When the current U.S. president took the White House in 2016, many felt that his obvious authoritarianism coupled with the horrifying ideas of advisers like short lived ‘chief strategist’ Steve Bannon, was a formula for something that might come to resemble a uniquely American form of fascism. Until now, the authoritarianism of the president and his allies in government has in the main been rhetorical, at least for those not trying to get into the country to claim asylum.
Our first real glimpse of what seems to be a growing willingness to use police state tactics was in Washington, D.C. on June 1st, when federal authorities cleared Lafayette Square of non-violent Black Lives Matter protesters using tear gas and other ‘non-lethal’ ordinance prior to a staged presidential photo op in front of St John’s Episcopal Church.
While this was a concerning development, what began last week in Portland, Oregon, one of the country’s most liberal cities, reminded some commentators of the counter insurgency tactics used in countries like El Salvador in the 1980s, where opponents of oligarchic rule in the country were pulled off the streets by unaccountable paramilitaries trained and advised by the U.S. military.
The small Central American country was the American military’s testing ground for what has come to be called the COIN (counter-insurgency) doctrine, which was the same strategy used in the aftermath of the Iraq War of 2003. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many of us have spent the last few months in isolation that parallels with history, however imperfect, have become so glaring in terms of recent events.
As Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said of the situation still unfolding in Portland, “DHS and DOJ are engaged in acts that are horrific and outrageous in our constitutional democratic republic. First, they are deploying paramilitary forces with no identification indicating who they are or who they work for. Second, these agents are snatching people off the street with no underlying justification. Both of these acts are profound offenses against Americans.”
The federal police officers referred to by Merkley, dressed in military fatigues and driving unmarked rental vehicles, are mainly seen to be staging from Portland’s Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse and a nearby building that houses, among other things, the county jail. In a video of one incident, what appear to be legal observers react with shock as a young man is pulled into a van before their eyes, asking him for his name and promising that, “NLG (the National Lawyers Guild) will get you out.”
This incident was described somewhat differently by Customs and Border Protection, who admitted their officers were involved, saying in a statement, “Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.”
A few days later a large group of mothers, most dressed in yellow shirts, some of them pregnant, formed a ‘Wall of Moms’ to protect peaceful protesters in the same location and were also gassed by these out of control federal police playing soldier. A retired naval officer who questioned them during the fracas was pepper sprayed and assaulted, resulting in his hand being broken in two places.
Even Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler was caught up in a crowd that was tear gassed on Wednesday night, later telling reporters that the federal officers were “engaging in urban warfare”.
Further, video footage coming out of the city shows assaults on volunteer medics and attacks on legal observers. Others show similar behavior toward journalists, many of them the kind of citizen reporters whose activities should be encouraged, especially in a city like Portland that is far from the spotlight available in major media centers like New York or Los Angeles.
As an aside, it should be mentioned that those who have loudly proclaimed how terrible so-called ‘cancel culture’ is haven’t bothered to look down from their lofty perches to demand basic protections for citizen journalists or volunteer medics, the latter putting themselves at risk to protect protesters also exercising the very First Amendment rights these opinion writers so often opine about.
The pretext given by the Trump administration for the deployment of these police is to protect federal property, with the president tweeting on July 19th, “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”
Along a similar line, acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf was quoted in a statement from the agency after a tour of the courthouse and surrounding area, which had been graffitied and had at least one window broken during the ongoing protests as saying, “A federal courthouse is a symbol of justice – to attack it is to attack America. Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community. This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day”.
The statement went on to enumerate other acts of vandalism but offered very little proof of actual violence on the part of so-called ‘violent anarchists’ who seem to be being blamed for every act of property damage in the city. Multiple reports have also made it clear that the officers are also being deployed to protect statues that are not on federal property.
I know it’s a controversial opinion for some, but I don’t believe that the statues these authorities are trying to protect have much value in teaching people about history, generally portraying their subjects in the most heroic light. It requires empathy, which seems to be in ever shorter supply on the right, to understand the message monuments to defenders of slavery and colonizers, who decimated indigenous communities, send to the descendants of those who experienced these calamities.
The president has also promised to deploy similar militarized police to other cities, claiming that those run by Democrats are somehow in the thrall of the ‘radical left’, despite the latter being among the most strident critics of the former.
Claiming that they are being deployed to battle an uptick in crime in these cities, DHS has announced at least 150 of these federal police are headed to Chicago and others to Albuquerque. Some have called these deployments, part of something called Operation Legend, a ‘surge’, which can’t help but remind us of similar language used to describe increased troop numbers sent to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Much of this seems to be part of a short sighted plan for the president to campaign as a ‘law and order’ candidate and embolden his base, who appear to like nothing more than to see protesters, especially if they are people of color, attacked by police. In the process, his administration is setting a precedent that we might see repeated by a more competent Republican president in the years ahead with even worse consequeces for American democracy.