In Antic Rome, no General had the right to bring his army in the city, beyond the Rubicon that Julius Caesar dared crossing in 49 B.C. against the Roman legislation. In his new book La barricade: Histoire d’un objet révolutionnaire (Autrement, 2013), Eric Hazan, director of the publisher La Fabrique about which I wrote many times, establishes the first generalized construction of barricades to May 1588 in Paris. What triggered the insurrection led by the Duc de Guise and the Catholic League against King Henri III back then was the entrance of the King with his army (composed for half of it by Swiss guards) inside Paris.
Even nowadays, it is understood that an important amount of soldiers within a city involves if not a state of war, at least a state of emergency (sometimes a mix of both). The order of a city is supposed to be kept by the various forces of the police that have evolved during history (in Japan during the Meiji Era for example) with various degrees of bureaucracy for instance. However, one clear tendency that can be observed in Western countries, and more specifically in the United States, consists in the militarization of the city police, transforming the latter in something that look and act more and more like a regular army.
In November 2011, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg declared to the Press that he was proud to count on the seventh army in the world in the presence of the New York Police Department (NYPD). It has been proven that this figure is actually inaccurate and does not correspond to anything in terms of budget or equipment; nevertheless, the fact that a mayor of a major world city is able to make such a claim — even if the NYPD is the thirtieth army in the world, it is still something — is highly illustrative of this evolution of the police of the world. The NYPD owns indeed an impressive set of equipment, some of which is designed for its own specificity like the mobile observation towers (see past article) that one can see in various neighborhoods of New York. This equipment also counts various armored vehicles as well as six small submarine drones. This does not include by definition what is kept secret in the defense against terrorism but that often escape from Bloomberg’s and Ray Kelly’s (the New York Police Commissioner) satisfied speeches.
A few weeks ago, Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers wrote an article entitled “America’s police are looking more and more like the military” for The Guardian, in which they explain how since the 1990s the U.S. Defense Department has been developing a program in which they give away “military-grade weapons and vehicles” to various polices of the country. Beyond the absurdity of stock of equipment that are requested by various municipalities without any need for it, there is a clear material contribution to this evolution that constitutes the militarization of the police.
What does this evolution means for the city? As said above, the presence of an army within it always correspond to a state of war and/or emergency. The police that we can now observe in various cities of the world (consider Rio de Janeiro for example) has now more to do with regular armies than the “proximity police” (withdrew by the Sarkozy presidency in France for example). We can therefore conclude that our cities are in permanent state of war/emergency where security primes above all other matters, and therefore where exceptional powers are being given to the transcendental forces of the authority. Accepting this state of war does not necessarily mean that we might be shot by a police soldier with an assault riffle, but at least that we tolerate an atmospheric suspicion towards otherness and strangeness in which we, ourselves, are being also militarized. “If you see something, say something,” say the ads in the New York subway to encourage the immanent report of suspect packages. Militarization is as much a question of equipment as introduced above as a question of societal organization of the relation between humans. The Police is the most extreme and visible entity of this organization but, as always, we should not forget what it is the extreme of, the domestic and more subtle aspect of the state of war.
The photograph chosen for the article of The Guardian as well as this article is revealing in this matter: it shows a troop of paramilitary policemen requesting a young woman to let them enter in her house during the Boston manhunt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in April 2013 (see past article). This young woman is both voluntarily and forcefully letting armed forces inside the domesticity of her house, revealing her impossibility to subtract from the state of war and therefore becoming fully part of it.