A couple of days before the Fourth of July, I was walking home after a proper, socially distanced outdoor breakfast with a good friend, and noticed on my lower Manhattan block two white sedans marked in red and blue, “US Department of Homeland Security.”
I thought it was odd. I’d never seen them in my neighborhood before, and what especially struck me was that the cars each had those heavily reinforced partitions separating the driver’s seat from the back—like in a police car for holding someone arrested or being taken in for questioning.
What gives? I never could find out, but their very presence was disturbing and now we know, thanks to the news from Portland, Oregon, that DHS has been auditioning in that city for its role as Donald Trump’s personal paramilitary, perhaps on a nationwide scale.
Under the guise of protecting federal property during recent protests—specifically, a courthouse and an office building in a small wedge of Portland—a job normally handled by the Federal Protective Service has now been taken over by elements of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the United States Marshal Service. Perhaps others are involved as well—it’s difficult to know because Homeland Security is being tight-lipped and the mysterious officers involved are driving unmarked rental minivans and often dress in military-style camo gear with little or no identification other than a generic “POLICE” printed on their uniforms.
Those cars I saw on my street? As per a former senior DHS intelligence official who talked to The Nation magazine, unlike other government law enforcement agencies, “The fact is, they don’t have to do anything in marked vehicles. Such operations happen all the time and at the discretion of supervisors.”
According to The New York Times, “Federal officers on the ground in Portland have deployed a range of forceful tactics: They appeared to fire less-lethal munitions from slits in the facade of the federal courthouse, one officer walked the street while swinging a burning ball emitting tear gas, and camouflaged personnel drove in unmarked vans.” (The Times also quotes an internal DHS memo expressing concern that those deployed lack proper training for riot control or mass demonstrations.)
But that’s not all. Yes, there are some on the streets who have vandalized buildings (mostly with spray paint), set fires, thrown objects and damaged property, but many, many more peaceful protesters—as well as journalists and legal observers—some not near the federal properties at all, have been beaten, gassed, fired upon with rubber bullets and flash bangs, and hauled off for little or no reason. One of them, Mark Pettibone, told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) he was terrified: “I am basically tossed into the van… I couldn’t see and they held my hands over my head.” After being driven around and then placed in a detention cell, Pettibone was released a couple of hours later, after demanding a lawyer. OPB reports, “He said he did not receive any paperwork, citation or record of his arrest.”
Attorney Juan Chavez, director of the civil rights project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, told OPB reporter Jonathan Levinson, “It’s like stop and frisk meets Guantanamo Bay. You have laws regarding probable cause that can lead to arrests. It sounds more like abduction. It sounds like they’re kidnapping people off the streets.”
On July 11, another peaceful and unarmed demonstrator, 26-year-old Donavan La Bella, was shot in the face by federal officers using those so-called “less-lethal” munitions, causing severe skull and facial fractures requiring reconstructive surgery.
In response, Trump decries “anarchists and agitators.” On Thursday, his acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, declared, “Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city.” A spokesperson for CBP said, “Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as injure federal officers and agents. These criminal actions will not be tolerated.”
Yet local newspaper The Oregonian points out that such statements and crazed headlines from right-wing media about a city “under siege” are “hardly representative of daily life, including peaceful anti-racism demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of protesters, in a city of 650,000 people that encompasses 145 square miles.” (Most violent confrontations have taken place later at night between small groups and police within a 12-block area.)
Indeed, no one in Portland city or Oregon state government requested the DHS’ militarized presence in the first place. Instead, local officials have demanded that the federal “rapid deployment teams” leave, believing their aggressive presence has made an already difficult situation much worse.
Acting DHS Secretary Wolf has so far refused to do so. “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job,” he announced. “We’re going to do that whether they like us there or not.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has denounced DHS actions as “an attack upon our democracy.” Oregon Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, described their presence as “a blatant abuse of power.” She said these police from the outside are provoking confrontation as a political ploy on the part of Donald Trump and his minions who aim to distract from the coronavirus and economic crises and bolster his chances for re-election, which grow fainter by the day.
Spencer Ackerman and Winston Ross of The Daily Beast spoke to the state’s two US senators. “It’s no surprise that the agency that detained innocent children at the border was deployed to Portland for more political theater at Trump’s behest,” Ron Wyden said. “Trump and his occupying army are escalating violence and trampling on the constitutional rights of Oregonians.” Jeff Merkley added, “The president may think that this authoritarian made-for-TV stunt will help his reelection, but real people’s lives and rights are at stake.”
Yale philosopher Jason Stanley warns, “Lawlessness in the name of law and order is the hallmark of fascism.” That this all should come just as we lose Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, two giants of the civil rights movement who faced down police bent on violently opposing justice, has a fearful symmetry.
Lawsuits and restraining orders are being filed, criminal investigations into DHS behavior have begun, legislation is being proposed. But as concerned officials try to get to the bottom of this, there may be something worse at play, something potentially more sinister than even the billy clubs, water hoses and police dogs hurled against civil rights activists. Christopher David, the disabled, 53-year-old Navy veteran whose brutal encounter with police went viral Saturday night, said it well: Trump “is trying to see how far he can push it in Portland and create some kind of model for other cities so he can stir up enough chaos and discontent to try and win the election again. All of this is just doubling down on his strategy of division and chaos.”
Even worse, it conceivably could be connected to a greater scheme designed to steal the November election. David Atkins at Washington Monthly, as well as I and many others have taken note of a terrific new piece by Andy Kroll in Rolling Stone headlined, “The Plot Against America: The GOP’s Plan to Suppress the Vote and Sabotage the Election.”
In it, Kroll reports that in 2018 a 1982 consent decree was lifted that forbade the Republican Party from using various voter suppression ruses, including fake “ballot security” groups of off-duty law enforcement officers stationed outside polling places to harass and intimidate voters of color.
According to Kroll, Justin Clark, a Trump senior campaign lawyer, told a private meeting of Republicans last November “that the end of the consent decree was ‘a huge, huge, huge, huge deal,’ freeing the RNC to directly coordinate with campaigns and political committees on so-called Election Day operations. The RNC is sending millions of dollars to state Republican parties to vastly expand these measures, which include recruiting 50,000 poll observers to deploy in key precincts.”
You can bet that Republicans will pull out all the stops to get Trump and their other candidates reelected, their methods possibly including those phony “ballot security” gangs. Having read Kroll’s piece, David Atkins goes some scary steps further, fearing “a terrifying abuse of power.
“We could end up seeing armed private contractors hired by the RNC and affiliated conservative organizations to intimidate Democratic-leaning voters, bolstered by camouflage-wearing taxpayer-funded rifle-toting border patrol agents aggressively checking papers of every voter in line in the guise of ‘securing against voter fraud’ on the president’s orders. This would be happening during the most tense presidential election in our lifetimes during a raging pandemic, often in lines in which voters must wait 8 to 10 hours to vote due to restricted polling places in minority communities—also a blatant suppression attempt enabled by the Supreme Court’s voiding of many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act.”
Hard to believe? Remember there’s a right-wing culture infecting the ranks of ICE and CBP and that a Democratic victory would see restraints on their freewheeling, pistol-packing ways. If they can help Trump win, their power will be even further unbridled. What’s more, the plutocrats bankrolling the GOP get-out-the-vote effort fear losing their conservative judges, their tax breaks and their get-out-of-jail-free cards. They’ll stop at nothing.
We need to wise up and prepare for the onslaught. Trump just refused to tell Chris Wallace of Fox News whether or not he’ll accept the election results. Donald Trump is a menace who if he sees he’s losing bigtime—and he does—won’t hesitate to repress the vote count so that he can declare a second term and because, in his words, “I’ve been very unfairly treated.”
He puts the petty in petty tyrant but he’s a tyrant, nonetheless. Be very afraid.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.