Commentary

North Carolina is not a war zone, but Tillis and Burr must have missed the memo

Sen. Thom Tillis, left, and Sen. Richard Burr, right

NC senators oppose bipartisan proposal to rein in the militarization of U.S. law enforcement agencies

It started in January of this year, and just got worse. The COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the nation to shut down. This  led to long0lasting and painful economic and financial hardship. Jobs dried up, business shuttered  and the routines of our daily lives became little more than a fond memory.

Then, in late May, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd on camera. It took just under nine minutes. The protests, rallies, marches and demonstrations have not stopped since. A painful but necessary reckoning of law enforcement and the American justice system has begun in earnest.

Right now, coast to coast, America’s heart is breaking. Our eyes are being forced open to the brutal racism and white supremacy that has unjustly ended innumerable Black lives.

But why? Why do we allow it? Why are we so shockingly numb to this violence in our own home?

Ideally, our state and local police forces would serve their communities as protectors. Someone breaking into your home or car? Someone threatening you or your family? Having a heart attack or other emergency medical issue? Call 911 and help is on the way. Broadly speaking, this is what people want and expect from their police force.

Yet a warrior mentality has taken over within law enforcement. Perhaps this is to be expected when they are given all the tools of war. They were deployed on protesters in Charlotte in 2016, after police killed Keith Lamont Scott. These weapons were unleashed in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and other major cities earlier this summer. Turn on the news many nights and you will see footage of heavily armed Americans clad in camouflage uniforms — lacking proper identification — arresting, attacking and otherwise violating the civil rights of their fellow citizens in Portland. That’s the new norm.

This unrelenting violence will continue unabated as long as it is legal and encouraged. And for reasons unknown to me, our U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis just threw fuel on this fire.

While 51 of their colleagues were reaching for buckets of water by supporting Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz’s bipartisan amendment that would have barred the transfer of certain military equipment to law enforcement agencies, Burr and Tillis voted to the contrary. By virtue of their vote, they made it clear that they believe local law enforcement departments need tear gas, grenades and grenade launchers; bayonets, armor-piercing firearms and ammunition; weaponized drones and tracked combat vehicles.

Every year, Congress must vote on the National Defense Authorization Act. The most recent vote took place July 21. The legislation sets military policy and spending for the year. It is no small matter. Most important, it green-lights the program – known as the 1033 program – that floods our streets and communities with the weapons of war. Yes, each year Congress votes to support this carnage.

Since the early 1990s, the Pentagon has transferred more than $7 billion in surplus and/or obsolete military equipment to state and local law enforcement. It’s true that some of the transfers involve office furniture and medical supplies. But old laptops don’t maim and kill peaceful protesters and American civilians. Assault rifles and armored vehicles do. This has played out on front pages and cable news for years now.

North Carolina is no exception. We have received more than $44 million in military surplus. This includes mine-resistant vehicles, machetes, helicopters, and M4 and M16 rifles. What value do Burr and Tillis believe machetes and weaponized drones have in law enforcement?

History has shown in no uncertain terms that weapons of war – at home or elsewhere – will not go unused for long. If they are at police headquarters, they will be put to work. We are watching how that story plays out.

We must make sure they never make it to police headquarters. And we’ll need and expect our senators’ help.

Dr. Elizabeth B. Keiser, a professor of English literature, retired from Guilford College after teaching for more than 36 years. A Quaker from the Swannanoa Valley Friends Meeting, she moved to Black Mountain from Greensboro in 2002.

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