Every dictator needs his own secret police, and thanks to Attorney General William Barr, our wannabe strongman has his.
Our first introduction to them was Washington D.C., where federal officers in riot gear refused to identify themselves and were not wearing identification. Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said she’d told Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi she wanted the federal agents and military troops removed from the city, and Pelosi sent her written concerns to Trump asking for more information.
On Monday, the Oregon attorney general’s office filed suit about their use in Portland. Asked about this, Trump claimed that Democrats were unable to handle law and order issues so he had a right to send in federal officers.
Trump already tear gassed peaceful protestors in Washington D.C. for a photo op, so he could walk to a church and hold up a Bible. He was joined in that walk by Attorney General William Barr and other administration officials. One of the church’s own ministers, who was helping injured protestors, had to leave, and leave her medical supplies, due to the tear gas. The walk, where Trump was attempting to look powerful and in command, was a public relations disaster, and he received a scathing response from the church, which hadn’t been notified.
In Portland, Trump’s secret police used unmarked vehicles, blatantly and illegally kidnapping some protestors in an attempt to intimidate others. Portland authorities have complained that federal interference eroded the headway they’d made with protestors.
Think of the dedication it takes to organize these protests and to be in them, to keep assembling in an attempt to stop police officers from killing a non-resisting African American repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes (George Floyd); putting an African American in an illegal choke hold and killing him as he repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe (Eric Garner); to stop illegal traffic stops resulting in death (Sandra Bland) . . . I could go on and on.
The deaths of Floyd and Garner are on video; you can see them for yourself. Bland’s mother received a huge settlement after all the illegalities of the traffic stop and the jail practices were exposed.
According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, federal officials and Donald Trump said they planned to “quell” the nightly protests against racism and police brutality that had taken place outside the federal courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Center for over six weeks. Witnesses and videos posted online show federal law enforcement officers in unmarked vehicles driving up and taking people off the street with no explanation of why they were being arrested, then driving off.
For example, Mark Pettibone and his friend Conner O’Shea spent the night protesting racism and police brutality, leaving the protest around 2 a.m. Well away from federal property, they met a group who warned them that people in camouflage were driving in unmarked minivans grabbing people off the street. O’Shea said he ran when he saw men in camouflage jump out of an unmarked vehicle, and hid when a second unmarked van pursued him. His video was dark but metadata confirms the time and place. His friend, Pettibone, said he was tossed into the van, had his beanie pulled over his face so he couldn’t see, and found out later he had been held inside the federal courthouse. He recalls being put into a cell and officers coming in to read him his Miranda rights. They asked him if he wanted to waive his rights and answer some questions. When he refused and asked for a lawyer, the interview stopped and about an hour and a half later he was released, having received no paperwork, citation or record of his arrest.
The U.S. Marshalls Special Operations Group and Custom and Border Protection’s Border Patrol Tactical Unit were both sent to Portland, supposedly to protect federal property. The Marshals group denied arresting Pettibone. This is the beauty of the secret police. Since the feds weren’t wearing uniforms, witnesses and those who were kidnapped couldn’t identify which group their kidnappers belonged to in order to hold the agency or individual accountable for abuses.
Attorney Juan Chavez, director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center civil rights project called the arrest by federal officials “terrifying” and described it as kidnapping people off the streets. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said federal officials should be restricted to guarding federal property. Wheeler said “We do not need or want their help. The best thing they can do is stay inside the building, or leave Portland altogether.” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkely tweeted, complaining about federal forces shooting an unarmed protestor in the face. (The protestor was hospitalized with multiple skull fractures after being shot in the face with “less lethal” ordinance). Merkely also tweeted, “These shadowy forces have been escalating, not preventing, violence.” Oregon Governor Kate Brown called for federal law enforcement to leave Portland, accused acting director of Homeland Security Wolf of “provoking confrontation for political purposes,” and called Trump’s use of federal officers a “blatant abuse of power by the federal government.” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said Trump is “weaponizing the DHS” [Department of Homeland Security] as his “own occupying army to provoke violence.”
According to salon.com, the officers were dispatched as part of Trump’s executive order to protect American memorials, monuments and statues. The federal government has a right to protect federal property, but Trump’s secret police have been operating well away from federal property, and their heavy-handed tactics are putting local police in danger. Good law enforcement officers know the best way to reduce tensions in a situation of mass protest is to treat people as people, to be friendly and practice de-escalation tactics. In some places, police de-escalation skills were so good they were actually dancing with protestors.
Federal forces have assisted state and municipal governments at their request in times of national emergency or with riots, but state and municipal governments hadn’t requested this assistance. What’s been driving Trump crazy, and resulted in his executive order, is protestors tearing down statues of Confederate generals. So the Portland protestor was hospitalized with multiple skull fractures because the racist in chief admires dead traitors.
As Americans, we have a First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and to free speech. We have a 5th Amendment right to due process and a 14th Amendment right to equal justice. Secret police are illegal and unconstitutional on so many levels it makes your head spin, and Congress should be impeaching Attorney General Barr and Trump on this alone. Attorney General Barr has repeatedly lied to protect Trump and is acting as Trump’s personal attorney instead of what he is — a public servant whose salary is paid by American citizens, not Trump. But Trump wants his own goons, just like he had paid security people at his pre-election rallies that he encouraged to rough up protestors.
Barr is knowingly violating the law by cobbling together these secret police. There are strict state, local and federal ordinances governing law enforcement. Trump can’t get the Washington D.C. police to teargas protestors to get his photo ops or use other heavy-handed tactics he wants, like objecting to police protecting the heads of people they arrest when they’re put in a car, because they’re under the control of the mayor. Specific federal agencies have rules and officials to enforce them. So Trump and Barr are doing their no uniform no badge thing to avoid being held accountable.
As for riots, there have been fires set. Investigations have shown it’s not the Black Lives Matter protestors setting them, but people outside the movement seeking to discredit it. In other words, the racist groups that are Trump’s most devoted followers — like the Proud Boys, who physically threatened Nancy Pelosi, or the Nazi sympathizers chanting “Jews will not replace us,” who Trump designated as “good people.” Let’s not forget how Trump encouraged violence against the press covering his rallies, and how he cheered a Congressman who assaulted a reporter.
Will we remain a free country?
That is really the question, isn’t it? Free countries don’t have secret police. They have uniformed people serving in the military or as local police or showing whatever service they’re in. Trump has obviously been taking how-to-destroy-a-democracy lessons from his pal Russian premier Putin, who destroyed Russia’s fledgling democracy. That’s probably why Trump ordered the translator to destroy her notes, which are federal property, not his to control.
Being a citizen means holding our elected representatives to account, taking an interest in public policy so they don’t waste our blood and treasure on unnecessary wars, and so our foreign policies are controlled by a firm commitment to human rights to keep our soldiers and others from being killed or maimed in the blowback. It means taking time away from entertainment to call or email our elected representatives about Trump’s incompetence over Covid and other issues.
Lois Gilbert has worked as a full-time journalist and taught college history for the University of Alaska. She has an extended major and master’s in history, a major in journalism, and a minor in political science.