If you’re one of those citizens who feels as though activism and protest is irrelevantly ineffective, check this out. Recently, after pushing hard for change, a coalition of activists and teenagers were able to largely demilitarize a police department. Two years of work culminated in the victory, claimed in times ripe with conversation of top-down police reform.
Activists united with Los Angeles school district students in a stunning action against militarized policing of kids. Their passionately aggressive push, Truthout reports, included protests and sit-ins, as well as a final coup de gras.
A LA Unified School district board meeting was taken over by coalition members, demanding proof that weapons of war were indeed surrendered. District officials bent under the pressure, releasing an invoice of every DoD (Department of Defense) weapon returned to its cache’s. Lastly, the coalition compelled school board members to apologize for it’s approval of policing K-12 students with war tools.
Even the Los Angeles School Police Department was forced to issue an apology, Truthout reports. “The LASPD recognizes the sensitive historical aspect of associating ‘military-style’ equipment and military presence within a civilian setting”, read a letter by Chief Steven Zipperman. Amongst the equipment removed from LASPD hands were M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, and MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles.
“Please accept my apology for any and all of my actions that contributed to feelings of betrayal and injury”, wrote board of education president Steve Zimmer,“ and interrupted our important collaborative efforts for equality and justice in all aspects of public education.” LASPD is reputedly America’s largest school police department, and has been involved in other controversies.
Coalition members expressed high hopes for their movement, aiming to spread it throughout the nation. “I know that this will transcend my school district and state”, says Bryan Cantero, a senior at Augustus F. Hawkins High. “I feel like I was a part of something bigger than me”, he continues. “I prevented something terrible from happening to someone’s brother, sister, friend, or daughter. We prevented a tragedy. We prevented a war.” Cantero went onto call LASPD obtaining the weapons as a “call to war”, wondering he was “a student or prey.”
Members of the Strategy Center, a “movement-building think tank” rooted in minority communities, Truthout reports, were actually just returning from Ferguson when they discovered LASPD’s arsenal. In Ferguson, director Eric Mann and colleagues witnessed the deployment tanks and fatigue-clad, assault rifle armed police against protesters. The dramatic scenes of days prior compelled the group to pre-emptively rail against LASPD’s stockpiles.
School district officials didn’t seem to agree, and blocked efforts to disarm the department in 2014. Although grenade launchers were renounced early on, rifles and MRAP vehicles were held on to tenaciously. The MRAP, specifically, was described as “a life saving piece of equipment that the district would not have otherwise”, Truthout reports.
“We organized on each of the blocks we work in”, said Strategy Center lead organizer Ashley Franklin, on several high school campuses. Activists conducted classroom presentations, turned in over 3000 petitions, and made over 300 calls to board members. “And those were just the easy tactics”, says Franklin. She recounts how “young people decided to put their bodies on the line”, with numerous sit-ins disrupting board meetings. During their most notable meeting take over in February, Asst. Supt. Earl Perkins reputedly told camera operators to cut the live feed.
LASPD’s stockpile wouldn’t exist without the 1033 program, activated in 1997 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Under that program, police departments nationwide received so-called “excess” military equipment– $5.4 billion worth of property to date. However, Truthout reports, a 2011 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that since 9/11, $34 billion in grants have gone to militarizing police.
All of this doesn’t include a simultaneous increase in SWAT raids for drug offenders, and brutal crackdowns of protests. “Use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians”, read a 2014 ACLU report, “and police officers.” ACLU found such things “escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”
Despite president Obama ordering restrictions on the transfer of certain kinds of equipment, police nationwide are still combat-capable. High school senior Cantero called for 1033 to be abolished. “We want military police weapons destroyed”, he proclaims, Truthout reports.
Cantero echoed sentiments felt by teenagers nationwide when it comes to police, and the interactions which often follow. “When you are a teen you feel like you have no control over anything”, he says. “But what is amazing to me is that there were so many teenagers all over the city who felt the same way we did and stood up together.” Calling this “a national problem”, Cantero proclaimed “this is what the youth is going through.” Similar episodes of excessive police force against teenagers go on unacknowledged in every state, and Cantero knows this. “We are not going to stop”, he leaves an audience with, perhaps he’s right.