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Defense Contractors, Austerity Politics, and Michael Brown

Lenore Palladino

The response to Michael Brown's death is coalescing around a call for an end to the military-police complex, and President Obama has ordered a review of police militarization. But why does this complex exist in the first place? 

While there's a great deal of valuable analysis on private prisons and the privatization of public safety nationwide, the private defense industry's political capture may be part of what is also driving the New Jim Crow—the mass incarceration crisis that led to Ferguson. 

Defense contracting is a hugely profitable industry that, in order to maintain profits, need to continually produce large amounts of weapons and place them somewhere. 

In addition to battlefronts around the world, defense contractors may have found another kind of war zone: America’s police stations. 

And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wound down, the hand-me-downs from over a decade of war needed to go somewhere. Otherwise, who would pay for the contractors to produce more? Defense contractors are major political donors and lobbyists, and they have deep financial incentives to continue to increase demand for their military weaponry, and to continue earning profits by maintaining that weaponry for police departments. 

In June, a House vote failed to defund the 1033 Program, which permits the Department of Defense to send military equipment to police nationwide. According to the Maplight Project, “Representatives voting to continue funding the 1033 Program (i.e., sending out the military equipment) have received, on average, 73 percent more money from the defense industry than representatives voting to defund it.” And the ACLU recently reported that “36 percent of the equipment transferred under the program is brand new.” 

An open letter is calling on the President to "suspend programs that transfer military equipment into the hands of local police departments and create guidelines that regulate and monitor the use of military equipment that has already been distributed.” In order to create the kind of momentum that it will take to actually end this military transfer, we have to understand more fully the billions of dollars in profits that defense contractors are making, and who in politics they’re leaning on, to keep the largesse flowing.

Growing up, I thought the War on Drugs was just a phrase, a way to describe how severe the problem was—and many of us living in majority white or affluent communities never saw the troops on the ground. Now, we see that it's a daily invasion. We've ended several wars under the President’s watch, and indeed we elected him to do so. Will he end this one?