From Cold War Counterinsurgency to Policing in Ferguson: A Review of Stuart Schrader’s Badges Without Borders

Schrader, Stuart. Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

By Charlotte Rosen

As heavily-armed SWAT teams rained rubber bullets and tear gas on Ferguson protestors in August 2014, Palestinians on Twitter offered not only solidarity, but tactical advice. Given that the same tear gas canisters shot at Gazans were also used in Ferguson, a local or even national critique of US policing appeared far too narrow in scope.

Stuart Schrader’s Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing offers essential historical context for making sense of a vast global network of policing knowledge and technologies, which he shows originate in United States counterinsurgency efforts during the Cold War. Contrary to the more common focus on aerial bombings or high-profile military crises like the Bay of Pigs, Schrader puts “police power” at the center of US national security strategy from the 1940s through the early 1970s. Critically, he shows that counterinsurgency tactics and technologies honed through the training of police forces abroad boomeranged back to mold the “marrow” of the US policing and imprisonment practices at home.

9780520295629Schrader successfully corrals a sweeping archive and moves readers through the institutions and actors that constructed the Cold War strategy of policing training as counterinsurgency. Two key boosters of global policing, Byron Engle and Robert Komer, worked tirelessly to convince the national security apparatus that training and arming local law enforcement was the solution to managing “disorder” abroad. In 1962, the creation of the Office of Public Safety (OPS) made Komer and Engle’s dreams of a US global police training leviathan come true. With Engle as its director, the agency would go on to fund police training projects in at least fifty-two countries and train over one million police officers in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America over the course of its twelve-year lifespan.

In spreading this “cop on the corner” ethos, US public safety officers sought to discipline and regulate foreign subjects into accepting rule of law and, in so doing, eradicate the possibility for communist insurgency. Policing, then, must be understood as the spine of the US’s Cold War counterinsurgency, helping to construct an underlying social order amenable to US economic influence and investment. In theory, public safety advisors counseled de-escalation and public-facing, “constructive” approaches to maintaining order. As Schrader details, however, these advisors could not “shirk the paradox of police professionalization, the standardization of an activity defined by its discretion.” Flush with new gear and technologies from OPS, US-trained police forces used new tactics of surveillance, extrajudicial violence, and repression to stifle workers’ and peasant movements—or what they considered the seeds of communism.

Screen Shot 2020-02-15 at 5_35_29 PM
Robert Komer and Lyndon Johnson courtesy of wikimedia

Perhaps the most incisive element of Schrader’s book is his discussion of how counterinsurgency policing informed crime control in the United States. OPS’s handprints were all over the development of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), the titanic agency created by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act—so much so that Schrader argues the LEAA became a “loose domestic analog” of OPS.

Many scholars have detailed how the LEAA’s devolutionary grant structure helped lay the groundwork for the rise of racialized mass incarceration by providing unprecedented resources for local law enforcement to hire more cops, acquire new equipment, and expand their capacity to coerce order. But Schrader’s crucial intervention is to show that the LEAA’s decentralized structure, which is often blamed for the agency’s failure to meaningfully reform policing, was a direct inheritance from the US’s global counterinsurgency strategy of police training. As occurred overseas, LEAA’s decentralized police assistance resulted not in the tempering of police violence, but rather in the creation of even more muscular and technologically advanced local police forces that had even greater capacity to surveil, criminalize, and repress populations deemed threats to the United States’ social order. The result was the police’s continued and better-resourced criminalization of Black lives, albeit now with a convenient veneer of reform.

Precisely because the US architects of the carceral state saw no distinction between subversion abroad and subversion at home, Schrader demonstrates that the struggle to abolish police and prisons in the United States must refuse to be contained by the artificial imposition of national borders. Calls for transnational movements against US repression are not new, and Schrader rightfully roots his project in the work of Black radical intellectuals who long ago theorized the shared logics underlying police repression of Black insurgency at home and US imperialist violence against anticolonial movements abroad. What Badges Without Borders offers, however, are irrefutable receipts. That the police presence in American cities appears like a colonial occupation is not mere metaphor. Police power, and the US’s role in ensuring the global circulation of police tactics and reformers is the pernicious glue that holds together the United States’ white supremacist, settler colonial, and imperialist projects.

Featured image (at top): Police in Ferguson, 2014.

charlotte-rosen-168x210Charlotte Rosen is a fourth year History PhD Candidate at Northwestern University. Her dissertation, “Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000,” examines the history of prisons and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania, with a focus on the politics of prison overcrowding and Black protest to the emergent carceral regime in the 1980s and 1990s. She has written for The Cleveland Review of Books and The Metropole, the official blog of the UHA, where she is also an Associate Editor. Charlotte also tutors at Stateville Correctional Center with the Northwestern Prison Education Program.

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