That same year, the police department in Fargo, North Dakota, attracted my colleague James Fallows’s attention for riding through the snow in full military-style camo, hanging off their armored vehicle. The last major “public disturbance” in the area had been during the 2001 Testicle Festival, more than a decade earlier.
The state of Minnesota’s “urban warfare” rhetoric is the inevitable consequence of this decades-long militarization of American police departments, Arthur Rizer, a policing expert at the center-right R Street Institute, told me late Saturday.
“You create this world where you’re not just militarizing the police—you equip the police like soldiers, you train the police like soldiers. Why are you surprised when they act like soldiers?” Rizer, a former police officer and soldier, said. “The mission of the police is to protect and serve. But the premise of the soldier is to engage the enemy in close combat and destroy them. When you blur those lines together with statements like that … It’s an absolute breakdown of civil society.”