Is Donald Trump Attempting to Implement A Police State in Portland, Oregon?

23.7.20

Federal officers, from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, in Portland, Oregon, where they have been causing huge consternation by teargassing protestors, bypassing local police, and raising fears of the establishment, by the Trump administration, of a police state.

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I’ve been shocked by the nightly scenes of violence beamed around the world from Portland, Oregon, where Donald Trump has sent in federal law enforcement officers — from the Department of Homeland Security, the US Marshals Service and the border patrol — to bypass Portland’s own police force and to assault and terrify protestors, who, since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis two months ago, have been engaged in ongoing protests about racism and police brutality.

As the Guardian explained, Donald Trump sent federal law enforcement officers to “take control” of Portland at the start of July, having decided that it “had been abandoned by its mayor to anarchists and mob rule.” The officers, “often in unmarked uniforms and vehicles”, have been deployed against protesters in Portland since the beginning of the month, “using teargas, stun grenades and munitions to control crowds descending on to federal buildings in Oregon’s largest city.”

As the Guardian also explained, the arrival of the federal officers initially “sent a wave of alarm through the demonstrators after men in camouflage began snatching people off the streets in unmarked vans. Those detained said they were dragged into the courthouse without being told why they were being arrested or by whom and then suddenly let go without any official record of being held. It smacked of police state tactics. So did some of the violence meted out by federal agents who looked more like an occupying army in a war zone.”

For Trump, this is a show of strength, playing to his rabid, far-right base in the run-up to November’s Presidential Election, while for the people of Portland — and those watching from other, non-Republican cities across the US — the arrival of the federal officers, and their behaviour, look like the opening shots in the manifestation of a police state.

Yesterday, the Mayors of 15 major US cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., sent a letter to the Attorney General, William Barr, and the Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary, Chad Wolf, “demanding a stop to the sending of federal forces to cities and the removal of federal officers from Portland, Oregon”, as the Guardian explained, adding that, in their letter, the Mayors “say that the federal officers are conducting law enforcement activity with no consultation with local police in tactics they likened to ‘authoritarian regimes’”, rather than the US. Complaining that there is “no oversight of the actions of federal forces”, the Mayors also point out that federal officers “have not been trained for urban community policing, including critical crowd management and de-escalation techniques.”

The extent to which Trump’s use of federal officers is proving successful is debatable. In Portland,  the Mayor, Ted Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, “sided with the protesters against the president”, as the Guardian explained, and, in addition, “a court order limited the city police’s use of teargas and other means of restraint.” For authoritarians, this might justify Trump’s intervention, but for many others it is brutal and counter-productive. Local mothers — describing themselves as a “Wall of Moms” — have now taken to the streets every night to defend Black Lives Matter protestors, and are evidently winning the battle for hearts and minds.

Jane Ullman, the chief financial officer for tech startups in Portland, told the Guardian, “As an upper-middle-class white woman in the whitest city in America, I couldn’t stand by any longer. I’ve been doing a lot of self-educating since George Floyd. Reading and learning. The feds’ part in it pushed me over the top. I wanted to take action. But it was the ‘Wall of Moms’ that brought me out.”

While the protestors clearly have the moral high ground, other commentators have also been criticizing Trump sending federal law enforcement officers to Portland as an example of “made-for-TV fascism” and “performative authoritarianism.”

Josh O’Brien, who had travelled from Seattle to join the protests, explained to the Guardian why he thought Trump’s actions were failing. “It’s a power play by Trump”, O’Brien said. “He thinks he’s going to get his base all riled up by pitting the forces of law and order against the anarchists. But he’s f*cked it up like he f*cks everything up. Look who’s here with us. Grandmothers. Doctors. Because like most Americans they don’t think people should be abducted from the streets by the president’s secret police.”

Yesterday, the already unacceptable situation in Portland became even more shocking when the Mayor, Ted Wheeler, was himself teargassed by federal forces. “I’m not going to lie”, Wheeler said, as, in the Guardian’s words, “he stood with protesters outside the federal courthouse that has become the focus of confrontation.” He added, “It stings. It’s hard to breathe, and I can tell you with 100% honesty I saw nothing that provoked this response. This is flat-out urban warfare, and it’s being brought on the people of this country by the president of the United States, and it’s got to stop now.”

Instead, just hours earlier, Trump “announced a ‘surge’ of hundreds of law enforcement officers into Democratic-run cities including Chicago”, as the Guardian explained, “drawing condemnation from civil liberties watchdogs.” The policy of sending in federal officers is named ‘Operation Legend’, after LeGend Taliferro, a four-year-old boy who was fatally shot in Kansas City, Missouri last month, and initially involved federal officers being sent to Kansas City and Portland. Now Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico have been added, and politicians in both cities are enraged.

Trump, outrageously, has tried to blame Democrats for the problem, lashing out at “radical left Democrats running cities like Chicago and so many others”, claiming that “America must be a sanctuary for law-abiding citizens, not criminal aliens”, and adding, “My vision for America’s cities could not be more different from the lawlessness being pushed by the extreme radical left.” In addition, Attorney General William Barr spoke of having “extended Operation Legend to Chicago and Albuquerque to protect the residents of those cities from senseless acts of deadly violence by targeting those involved in gang activity and those who use guns to commit violent crime.”

On Tuesday, Lori Lightfoot, the Mayor of Chicago, who, as the Guardian described it, “has made clear her opposition to federal intervention”, tweeted the following uncompromising response to Trump’s intentions: “Under no circumstances will I allow Donald Trump’s troops to come to Chicago and terrorize our residents.”

In Albuquerque, meanwhile, Martin Heinrich, a Democratic senator for New Mexico, condemned the intervention, stating, “Instead of collaborating with the Albuquerque police department, the sheriff is inviting the President’s stormtroopers into Albuquerque.”

Gauging the extent to which Trump and Barr’s policies are infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights, former defence secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta said, “One of the last holdouts for tyrants is to try to have the military be able to protect them, and that fear that he may try to do that raises a lot of concerns about just how far will he go to try to ‘take over’ a lot of these cities and states in terms of their ability to conduct law enforcement on their own.”

He added, “It’s interesting, because federalism has always been a calling card for Republicans to avoid having the federal government impose its will on states and communities. To have a president who’s prepared to send federal officers into these communities I think represents a step that ought to not only create fear in the people that are impacted by that decision, but should raise a hell of a lot of fear for those Republicans who have defended federalism most of their lives.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, reporting on the Trump administration’s sickening policy of sending federal law enforcement officers into Portland, Oregon and other US cities, teargassing protestors, bypassing local law enforcement, and raising fears of the kinds of behaviour that typify police states.

    In Portland, protests began after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis two months ago, but have escalated since federal officers arrived at the start of the month, initially snatching people off the streets in unmarked vans, and behaving like an occupying army in a war zone.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Not just in Portland.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, David. Trump and Barr’s plans for Chicago are particularly troubling, I think. I can only hope that their aggressive racism and contempt for Democratic city leaders backfires on them.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, everybody, including myself, is pussy footing around the elephant in the room looking for creative ways not to use the F word but if it looks like, sounds like and goosesteps like a fascist what word best fits?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think you’re right, David. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any justification for sending in paramilitarised federal law enforcement officers to override the local police and to terrorise people who, at most, are protesting with some elements of violence involved. And there is, of course, a very troubling racist angle to all of this as well.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Beverly Spicer wrote:

    Bush suspended the posse comitatus act in 2006 allowing U.S. military troops (or others) on our soil.

    In 2009 Obama passed legislation NDAA that allows president to seize all things like utilities etc, arrest and execute people even Americans without trial.

    Hitler made sure everything the Nazis did was legal.

    “Mussolini’s first act as prime minister was to demand special emergency powers allowing him to rig elections in the Fascists’ favor. Soon after, the Italian parliament made suspicion of being anti-Fascist punishable by imprisonment without trial.”

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    A slippery slope, Beverly, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, I think that the contempt for existing laws has taken a quantum leap under Trump, as he simply doesn’t care at all about what the restraints on his power are supposed to be, and has appointees like Barr who share this contempt.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    In response to a commenter saying, “maybe don’t riot?”, “Pat Sheerin wrote:

    Maybe stay home, keep silent and be a compliant citizen?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    You think they are all “rioting” or that all should be severely punished for the gad acts of a few? That is un-American. And in America, we are not supposed to have a secret police roaming around kidnapped citizens without telling them why they are being detained, where they are being taken, and advised of their constitutional rights. What Trump is doing with these goons is illegal.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Rose and Pat. Yes, protest must be allowed, and if protesters cross any lines into criminal behaviour, then it’s the business of the police to deal with it. Trump is trying to turn dissent into civil war – and it’s particularly unpleasant because of its racist aspect.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark Mason wrote:

    No. Trump is grandstanding for the media. He can’t convince the Army generals to take over the cities, and he doesn’t have enough DHS-managed thugs to take over even one city.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m glad to hear that assessment, Mark, and I hope you’re right that the military leaders don’t want anything to do with Trump’s unconstitutional enthusiasms.

    That said, it remains quite genuinely alarming to me that Trump and Barr are able to send federal law enforcement officers into US cities where they are behaving like an army, and have been seizing people and holding them temporarily without any kind of due process.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Oregon’s Senators and Representatives Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici have announced that, at their request, the DOJ and DHS “are opening investigations into the unrequested presence and violent actions of recently deployed federal forces in Portland.” In a statement, Wyden said, “The violent tactics deployed by Donald Trump and his paramilitary forces against peaceful protesters are those of a fascist regime, not a democratic nation.” Speaking to the Guardian by phone, he added, “Unless America draws a line in the sand right now, I think we could be staring down the barrel of martial law in the middle of a presidential election.”

    See: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/25/portland-martial-law-ron-wyden-jeff-merkley
    The statement is here: https://www.merkley.senate.gov/news/press-releases/at-request-of-oregon-delegation-dhs-and-doj-offices-of-inspector-general-open-investigations-into-federal-operatives-in-portland-2020

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    And this is very good – by Hamilton Nolan, who writes for ‘In These Times’: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/24/trump-security-state-war-on-terror-america

    A strange and necessary ingredient of America’s descent towards fascism is that it will have little impact on the majority of people. As militarized federal agents are deployed into major cities to snatch protesters and charge them with harsh federal crimes for daring to deface the ruling party’s monuments, most Americans will continue living their normal lives with no discernible changes, at least for the time being. People wake up and eat breakfast and spend their days doing mundane tasks in fascist countries, too.

    If there was ever a tipping point, we are past it. Trying to stare hard at the daily news to determine the exact point at which we slip into fascism is like staring at a baby to see when it turns into an adult. By the time you perceive it, it’s already happened. It is important to understand that the crackdown phase that we are now in – the unaccountable government forces, the riot police, the teargas, the targeted political prosecutions that will come next – are not something new, but something old. This isn’t about Donald Trump. This is about America, baby. This is what we do.

    Trump, a fool ruled by impulse rather than strategy, did not build the fearsome machine of government oppression that is now being aimed at his political opponents. This machine was systematically assembled and lovingly tended to by generations of presidents before him – Democratic, Republican, Whig. Trump is only broadening its aperture. All of these tools have been sharpened on the bones of Native Americans and Black people and immigrants and Muslims overseas. America has always needed someone to oppress. Mostly so that we could steal their stuff, but also so that the rest of us didn’t turn against one another. This country has managed to avoid a class war by giving poor white people an array of minorities to abuse, a trick that has benefited rich white people for centuries. We have used injustice not just as a way to get ahead, but as a release valve. Our leaders have long calculated that it is safer to subjugate and mistreat a minority of the population than to risk dissatisfaction in the majority. In doing so, the government has become very adept at creating enemies and wielding power against them in flagrant shows of force.

    These are trivial observations, basic facts that will only be disputed by those who are destined to land on the side of fascism anyhow. The question is what they mean for our present moment, which is distinguished not by the existence of government oppression but by its direction. We are finding out what happens when the war on terror is turned inward on ourselves. In addition to the federal agents already in Portland, more are coming to Chicago, Albuquerque, and Kansas City; that may well be just the beginning of a national rollout. “Protecting federal property” and “maintaining law and order” are twin fig leaves wafting in a cloud of teargas. The Department of Homeland Security has effectively become a White House-controlled paramilitary and domestic surveillance service unaccountable to anyone except Trump and his loyalists. (If we’re being honest, this moment has been inevitable since DHS was panic-created in the days after the September 11 attacks. If there is any more fascist word than “homeland”, I haven’t heard it.)

    The basic logic behind gun control is that if there are a bunch of guns lying around, sooner or later someone will get shot. The same holds true for the security state. If you build it, it will eventually come for you. Cloaked in the banality of federal bureaucracy, we have tolerated the creation of a terrifying set of powers that now rest in the small hands of a man who has been waiting his entire life to take revenge on each and every enemy who has slighted him. Barack Obama sat in the White House for eight years and did nothing to dismantle this bureaucracy of soldier-cops. He was too busy using it in foreign drone wars. It’s too seductive to have that power, when you are the one who controls it. Now a worse president has it, and it will be turned, at last, against a bigger chunk of us than ever before.

    Every new outrage is a test of what we will tolerate. If the government can roll out troops to a large swath of major cities and shoot the eyes out of protesters with rubber bullets all under the guise of stopping some kids from spray-painting some courthouse, it is a fairly good indicator that the spirit of the broader American public will not rouse itself to stand in the way of fascism’s tightening grip. In a nation this big, you can make 100 million people official Enemies of the State and still leave a comfortable majority blissfully unaffected. The trick now is convincing that tranquil, all-American majority that their interests are actually more aligned with the protesters wielding spray-paint outside the courthouse than with the militarized cops in fatigues.

    That shouldn’t be an impossible task. When there is actual justice being done inside the courthouses, the protesters and the storm troopers will both disappear.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s a good article by Masha Gessen for the New Yorker, providing some necessary background on how the Department of Homeland Security, created by George W. Bush after 9/11, was, by its very nature, bound to be a secret police force: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-dhs-was-destined-to-become-a-secret-police-force

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    And this is also good – ‘Is It Time to Defund the Department of Homeland Security?’: https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/is-it-time-to-defund-the-department-of-homeland-security

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    And check this out – posted by a friend, it’s an eyewitness account of what’s happening in Portland, as written by a history professor who was shot while taking part in a peaceful protest: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4542398539105428&set=a.317298274948830&type=3

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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