In his blatant attempt to ramp up the ‘law and order’ issue for the election, Trump has sent in federal security forces to trigger confrontations with protestors. These forces, who wear camouflage outfits that make it almost impossible to identify which government agency the belong to or who they are, have been driving around in unmarked vehicles, picking up people on the street and taking them to undisclosed locations and refusing, when asked, to say which agency they are from. This has started in Portland, OR and Trump said that he wants to send in forces to other cities like Chicago and Albuquerque, claiming that the Democratic mayors of those cities are not doing enough to stop violence and crime.
Mayors and other elected officials in those cities and states are protesting federal security forces being imposed on them without any consultation. It is not that federal forces do not operate in cities. The FBI for example has offices everywhere. But usually they work in cooperation with local authorities and at their invitation as part of joint operations. But this kind of deliberate violation of those norms is likely because these actions by Trump have nothing to do with law and order or security but are really dog whistles. Trump wants to be seen as being tough on cities (which he and his followers see as places where mostly black people live) and their mayors (who are Democrats). So Trump clearly thinks that his base will enjoy seeing him sending troops to attack black people and Democrats and the more violence he can provoke, the better he thinks it will be for him.
The security people acting in Portland are not the FBI but are from the Customs and Border Protection and Chad Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security that oversees the CBP, has acknowledged this. The job of the CBP is ostensibly to secure the border and they do have the authority to detain people at ports of entry to ensure that they are legally allowed to enter the country or are not bringing in contraband. But what are they doing in Portland, which is not a port of entry and nowhere near any border?
As I wrote last year, US law defines the ‘border’ quite expansively, as any region within 100 miles of any land or sea border. Given that the most densely populated areas are near the coast, almost 2/3 of the US population lives in these ‘border’ regions, which may come as a surprise to many residents in places that may not think of themselves as being anywhere near the border. Portland is about 65 miles from the Pacific Ocean and hence is in the ‘border’ region. Thus the people there can be picked up by the CBP at any time. So it is likely that the CBP has the legal authority to do what they are doing but whether they have the right to hide who they are is one key issue. Another is whether they should be acting like the infamous death squads in dictatorships and inflaming the situation.
What I wrote last year is coming increasingly into focus.
The authoritarian measures that have been introduced under the presumption that they would be used against undocumented immigrants are now being turned against US citizens as well. That should not be a surprise. Governments initially bring in authoritarian measures against ‘them’ in order to gain ‘our’ acceptance before later turning those same measures against ‘us’. People should realize that in the long run, the real distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ in the eyes of the authoritarians is not based on citizenship or nationality but on whether you are pro-authoritarian or not.
After a look at Trump’s coronavirus press conference, Seth Meyers discusses this dangerous new practice of paramilitary forces kidnapping people and taking them away in unmarked vehicles.