Some of more than 300 policemen provide cover as officers enter the Los Angeles Black Panther headquarters in Los Angeles on December 8, 1969 following a four-hour siege. (Wally Fong/Associated Press)
Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) began after an LAPD raid on the Black Panthers in 1969 and spread throughout the country. Then as now they neither protect nor serve, as was the case in Uvalde, Texas when a gunman killed children while police stood by.
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In the wee hours of Dec. 8, 1969, 17-year- old Bernard Arafat awoke to the sound of footsteps on the roof of the Black Panthers’ headquarters at 41st and Central Avenue in south-central Los Angeles, followed by gunfire. Arafat had never fireSd a gun before but he instinctively “. . . found an automatic shotgun and defended myself.”
Arafat and 12 of his Panther comrades –of whom three were women and five were teenagers – fended off 350 police officers who detonated explosives on the roof and even called in a tank for backup. When the militants finally surrendered, 5,000 rounds of ammunition had been exchanged, and six Panthers and four officers had been injured, although none fatally.
Anticipating the Philadelphia police department’s 1985 bombing of a black separatist sect known as MOVE – to serve a misdemeanor summons for noise violations – the LAPD defended the raid as necessary to execute arrest warrants on armed combatants, a dissembling explanation that was virtually indistinguishable from the one offered by Chicago police four days earlier following their early morning ambush on the Panthers’ headquarters in that city, which left Mark Clark and Fred Hampton dead. While Chicago authorities described the clash as a firefight, forensics would later determine that the police squeezed off nearly 100 rounds while the Panthers managed to fire only a single shot, and that was almost certainly a death rattle.
Ironically, the dramatic standoff in Los Angeles represented the nationwide debut of the Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, which was created, putatively at least, to handle sniper and hostage incidents such as those encountered during the 1965 Watts rebellion. What is telling, however, is that the Los Angeles Panthers deployed no snipers, held no hostages and were pinned down by gunfire rather than barricaded inside their headquarters.
Regardless, SWAT has “become a mainstay of modern policing,” according to the Los Angeles Times, which found that more than 9,000 of the nation’s roughly 15,000 law enforcement agencies employ a SWAT unit.
With a population of 16,000, the city of Uvalde is one of them.
Nothing puts paid to the lie of American policing quite like the 77- minute rampage last week in the Texas border town that left 19 schoolchildren and two of their teachers dead, while police busied themselves with handcuffing and threatening to tase parents frantically trying to rescue their children and, we can only presume, soiling their pants as they stood outside the classroom listening to the teenage gunman fire off shot after shot.
What role Uvalde’s SWAT team played in resolving the crisis is unclear but two things are certain: first, it was U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents who stormed the classroom and cut down the teenage gunman, and secondly, the Uvalde police department’s timid response to an active shooter at Robb Elementary School stands in stark contrast to the unbridled enthusiasm with which law enforcement agencies have traditionally slain African Americans who were either unarmed or asleep, or for misdemeanors as petty as selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner.
If only 12-year-old Tamir Rice had gotten a 77-minute reprieve instead of the two seconds he got before he was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer for wielding a toy gun. If only Philando Castile, George Floyd, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Eleanor Bumpurs, the inmates at Attica, or the brothers at the Algiers Hotel in Detroit could’ve been met with the same deliberative body as the one in Texas whose members pondered their own mortality as 7,8, and 9-year-olds pleaded with them for help.
“They could’ve been shot. They could’ve been killed.” one police spokesman said of the Uvalde officers’ indecisiveness.
Police handcuffed one mother, Angeli Rose Gomez, for begging the officers to enter the school and stop the shooter. When she was released, she ran inside, grabbed her kids, and brought them out to safety. A few officers did run into the school, but only to rescue their own children, State officials have acknowledged.
Not only were the officers cowardly but inept as well. When police told children to yell “if you need help,” one little girl did and was immediately shot, one of her classmates told reporters.
The failures of the Uvalde Police Department is no outlier but rather representative of a social compact that was rewritten beginning with the Reagan administration, when the state assumed the role of guarantor of corporate profits. As a result, schools don’t teach, police don’t protect, hospitals don’t heal, the justice system is patently unjust, all because there is no money in any of these functions. Hence, neither the city of New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana nor the federal government lifted a finger to rescue that city’s poorest residents from Hurricane Katrina, regulators declined to prosecute bankers who fleeced millions of homeowners of their life savings through predatory, fraudulent loans, the people of Flint continue to drink poisoned water, and Congress is sending $40 billion in weapons to avowed Nazis in Ukraine.
Similarly, the police don’t protect and serve so much as they enforce a pyramid scheme with speculators at the top, white workers in the middle, and black and brown workers on the bottom. Generally speaking, the police have no more investment in stopping a school shooting than does the man in the moon, which explains both the cluelessness of the officers in Uvalde last week, and those at a South Florida High School in 2018, who formed a perimeter while a teenage gunman fatally shot 14 students and three faculty members.
Nothing reveals law enforcement’s priorities more than the conspicuous ineffectiveness of Uvalde’s SWAT team in last week’s ordeal. City officials proudly announced its creation two years ago, swelling the police department’s share of the city’s $11.5 million budget to 40 percent.
Between 1980 and 2000, “SWAT deployments increased by more than 1,500 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yet, a 2019 analysis of arrests in Maryland by Jonathan Mummolo, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, found that less than 5 percent of SWAT raids involved terrorism, hostage situations or active shooters, and that 90 percent of deployments were to execute rather mundane activities such as search or arrest warrants.
“SWAT uses Navy SEAL techniques to go on fishing expeditions,” Peter Kraska, a professor of police studies at Eastern Kentucky University told the Los Angeles Times. “They bust down the door, throw flash grenades, handcuff everyone inside, ransack the place and leave. And these techniques are predominantly used on communities made up of racial minorities.”
Said the former Los Angeles Black Panther Arafat to the Times in 2019:
“SWAT evolved as a way to control people, places and things. It started with us. Now it’s everywhere.”
A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and the co-author of A Day Late and a Dollar Short: Dark Days and Bright Nights in Obama's Postracial America. His work can be found on Patreon.