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The new NYPD counter-terrorist unit will also police social justice protests

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on Thursday unveiled a new militarized police unit that will be trained and armed with heavy protective gear, long rifles, and machine guns to restrain terrorists and social justice protesters.

Bratton explained the purpose of the unit, which will consist of 350 officers, to CBS New York:

It is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.

Bratton's explanation says a lot about how the NYPD views protests over racial disparities in police use of force, which largely began in response to the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. While the protests have been mostly peaceful, police continue treating demonstrators as a genuine threat — even lumping them up, as Bratton did, with terrorists who carried out attacks in Paris and Mumbai.

But treating lawful protesters like enemy combatants is exactly what helped thrust Ferguson into the national spotlight. Many of these protests grew more tense, particularly at the earlier stages, as a result of police responding with military-grade gear. Much of the nation watched in horror last August as officers deployed tear gas, sound cannons, and armored vehicles against crowds that were peacefully marching and chanting on the streets of Missouri.

The use of excessive force against demonstrators protesting excessive force has a certain element of irony to it. But it also shows how out of touch police in Ferguson — and this new NYPD unit — look from the outside.