It’s hard to assess threat amidst chaos, to parse the signal from the noise. But this threat, amidst a pandemic and economic collapse, is real and particularly ominous:
Donald Trump’s threat to send federal forces to various American cities — as he already has in “quelling” the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon — can mean only one thing: Our “president” is willing to use force against his fellow Americans to intimidate and suppress the vote in November. Or to “secure” an alleged “rigged” voting system. He is also signaling his belligerence to vacate office, should the vote go against him.
That the cities Trump targets for federal occupation are all Democratic strongholds run by Democratic mayors, who allegedly can’t or won’t control the “anarchists” or their urban violence — Chicago is next, with New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle, Oakland to follow — is further proof of his electoral strategy: His polls plummeting with his disastrous handling of the pandemic, Trump resorts to force.
While much is made of these federal forces — some with no identifying insignia other than “Police,” with questions about their agency of origin and reference to Vladimir Putin’s “little green men” who invaded Crimea — and while now we hear from protesters themselves about being beaten and bundled into unmarked vehicles (also here) — all deeply upsetting — we must fix on the dangerous implication: This is martial force without accountability. Moreover, not only is Trump priming storm-troopers to use force to stay in power, he has the zealots in place to carry out his orders. Chad Wolf, acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, defiantly declares: “I don’t need invitations” from the states or mayors “to do our job. We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.”
To those questioning the term “storm-trooper”: If one definition is “a soldier trained especially for carrying out a sudden assault,” these cadres meet that definition. Of course, in the public mind “storm-trooper” evokes Hitler’s Nazi militia. I use it in reference to extra-legal violence deployed by the state against its own people. That this “state” is the United States of America is, yes, stunning, but we must get over it.
(With so much press given the unmarked aspect, there’s the possibility these “little green men” include far-right extremists who don police-like costumes and wreak their own havoc on protesters they tag as “antifa.”)
Branding the BLM protesters as “anarchists,” “domestic terrorists,” and “agitators,” Trump can logically turn to his storm-troopers to quell the “rioting” and “violence.” It’s a classic move out of the autocrat’s playbook: malign and dehumanize your opposition, so as to forcibly put it down. Which is why Democrats must retake control of this narrative: Yes, some violence — perpetrated, understand, by unknown “protesters” — has occurred of late, but by and large the BLM protests have been peaceful. This historic protest, embodying our cherished rights to free assembly and free speech, is moving the nation closer to our foundational ideal, never achieved — equality.
How to quell the storm-troopers? In the D.C. protest, when the “little green men” first appeared in Lafayette Square across from the White House, media attention focused more on Trump’s hijacking of both religion (flashing a Bible outside a church) and of the uniformed military for his photo op, with less attention given the violence to protesters. As D.C. is not a state, the mayor could not order the federal forces out. But in Portland’s protest (also here), both the mayor and governor have vehemently protested the federal presence. Said the mayor, calling out Trump’s “personal army”: “As we were starting to see things de-escalate, their actions….have actually ratcheted up the tension in our streets.” Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon says, “This isn’t just an Oregon crisis. It’s an American crisis. We need to stop Trump before this spreads.”
Legal action is being taken. Oregon’s attorney general has filed suit against the federal government, including DHS, Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service, Federal Protection Service. The suit names “John Does 1–10” as defendants, because of the lack of individual identification, “even so much as the agency that employs them.” The American Civil Liberties Union has filed multiple lawsuits across the country in response to “unconstitutional law enforcement attacks” on protesters, as well as on journalists and legal observers. Says the ACLU: “Make no mistake: Trump’s….secret forces will terrorize communities and create chaos. This is not law and order. This is an assault on the people of this country.”
A letter from more than a dozen targeted mayors to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and DHS’ Wolf decries federal force against protesters as “an abuse of power.” The mayors write: “The majority of the protests have been peaceful and aimed at improving our communities. Where this is not the case, it still does not justify the use of federal forces.” They add: “These are tactics we expect from authoritarian regimes — not our democracy” (letter here).
But letters and legal action seem incommensurate to the need. Especially when the ultimate legal arbiter is the aforementioned Barr, the “people’s tribune” who’s shown himself ever-malleable to Trump’s legal needs. Barr, long devoted to enhancing executive authority, no doubt could find legal justification for Trump’s extra-legal use of force. (Barr organized the federal assault on the protesters in Lafayette Square.)
And Congressional action? Following the Lafayette Square melee, the House approved D.C. statehood, which if the Republican-controlled Senate approves (it won’t) would give D.C. full authority over its law enforcement. Reconvening this week after a long Fourth of July break, Congress is focusing on the next big coronavirus relief bill. But House Democratic leaders are “alarmed” at the Portland melee, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi citing Trump’s “storm troopers.” Yesterday more than a dozen Senate Democrats wrote to A.G. Barr (oh good!), demanding a legal rationale for deploying federal forces. Congress, holding the power of the purse, could reduce DHS funding. No doubt hearings will be held, an Inspector General investigation pursued….
How about this: Enact a law declaring, “Federal law enforcement will protect protesters with the same dedication as they protect federal buildings and the homeland.”
Theoretically, the best deterrent to Trump’s open war on peaceful protesters is his fellow Republicans. But, while some are breaking with him over his handling of the pandemic (also here), none has mustered the moral backbone (of which the GOP claims a lock) to confront Trump over excessive law enforcement. Their Faustian bargain holds.
Meanwhile, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorializes about “anarchists” and federal property, slighting the protest’s purpose. It writes, absurdly: “We understand Mr. Trump’s desire to restore order, but he’s also saving Democrats from themselves.” It goes on: “State and local Democrats will blame federal intervention for any and all disorder, deflecting attention from their own failures…. Progressives run Portland, Chicago, New York and other cities now experiencing a surge of violence. If they want to indulge the mayhem, then let them live with the consequences.” Welcome, storm-troopers.
What can grassroots Democrats and concerned Republicans and Independents do?
For one thing, we can demonstrate political maturity by discarding the “Defund the police” mantra. Progressives will take offense, but at this volatile time this mantra is kerosene to Trump’s newly-vitalized “law and order” campaign theme. Already Trump’s campaign is up with an online ad tagging presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden with the defunding label, saying “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” As Tom Friedman of The New York Times writes: “Stop calling for ‘defunding the police’ and then saying that ‘defunding’ doesn’t mean disbanding. If it doesn’t mean that then say what it means: ‘reform,’” adding, “Defunding the police, calling police officers ‘pigs,’ taking over whole neighborhoods with barricades — these are terrible messages, not to mention strategies, easily exploitable by Trump.” The late civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis, saw defunding as injurious to the cause.
For another thing, continue to protest, if you choose. Peacefully, of course.
And, new idea: In every city, ala “the Wall of Moms” in Portland, let walls of Moms, and Dads, form up and, as they have successfully done in Portland, neutralize the federal storm-troopers. The People controlling the narrative!
Also: Let us register so many new voters for November that turnout will be so massive and the rejection of Trump so resounding that his storm-troopers will be rendered moot.
Finally, consciousness is key, being clear about our reality, for this is not “political theatre.” In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote his novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” about how the fascism engulfing Europe could replay in the U.S. In this time of social crisis, compounded by a deadly pandemic and economic collapse, we now know “it” could happen in America, too. In Donald Trump, we have a proto-autocratic leader who fans the flames of nationalism and racism, lies without end, has no morals or ethics, wants only the ego-satisfaction of winning re-election — and now, in pursuit of that goal, he commands federal law enforcement to move against the American people.
Beware. Take care. And form up.