The policing of the wave of protests across America sparked by the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is a vivid reminder that the American police are armed to the teeth. Clad in body armor, carrying semiautomatic rifles, and riding around in armored vehicles, one could be forgiven for confusing the police for American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In many poor and minority neighborhoods, these images overlap, and the police have for decades been experienced as an occupying army. Indeed, James Baldwin called his account of police brutality in 1966 Harlem Report from an Occupied Territory. In thinking about police reforms, critics have rightfully focused on the systemic racism of criminal justice in the United States. But we also need to think about the toxic effects of certain historical patterns baked into the policing system.

American policing developed in three distinct styles since the early 19th century with the night watchman and neighborhood patrol as the model in the North East US, the frontiersman and Indian-killer in the West, and the slave patrol in the South. Contemporary police repression of black and brown people blends a bit of all three. What is different today is the inability of the police to be explicitly racist in their ideology and pronouncements of mission, but not in their operations. So, we return to the protestors’ pertinent question: how is this possible in 2020?

Former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton touted the tactics used by himself and his predecessor, Ray Kelly, as “basically the same system that General Petraeus used in Iraq”. He described how groups of officers, or as he put it, “platoons of them,” flooded certain precincts to demonstrate police presence and engage in stop-and-frisks.

In a different case, an American Green Beret named Mike Cutone became a Massachusetts State Trooper upon returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010. He launched a plan in Springfield to address gang violence that he termed “the counterinsurgency programme”. The programme, developed and institutionalised, is now called Counter-Criminal Continuum Policing.

Cutone’s plan was based on the Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 23 on Counterinsurgency that was shepherded into publication by General David Petraeus. So, what exactly was this “system that General Petraeus used in Iraq”?

General Petraeus’ field manual

It did not spring fully-formed from Petraeus’ head. In 2005, Petraeus gathered a group of soldiers – notably, James Mattis, with some contributions of HR MacMaster – and various defense intellectuals to craft a new counterinsurgency manual. But what they came up with was decidedly old. In an interview, Lt Colonel John Nagl, a key architect of the counterinsurgency manual, told me that if they could have slapped an American Army cover on a book called Counterinsurgency Warfare, written by the French military officer David Galula just after the Algerian War, they would have.

The gist of this French model had three key interlocking features: (1) a claim that the times are exceptional; (2) given this, the laws must be altered or interpreted differently with regard to the targeted population; and (3) a mapping and coding of space for different levels of violent intervention. Accordingly, the French military assumed police functions and treated all Algerians as criminal suspects.

The result was an extraordinarily violent repression of Algerians. Another byproduct was to avoid the charge of racism by eliding the language of race and replacing it with the language of space and security.

Police face off with demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd, in Washington, DC. Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP

Petraeus’ field manual became an influential text. It was downloaded over two million times within the first six months of its release. It was reviewed favorably in the New York Times by Samantha Power and printed by the University of Chicago Press in 2008. The field manual also acknowledged the signal influence of Galula in its epigraph. Petraeus’ new system, heralded as the way to “win” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and being integrated into the policing regimes of American cities, was in fact warmed over failed French doctrine from the twilight of French colonial empire.

Historical patterns

Yet, this was the second time the discrete charm of counterinsurgency had captivated the minds of the American security establishment. The United States integrated the French counterinsurgency approach during the Vietnam War. While Baldwin was writing about Harlem as an occupied territory, numerous French veterans of Indo-China and Algeria lectured at US Army staff colleges and at West Point about how the French model could be adopted by Americans. A number of French articles were translated into English and published in the internal Army journal the Military Review.

US police departments proceeded to model themselves on counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. The first SWAT teams were developed in Los Angeles in the late 1960s by a young police inspector named Darryl Gates who, in the wake of the 1965 Watts rebellion, noted that the Los Angeles Police Department “did not know how to handle guerilla warfare”. The adoption of these techniques would remain apace until the mid-1970s.

There were calls for American ghettoes needing their own Landsdales, a reference to the US Air Force general who was a champion of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, and a participant in the 1962 RAND symposium on counterinsurgency. Incidentally, an important figure in developing ways of grafting the counterinsurgency techniques that he first tested out in Thailand, under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency, onto poor neighborhoods in America in the late 1960s was a certain Charles Murray.

The lustre of counterinsurgency wore off fairly quickly post-1975 with the American defeat in Vietnam. But after 9/11 and the Iraq War, it was dusted off the shelves and contributed to General Petraeus’s meteoric rise. He, like other high priests of counterinsurgency in America, believed that the Vietnam War could have been won had there been a proper implementation of counterinsurgency techniques. Yet, his tactics are essentially those of another David, David Galula, and the brutal methods he and his fellow officers advocated in the wars of French imperialism.

These are now informing American police practices on the streets – American policing as a sort of permanent Battle of Algiers. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan MacDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd. The list is as heartbreaking as it is long, and these are just the instances that have attracted media attention and public recognition in the past decade.

The everyday suspicion, harassment, and looming threat of seemingly arbitrary violence that black and brown people are subjected to at the hands of a militarised police force is, in fact, not arbitrary at all. It is a product of the insidious reach and influence of this doctrine of counterinsurgency that treats racial minorities as enemy combatants and their neighborhoods as battlefields.

This brand of colonial warfare has slipped from its roots in French military practices in Southeast Asia and North Africa to the streets of America, and, as racial minorities in France remind us periodically, to the streets of Paris. To know this history can perhaps offer ways to strategically organise to dismantle the injustice of contemporary policing.

Amit Prakash is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Global Studies at Middlebury College and is writing a book on the policing of North Africans in Paris.