As conservatives and libertarians saw it, and as the gun lobby saw it, the government was arming a police state while making it illegal and impossible for citizens to defend themselves from tyranny. “Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens,” read a 1995 National Rifle Association fundraising letter signed by Wayne LaPierre. “Not today.” You can draw a straight line from that letter to, this week, WorldNetDaily posting photos of American cops who look like they’re breaking up rallies in Tahrir Square.
After the events of this week, the right-wingers who’d been warning about fat contracts arming thuggish police departments are suddenly finding themselves in step with the left. But it’s the right-wingers who might be the best political allies that Ferguson’s black protesters have. Like Trayvon Martin’s Florida, like John Crawford’s Ohio, Michael Brown’s Missouri is governed by a Republican legislature that has gerrymandered itself into at least another decade of power. State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson and live-tweeted her tear-gassing by police, is one of 10 Democrats outnumbered by 24 Republicans. Florida’s Dream Defenders, who occupied the state Capitol to demand a second look at “stand your ground” law, made up no ground at all with the conservative legislators.
But the Dream Defenders have common cause with libertarians. In Keene, for example, the movement to stop the BearCat sale—“tanks, but no tanks”—was led by libertarians who ideally wanted a cop-free city. Pete Eyre, who once aspired to become a police officer, became a libertarian instead, and ended up in Keene after touring the country in an RV to make movies about freedom.
“On the road, we just happened to have interactions with police employees, and it seemed clear that they didn’t like being filmed,” Eyre told me. “It became clear that capturing the truth of the situation might be powerful.”
That revelation led Eyre to co-found CopBlock, which encourages citizens to film the police—an action that got two reporters illegally arrested in Ferguson, piling outrage on top of the outrage. It also led to Eyre’s lobbying (“there were songs, music videos, petitions”) against the BearCat, which became enough of an early warning signal to make it into a Republican senator’s paper about post-9/11 police militarization.
“As people start to film what they see and pursue tactics that are peaceful,” said Eyre, “ultimately these incidents will continue to happen until the institution of policing, which is a coercive monopoly, is denied legitimacy. Badges don’t grant extra rights. If an action’s unlawful for me or you, it’s unlawful for anyone.”
That’s further than many liberals would be willing to go, obviously. And they’re not going to stop campaigning for gun control. But if they want to stop police departments from turning into shoot-first armies, the libertarians have been waiting for them. In June, 18 months after the Coburn report, the New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo published a wide-ranging study of what military equipment was making it to the sheriff’s office and how. In Morgan County, Indiana, the police acquired an MRAP because, in one sergeant’s words, “a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build IEDs and to defeat law-enforcement techniques.”
If that sounded familiar, it may have been because in April 2009 the DHS released a report warning that the fringe was rising and that “rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” This was just days before the first big national wave of Tea Party rallies, and to the horror of progressives, some activists showed up with signs that dared the DHS to go after “rightwing extremists” like them.
Five years later, the progressives still disagree with the right-wingers. They still reject, as insane, the idea that a heavily armed citizenry might be safer than a country where the cops have the guns. But they suddenly agree about something.