The area around a police precinct in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, became a war zone Tuesday night when a small crowd of civil rights protesters were met with armored trucks, tear gas, and National Guard soldiers.
Scenes of clashes captured on video by local activists and reporters were surreal: National Guard armored trucks traveling caravan-style, soldiers in camouflage firing “less-lethal” rounds through a chainlink fence, heavily-armed riot cops from neighboring agencies, and Minnesota State Troopers standing in formation.
Though the scenes may have been surreal, they were not unusual. America’s police departments, from big city agencies like the NYPD to small suburban precincts, have undergone creeping militarization over the last two decades, thanks to the 1033 Program. Once described as “Uncle Sam’s Goodwill Store,” the program has allowed billions of dollars worth of military equipment—including high-powered weapons, helicopters, and other tactical gear—to be transferred to local cops.
Brooklyn Park, a suburb near Brooklyn Center whose officers were present at the evening protests on Tuesday, has benefited significantly from that program. Since 1998, it’s received nearly $600,000 worth of surplus military gear from the federal government, including high-powered rifles, night-vision goggles, sniper scopes, and thermal imaging systems, according to a review of federal data by VICE News. They also received four “unmanned vehicles.” (A spokesperson for Brooklyn Park Police Department told VICE News that none of that equipment was used on Tuesday evening.)
The sheriff’s department of Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis, also deployed to Brooklyn Center precinct and appeared to bring an armored truck with them. It’s not clear where they got it and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to VICE News’ inquiry, but the same Marshall Project investigation noted that they received an armored truck prior to 2014.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota National Guard deployed around 500 members to the Twin Cities area on Tuesday. A deployment plan was already in place for the end of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd after he knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, setting off widespread protests last summer. But that deployment plan was accelerated following Wright’s death, KROC News reported.
The militarization of America’s police departments and their crowd control tactics was thrust into the national spotlight in 2014, when police in Ferguson, Missouri, brought out armored vehicles and other military equipment to quell protests after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a Black teenager. Those protests were part of the first wave of the modern Black Lives Matter movement.
Amid widespread scrutiny of the 1033 Program that followed, former President Barack Obama signed an executive order limiting the initiative the following year. It remained intact, but his restrictions meant that the some of the most hardcore military-grade items — armed helicopters, firearms with .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, tank-like vehicles, and so on — were no longer up for grabs for local cops.
This was a major bone of contention for police unions, who put the reinstatement of the 1033 program at the top of their wishlist when Donald Trump took office. In the summer of 2017, he signed an order reinstating the program in full. Over the following three years, local law enforcement agencies obtained nearly half a billion dollars worth of surplus military gear via the 1033 program, a USA Today investigation found.
The 1033 program remains in full swing. House Democrats wrote a letter last month urging President Joe Biden to limit the 1033 program by executive order.
Last summer, Minneapolis became the epicenter of Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd’s death. Several buildings were burned down during the protests. With that memory so fresh, it’s clear that by bringing out armored trucks and other military-grade weapons, law enforcement is doubling down on efforts to contain uprisings triggered by Wright’s death.
In anticipation of further unrest, city workers were photographed on Wednesday erecting concrete barricades and fencing around the home of former Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter, who killed Wright on Sunday. Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, and resigned Tuesday, along with the Brooklyn Center police chief.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly described helicopters obtained by law enforcement through the 1033 program as “armored.” An earlier version of this story also misstated what Brooklyn Center received from the 1099 program.