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Federal personnel, apparently from the Department of Homeland Security (it’s hard to know because they have no badges or insignia and are using unmarked, rented vans) have been firing tear gas and “non-lethal munitions” and rounding up protestors in Portland, Oregon, for days. Their mission, according to President Donald Trump, is to protect federal property. The damage to the federal courthouse they are protecting, has, to date, been mostly graffiti.
After what he deemed success in Portland, Trump has pledged to send more federal forces to other cities controlled by Democrats. Next up are Chicago and Albuquerque, although those efforts, the president said, are about stopping violence crime, such as deadly shootings.
Never mind that the mayors of these cities and the governors of the states have not asked for this federal “help” and in many cases have asked for the armed, camouflage and tactical gear-clad troopers to be removed. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was engulfed in tear gas from federal agents Wednesday night as he stood with protesters.
This show of force is about political theater. Trump, like numerous Republican politicians before him, is resorting to a tried and true path to winning elections — fear. Trump is trying to scare enough voters into believing that major U.S. cities are under siege from dangerous leftist rebels. The siege, he and his backers claim, will continue, possibly worsen, if Joe Biden is elected president.
Don’t fall for it. This isn’t true.
There has also been glaring misinformation involving federal law enforcement surges in other cities. On Wednesday, the Justice Department had to walk back arrest numbers provided by Attorney General Bill Barr, the nation’s top law enforcement official. Barr embarrassingly and tellingly overstated the two-week results of a federal anti-crime push in Kansas City that the White House is now expanding elsewhere.
A headline from the Kansas City Star and McClatchy sums it up succinctly: “Barr claimed feds in KC made 200 arrests in two weeks. That’s not even close to true.”
In Portland, where protests have been taking place for 55 nights, the activity is confined to a small part of the Oregon city, with life going on as normal elsewhere. The protests have gotten larger and more violent since federal forces showed up.
We do not condone the damage and disruption caused by some protesters in Portland and elsewhere. Nor do we think that disruptive protests and destruction of property should be ignored by law enforcement. But the U.S. should not be a country where anonymous federal agents grab and detain activists.
“The federal government has the power to defend federal buildings and facilities from civil unrest, and a variety of federal laws protect federal property from attack and vandalism and federal officials from interference with their discharge of the government’s business,” Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes, editors of Lawfare, wrote this week for The Atlantic.
“While this authority certainly extends to the power to investigate federal crimes and arrest those suspected of them, it is not some general authority to patrol the downtowns of major cities and pick up and detain protesters merely because a federal building may be in the neighborhood,” they said.
So, rather than spur violence for the sake of an election victory, here’s some things the president could actually do to help cities — and, more important, their residents.
First, the White House could have a consistent, coordinated response to coronavirus, based on science. Such a response would rely on massive testing and contact tracing efforts. So, rather than trying to zero out funding for testing and contact tracing in a forthcoming stimulus bill, the administration should be pouring resources into this work.
Rather than demanding that schools reopen (and threatening to financially penalize them if they don’t), the president should oversee a large infusion of federal funding to help schools prepare their buildings, their staffs and their students for classrooms that can endure increasing cases of coronavirus in their communities.
He should ensure hospitals and clinics have the equipment and supplies they need to keep their employees and their patients safe. He should also ensure that hospitals have the revenue they need to withstand the double whammy of preparing for and treating coronavirus cases while losing needed money from procedures and treatments that are delayed because of the pandemic.
He should ensure that cities have the resources they need to house and feed their homeless and hungry residents. Likewise, substance use treatment centers need financial support to maintain their services and outreach to a population that feel forgotten as attention is diverted to coronavirus.
Mayors and governors have long been begging Trump for help to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic upheaval that has come with it. They aren’t asking for anonymous federal forces to harass and mistreat their residents.