Terry H. Schwadron
July 21, 2020
The more we hear about the streets of Portland, Ore, the nuttier that situation sounds — on all sides.
But then, in a time when the president of the United States sits for a formal interview and incoherently makes up facts for us, at a time when enough people sneer at masks even in the face of rising deaths, at a time when our government thinks it a good idea to undercut health services, food stamps during a pandemic and threatens to withhold funds for schools that do not open fully when the schools need more money, maybe this is now par for the course.
We’re being played as pawns in an imagined ideological banner-waving war.
Winning or losing aside, we ought to be able to agree on whether any of these strategies and tactics — thought through or not — are effective.
In Portland, demonstrations following the deaths of George Floyd and a long list of other Black citizens stopped by police in routine matters have grown wild enough to be called “riots,” by authorities, though the damage seems mostly minor vandalism to the outside of buildings, including the federal courthouse. That target was sufficient for the Department of Homeland Security to unleash at least 100 unnamed, unmarked customs and immigration agents, who have earned ignominy by snatching people almost at random off the streets to hold them for hours, charge some, and release most — all while ignoring local and state police, the mayor and governor, who asked them to leave.
The demonstrators countered with a linked line of moms who put themselves between authorities and protesters. They were tear-gassed. This is not good,
Sending Secret Police
OK, let’s assert that social messaging demonstrations are most persuasive if they stay peaceful, and that throwing objects, tagging and starting fires just muddy the enforcement waters.
But the response of sending uniformed thugs, untrained in riot control as it turns out, into a tumultuous environment without serious rules of engagement and using the tactics of secret police units fails any measure of effectiveness. It doesn’t work as intended, and it raises a new set of issues for all sides over whether the president has a “secret police” force and against whom to deploy. Also, sending 100?
Worse, Homeland Security looked at several nights of this, and concluded that they will double down — at the order of Donald Trump. The demonstrators have concluded that their job is to keep pushing. The local authorities, including the police, caught in the middle here, have decided to let enthusiastic fires burn themselves out while keep an eye out to prevent more dangerous levels of uncontrolled rioting. In other words, no one is being effective at any goals they want to pursue.
It seems unwise if not pointless to continue nightly attacks on an empty courthouse, and more than unwise to send unmarked agents to snatch people from the streets. That’s the stuff of the worst of authoritarian governments — you know, the thing American values say they oppose.
Here’s Kenneth Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, saying that his agency had deployed tactical units from ICE and Customs and Border Protection to defend federal buildings in Portland and other unnamed cities. “You can expect that if violence continues in other parts of the country, the president has made no secret of the fact that he expects us where we can cooperate or have jurisdiction to step forward and expand our policing efforts there to bring down the level of violence,” Cuccinelli said.
How much better off we’d be if the federal authorities, starting with Trump himself, could bring himself to look at the issue at the heart of the protests — a systematic bias built into governmental, financial, health, housing, job and education institutions that results in keeping a knee on the necks of Black and brown communities.
Instead, as we have been seeing repeatedly, Trump turns to unequal Law & Order in pursuit of the defending a Trump agenda first, and justice, in any of its forms, almost never. In his contentious and long Fox News interview Sunday with Chris Wallace, as in its own unrestricted, unchallenged speeches and tweets, Trump comes down time after time in defense of Confederate legacy over the complaints of Black Lives Matter, on his insistence that whites suffer more police abuse than Blacks (this is a good thing?) without reference to population, that policing is not biased, and that the spread of coronavirus is only the logical result of widened testing. It was nonsense, and Wallace successfully called him on it.
Trump, down in political polls, is lashing out. Therefore, there must be enemies to use as props in his reelection effort. Demonstrators who choose at this moment to attack a federal courthouse as the locals watch is too rich a target for Trump to ignore.
But nothing here is getting done: The protests continue, and next are deployments to new cities.
So, too, is a pending election that Trump is seeking to undercut with opposition to mail ballots, international relationships, congressional coronavirus aid and destruction of environmental protections. Trump could win an election for National Wrecking Ball in a heartbeat, but in solving problems, not so much. Remarkable weekend recapitulations in The New York Times and The Washington Post outlined exactly how the Trump administration and the richest country on Earth lost control over coronavirus, for example.
Unleashing secret federal agents is merely adding objectional behavior and confusion into the mix. It is not stopping the message of demonstrators, nor are demonstrators nor local officials intimidated. Instead, the Portland mayor and Oregon governor now have sued the feds.
What have we gained? How many of these do we need to show ineffectiveness?