From the Force Science Institute in Mankato, Minnesota to the ecological reserve outside Rio de Janeiro that houses Condor Non-Lethal Technologies’ police training center, the “use of force” industry has grown into a worldwide marketplace. Beginning on October 9, Hoffman Estates will host the five-day conference of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association, or ITOA. To greet them, a coalition of community groups and organizations from the Chicago area are assembling under the banner #StopITOA. These diverse groups, including AFSC-Chicago, CAIR-Chicago, Assata’s Daughters, Black Lives Matter-Chicago, the Arab American Action Network and War Resisters League, argue that government officials should prioritize spending for human needs not for militarization and violence.
Racial and ethnic fears and prejudices are deeply bound up in law enforcement anxieties over control and their use of excessive force. The coalition organizing around the ITOA conference are particularly concerned about this year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, who is a regular talking head on Fox News known for his Islamophobic rhetoric, and was a consultant to Donald Trump. According to a recent expose by journalist Sarah Lazare, among other extremist claims, he has argued for the tracking and monitoring of Syrian refugees.
Speakers like Gorka “depend on and nourish cultures of fear,” said Jesse Solomon of the War Resisters League. “This fear preys on a growing vulnerability across many marginalized communities and is then used to justify militarism and policing, leaving people’s actual needs unaddressed.”
Why protest SWAT conventions?
The ITOA conference brings together tactical officers and first responders from across the state of Illinois, as well as further afield. This includes special response teams (that are usually referred to under the umbrella term SWAT) from the Illinois State Police and the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System, as well as SWAT from major cities and nearby states.
Silent circles of trauma?
This spillover of abuse from training to the streets to inside the home is linked with depression and PTSD. In the recent book “Police Suicide: Is Police Culture Killing Our Officers?” Ron Rufo, a long-time Chicago police officer and advocate for reform in police training, reports that for every one officer killed in the line of duty, three take their own lives.
Reflecting on this epidemic of violence within police culture, campaigners both inside and outside of law enforcement have long argued that the suppression of emotion and emphasis on eliminating weakness in order to always be in control can have damaging and violent effects on officers, their loved ones and the communities they serve. “The training tactics that are presented to new recruits,” Rufo argues, are designed to keep them alive on the streets. But this combination of survival skills, a control mentality and a belt full of loaded weapons, can leave an officer, “unable to survive his own distorted emotions and crumbling sense of well-being.”
While the problem of PTSD and suicide in military veterans is now openly discussed (due to the ceaseless activism of organizations after the Vietnam War), it is still seen as largely taboo to mention the effects of trauma in relation to policing, violence and use of force. This current reluctance to confront excessive force not only as a problem of institutionalized racism and violence, but as a psychological epidemic, limits the ability for any real change to occur.
Challenging use of force cultures
While the talking heads on TV rarely pause to take account of this complexity, the public spotlight now on police violence offers a moment of opportunity. People are paying real attention to the voices calling for new approaches to police use of force.
The coalition of groups that will be protesting the conference in Hoffman Estates are calling for the community to #StopITOA. Southorn says there are many ways to get involved and support the movement, whether it is by donating time for support work or taking part in a range of pressure-based actions. “Folks can share our campaign memes, read up on the issue, contribute to the #SWATStories project, submit to the #noSWATzone zine against police militarization, sign the petition and join the call-in day,” she said.
(Twitter/War Resisters League)
Whether advocates endorse police reform or rally for abolition, for real change to occur these use of force cultures must be made visible. Campaigners are connecting the dots, making links between the killings of unarmed black men, the aggressive SWAT raids of migrants’ homes and corporate-sponsored tactical training conventions like ITOA. Between warrior mentalities and the untreated PTSD and family abuse that spills over at home.
The ITOA conference is just one event in this international use of force industry. “Our organizing to end these trainings requires collaborating city to city,” Solomon said. “Across communities, with an array of tactics and political views, we are demanding shifts in funding, and real solutions to our many crises.”
These forms of nonviolent resistance go beyond calling for policy and legislation reform, to confront the financial, social and emotional problems with policing. “The culture of policing as violent and aggressive, on and off duty, reminds us that we need to reimagine safety and push for massive divestment from policing and the use of force industry,” Southorn said.
People-powered news and analysis