‘Casspir the friendly ghost’: The Apartheid-era weapon of oppression haunting American police forces

Massive vehicle was used to intimidate demonstrators in Apartheid South Africa, and it has found its way into the American police arsenal

Clark Mindock
New York
Monday 07 May 2018 00:50
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South African Apartheid-era vehicle of war turned into art using 70 million glass beads

Earlier this week a colourful weapon of war and oppression called “the Casspir” was unloaded off a cargo ship in a port outside New York City.

The massive vehicle from Apartheid-era South Africa has been brought into the US by artist Ralph Ziman, who said his efforts to reclaim the vehicle and turn it into art were spurred by memories of the vehicle’s dark past in his home country — and that the vehicle used to terrorise tribes decades ago has a particular resonance with a dark present in modern America’s increasingly militarized police community.

On Thursday, Ziman stood dwarfed by the vehicle in a gravel courtyard, motioning to the intricate bead and needlework that makes the vehicle appropriate for the real estate it currently inhabits at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works.

The towering, 9-foot-tall, 22-foot-long, 11-ton monster of a vehicle has been covered almost entirely by vibrant reds, yellows and greens. From the machine gun that sits above the two crew members to the 12 seats in the back where soldiers sit protected from explosions and small arms fire, the beast has been “Africanized”.

“To me, and to a lot of people in South Africa, the Casspir was the ultimate symbol of Apartheid. It was this visible symbol, a ruling fortress that could be rolled into a township and assert dominance,” Ziman, who left South Africa at the age of 19 in 1981 to dodge being conscripted into the brutal military, said.

“You’d see them roadblock townships everywhere,” he said. “They were absolutely ubiquitous.”

The Casspir was developed in South Africa at a time when the international community refused to sell military equipment to the oppressive Apartheid government that institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination. The vehicles are built to withstand ambushes and mine explosions, can drive at speeds of up to 60mph, and have been designed to stay upright and mobile in virtually any circumstance or terrain.

In South Africa, especially in the 1980s leading up to the end of the Apartheid system in the early 1990s, the Casspir — referred to as “spoeks” by some then, the Afrikaans word for “ghost”, and an apparent nod to “Casper” the friendly ghost — was deployed by the South African government as a massive showing of force, as a tool of fear, to push back on protesters looking to end the oppressive system and institutionalised racial divides.

“It can do anything. [It can drive] on top of cars, on top of sheds, houses, demolish everything. All those kinds of things. Those were terrible situations that we have gone through,” one former South African who recalls seeing the vehicle during student led protests of the government in the 1980s, says in video Ziman captured while he brought his “reclaimed” Casspir to villages in recent years.

After the United Nations arms embargo on South Africa was lifted in 1994, the new South African government found themselves able to sell their massive Casspirs to an international community that, it turned out, were in need of the types of nearly impenetrable vehicles that the Apartheid government had used to instil fear in the black people it ruled over.

The South African government eventually found customers all over the world, including several other African countries, Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, and also the United States. The US purchased as many as 68 of the vehicles as it embarked on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and found itself in need of vehicles that could withstand the insurgent threat of IEDs left by terrorists the US military was there to try and eliminate.

As those wars wound down, the US Department of Defence transferred the Casspirs back to the United States, alongside similar vehicles known as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs.

Once in the United States, the vehicles fit perfectly into a relatively unknown program from the 1990s, the 1033 program, that was originally intended to help local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies by supplying them with unused military equipment to help in drug enforcement operations. In 1997, the program was expanded to include counter-terrorism as a goal.

Since its inception in 1990, more than $5bn worth of military vehicles and equipment has been transferred to state and local law enforcement agencies across the country at little cost to those agencies. That includes the transfer of armored vehicles, riot gear, rifles, ammunition, and computers from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement, at nearly no cost to those agencies.

Ziman says that he saw something startling nearly four years ago.

As residents of Ferguson, Missouri took to the streets to protest and riot after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown, a familiar sight showed up in the coverage for him: At least one massive Casspir — or an MRAP cousin of the Casspir — was in use by the predominantly white police to push back on the predominantly black protesters.

“So, all of a sudden you see them,” Ziman said, recalling the coverage of the events. “You see these protests where on one side you see mostly black and brown people, and on the other side you see paramilitary cops — mostly white — on top of these Casspirs.”

Ferguson was not unique — Black Lives Matter demonstrators say they saw them at protests in New York and Baltimore, for instance — but it did bring the attention of the Obama administration, which took measures to limit the 1033 program. In 2015, the administration created a working group to analyze the issue, and created new classifications for the military equipment that the Department of Defence gives out to local police forces, including “prohibited equipment” and “controlled equipment” classifications, which included armoured vehicles.

The Department of Justice had already been analysing the issue, though, before those 2015 designations, with the intention of determining what exactly the 1033 program meant for American police forces.

“In 2012, we began asking the question, ‘Why are we training police officers like soldiers?’ Although police officers wear uniforms and carry weapons, the similarity ends there,” a report from that task force, which has been removed from government websites by the Trump administration, read.

“The missions and rules of engagement are completely different. The soldier’s mission is that of a warrior: to conquer. The rules of engagement are decided before the battle,” the report continued. “The police officer’s mission is that of a guardian: to protect. The rules of engagement evolve as the incident unfolds. Soldiers must follow orders. Police officers must make independent decisions. Soldiers come into communities as an outside, occupying force. Guardians are members of the community, protecting from within.”

On Friday, President Donald Trump bragged to a crowd at the National Rifle Association’s annual gathering that his administration had lifted the restrictions placed upon he 1033 program. He cast the issue as one of protecting American police forces — a similar argument made by police forces that are beneficiaries of these military handouts, and who note that armoured vehicles were deployed following the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino.

“In my administration, we have a simple policy: We will protect those who protect us. You saw what I did with the military equipment, the excess equipment all over the country in warehouses never to be used again. And other administrations, they just didn’t want to give it to the police. They said, ‘it’s too much protection, It looks too strong. It looks like military,’” Mr Trump told the NRA crowd in Dallas.

“Guess what, it’s now being distributed all over to our police forces,” he concluded, to thunderous applause.

Ziman says that the Casspir is an example of why that distribution is dangerous. He’s seen these vehicles instil fear in populations in South Africa, and he draws parallels to modern America — and Europe as well.

“Militarization has happened. I think when you dress a policeman a certain way, and arm him a certain way, he starts believing a certain way,” Ziman said. “When you’re a cop and you have a night stick and a whistle you walk down the street, you talk to people because those are the tools you have. When you’re dressed in a flack jacket and an M-16, you tend to look at the other person as an enemy.”

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