Many of you are reading this on or around Sept. 11, the anniversary of a day that defined the American condition indelibly thereafter. Any questions about the ubiquity of the surveillance state were quashed in favor of the PATRIOT Act, the TSA, two foreign wars, and what appears to be the eclipse of the American Century into the uncertainty of this multipolar epoch.
The rules have changed regarding police and civilian engagement. The post-9/11 enforcement model has seen billions of federal dollars poured into local law enforcement agencies, under the aegis of combatting the twin malign menaces of terror and narcotrafficking. The Pentagon has provided surplus weapons from this century’s military theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan; the Justice Department and Homeland Security likewise have offered grants to buy this kind of equipment. The result is local police forces that certainly look and function differently than they did 13 years ago. (I reached out to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for an accounting of the military-grade weaponry procured from the Pentagon in this manner. The JSO has not yet fulfilled my public records request.)
Are we safer? Depends on whom you ask. You definitely won’t go broke investing in the criminal-justice industry, though, as evidenced by the buoyancy of private prison company stocks, as well as the recent surge of Taser International — a company uniquely positioned to benefit from the current recommendation in vogue that cops wear cameras on them at all times. Taser makes a lot of these cameras, and is consequently getting a lot of nice press.
Cameras everywhere — every enforcement stop, on cops and on dashboards, at red lights, and of course in the blight zones of Denise Lee’s concern. The idea is that cameras will prove who is culpable in situations like police-involved shootings and allegations of brutality. Cameras will keep us honest — the criminal element and law enforcement alike.
That’s the theory, anyway. There have been lots of theories advanced in the wake of Ferguson, where a cop shot dead an unarmed black teenager. No one had heard of Ferguson, Missouri, before all of this went down, but we’ve all heard of it now. Ferguson has assumed an iconic place in the national subconscious. Ferguson, as we know it, is a very specific place. But to me, it looks like home.
It looks like many areas right here in the Bold New City of the South, areas transformed in the last couple of decades from places where you could raise a family and be pretty sure the kids weren’t stepping up to the plate with two strikes to what these places are now: warzones, hellholes, places where you never relax at a red light even when the sun burns bright in the sky.
Places inside the Operation Ceasefire zone and ZIP codes outside its parameters, from the Northside to deep in the Westside to Arlington and the Southside. Places that would be inner-ring suburbs had Jacksonville never consolidated, suburbs like Ferguson, but what are instead neighborhoods born in the heady days of white flight and now, in their sunset years, miasmas of mid-century subdivision design bereft of much in the way of aboveground economy. Sounds a lot like Ferguson, where the population shift over the last quarter-century was not accounted for in city government, including the police force, exacerbating the very real divide between the governing and the governed.
Could that happen here? You betcha. In our worst neighborhoods, the solutions advanced — the aforementioned cameras and Operation Ceasefire — are consistent with the tenets of a military operation. The implicit argument: Policing has to be aggressive, to keep the “thugs” in line. And there are enough thugs to ensure that we will always need aggressive policing.
And more thugs are being created all the time. A lack of educational opportunity and legitimate employment options ensure just that. What happened after the shooting of Michael Brown almost assuredly could, in fact, happen here. The recent “Purge” scare indicates, likewise, that it would be easy to mobilize a critical population mass to create real terror — even if it’s a hoax. We have a militarized police department, yes. And we’ve created the conditions in many areas where that seems like the best solution from a passel of bad ones.