Saturday, September 20, 2014

All Quiet on the Eastern Quad?

This past week two articles arrived in my inbox in rapid succession that have caused even my head to spin. I often tell people that after you’ve had people confess murders to you, there’s little they could say that could shock you. Occasionally, I am proven wrong.

Grenade Launchers for Crowd Control

I was made aware of the first article in a blog entry from the Tampa Bay (nĂ© St. Petersburg Times). In an entry at his site The State You’re In, Michael Kruse grabbed my attention with this headline: The University of Central Florida has a grenade launcher and Florida International University has 50 assault rifles”


It is hardly our imagination that our cities are being militarized, an issue that has become a topic of debate around the country. But it was news to me that the police departments at college campuses – including the one where I work – were among those agencies.  Thinking this was either the product of hyperbole or some kind of bad joke, I bit and followed the link to the blog.


I was wrong.


The blog was based on an article from the previous week at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was hardly a joke. Under the 1033 federal program, military surplus is being transferred to law enforcement agencies around the country.


The University of Central Florida has had its grenade launcher since 2008. Retooled to launch tear gas canisters, the launcher has only been fired in training since that time. When asked why the university needed this weapon of war, the chief of campus law enforcement replied it had been obtained for “security and crowd control.”


Of course, the crowds in question have never really been a problem at UCF. Remember, this was the safe university for Richard Nixon on the eve of his being forced from office for high crimes and misdemeanors to come and deliver a commencement speech. About the rowdiest this largely disengaged student body (whose empty seats in the football stadium are currently being raffled off to all comers by the campus credit union) ever gets is the Spirit Splash at homecoming. The only real disorder of any magnitude on the campus generally comes from drunken townies fighting over spaces on the campus mall to erect their tents for tailgating parties.  


The absurdity – and the dangers - of attempting to achieve crowd control with a grenade launcher are immediately obvious to anyone who’s ever actually seen one of these weapons of war in action. But that is hardly the only refugee from the killing fields to find its way to campus.


The most popular item under the 1033 program on college campuses has been the M-16 assault rifles well known to the GIs in the steamy jungles of Vietnam and today the most widely used weapon of its class in armed conflicts around the world. At least 60 colleges across the country have received these weapons of war with Arizona State University the biggest recipient with 70 such weapons. Florida International procured 50 for its campuses while UCF has lagged behind at a mere 23. Given the university's obsession with size and its sights set on Arizona State as the only public university larger than UCF today, one wonders if this does not have the makings of an intercollegiate arms race.


Rationalizing the Insanity of Militarized Campuses


The first question that comes to my mind is how it is that we seem to have such a surplus in military weaponry in the first place. Why do we have so many weapons of war that we can give them away to small cities and college campuses? Aren’t weapons of war expensive, produced for major conflicts, exceptions to the rule and not for everyday use?


Of course, these arsenals were produced in a social context. A decade of unwinnable wars in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan have produced both a flood of wounded warriors returning to our society as well as the weapons they employed. In a free market fundamentalist culture, there are no restrictions on what can be produced or sold nor any limitations on who can buy them. And with the fundamentalist interpretations of the current SCOTUS on the Second Amendment, the militarization of campuses – like the rest of society – appears in retrospect to have been a foregone conclusion.  


The justifications from officials at Florida universities for this militarization reflect the corporate mentalities which now dominate their operations. Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida, calls the program “a cost savings for taxpayers."  Calling the program a “force multiplier,” the chief of police at Florida State University argued that this was a way to offset underfunding of campus police departments: “Typically, we are not staffed at optimum levels. We are not given budgets comparable to some large cities and municipalities, so we need to find ways to make it reach."


In other words, we make up for not having enough campus cops by arming the ones we have with weapons of war. What a plan!


The UCF police chief operates a department known for its run-ins with the public, high profile incidents in which faculty have been publicly humiliated in traffic stops, called crack addicts while being repeatedly bodily frisked, as well incidents in which agents smashed the passenger window out of a student’s car when she refused to open it. Revealing a dualistic worldview cast in the cognitive developmental language of children, the chief explained his support for his department’s militarization: "These bad guys have plans and are heavily armed, and law enforcement needs to be able to keep up with them.”


Thank goodness for the good guys, right?


But what happens when the self-appointed good guys are not so good? Who protects us from the protectors?



It’s Just Business, Right?


The same day this article arrived, a second followed on its heels that truly had me reeling.


Urban Outfitters have received a firestorm of criticism following its production of a sweatshirt bearing the Kent State University seal and name and dyed to resemble blood stains. Touted as a “vintage Kent State University” sweatshirt, it was offered for sale at $129.


It’s hard to know if this is a case of profit-uber-alles or the product of an educational system that no longer really teaches American history, like that of Texas. Kent State, for those who suffer from historical amnesia or simply never learned about this, was the site of the killings of four students by national guardsmen called in to quell demonstrations by students on that campus. The demonstrations had arisen in opposition to an expansion of the Vietnam War to nearby Cambodia and Laos by a Richard Nixon soon to be forced from office due to the Watergate scandal. The governor of Ohio called in national guardsmen who opened fire on unarmed students, killing four.


Imagine what the good guys could have done with a grenade launcher and M16s.


The killings were immortalized by a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by John Filo showing a 14-year-old runaway girl from Florida, Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the bullet riddled body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, one of the victims of the Kent State shootings. 

Reminiscent of the wailing mother holding her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica, this photo seared the American conscience as the middle class saw its children lying dead on a public college campus.



The slaughter was also immortalized by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in a protest song simply entitled “Ohio.”The lyrics honestly reflected the reality at Kent State: “Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down,” then adding sarcastically, “Should have been done long ago.” The latter was a barb tossed at conservatives like Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was himself soon headed to prison, whose most famous quip regarding the hippies he derided was “Get a haircut and get a job.”

The song ended with a soul-searing refrain: “Four dead in O-hi-o.” And it was only the tip of an iceberg which within a week would include deaths of two more students at Jackson State in Mississippi and a march on Washington a week later in which 100,000 demonstrators would shut down the US Capitol.

Is This Really Who We Want to Be?

What the photographer and the musicians refuse to do is to construct the world in terms of dollars and cents, to view the college campus as a theater of war, to see the students at the college campuses in black and white childish caricatures or as obstacles to “crowd control.” As with all protest artists, they insist upon seeing the humanity of those involved, here those who live, work and study on our campuses. They insist upon claiming the sanctity of the college as a noble place, a temple to learning, an understanding in which weapons of war have no place and their use tantamount to sacrilege. And their vision reveals the marketing of human suffering for profit as the blasphemy it truly is.

Kent State released an official statement decrying the tasteless sweatshirt saying "We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today."

But is this merely a matter of poor taste? When we look at militarized public spaces and a consumerism that willingly commercializes human suffering, what does this say about the people we have become? When we look in this mirror of our own social construction, what does it reveal about us? Do we care?

More importantly, is this really who we want to be? Does this behavior and the uncritical rationalizations we offer for it represent the best we can do under the circumstances that we have ourselves created? Are we courageous enough to look at this reflection and honest enough with ourselves to admit that this is a squandering of the potential of a once great nation? Or are we simply willing to acquiesce to the status quo because we fear that change demands too much from us?  

I wonder.



The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)

Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)

Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law

Osecola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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