From Watts to Ferguson: The Militarized Policing of Black Communities in the United States

Class Year


Access Type

Archival Only

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department or Program

Urban Studies Program

First Advisor

Timothy Koechlin


Beginning the 1960s, police forces in the United States underwent a transformation. In response to the civil unrest taking place in cities across the country, public support for increased federal funding for law enforcement soared. With this increased funding, police departments began to employ the use of military-style weapons and tactics to respond to exceptionally dangerous or volatile situations that could not be adequately handled by regular uniformed officers. However, militarized policing quickly became the norm rather than the exception and embedded itself in processes of everyday policing over the past several decades. This new militarized nature of policing, combined with logics of control that have always been inherent within police forces, has resulted in the intensely violent and oppressive relationship between law enforcement and black communities that is seen today.

The goal of this paper is to trace the inception, progression, and normalization of militarized policing as it relates to black communities in the United States. To achieve this, three key periods in the timeline of police militarization will be examined: The Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the creation of SWAT teams, the implementation of the War on Drugs and the normalization of the use of militarized force against black civilians, and the killing of Michael Brown that sparked the Ferguson Protests of 2014 and the subsequent investigation into Ferguson’s police force. These touchstones will provide bases that will anchor discussions of more theoretical concepts surrounding militarized policing, namely the otherization of black communities. Through this analysis I hope to convey that while policing in the United States has always sought to control black populations, the relatively recent militarization of police forces has only exacerbated this oppression.

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