Shredding the Constitution

Federal police invade Portland and beyond

A crowd of protesters in front of a tall dark building, with the words FED GOONS OUT OF PDX projected up on the front.
July 21, 2020. Protesters deliver a clear message to the feds in downtown Portland, Oregon. PHOTO: Anna Pedersen / Street Roots
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The illusion that there is a democracy in the U.S. faithful to the Constitution was shattered when Donald Trump deployed federal “black ops” forces to Portland, Oregon, in July 2020.

Hoping to neutralize the multi-racial, Black-led uprising against systemic racism active in every corner of the country, Trump is resorting to autocracy. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) revolt poses a significant threat to a profit system devastated by a mismanaged pandemic and an economy on the skids.

Occupied Portland. Claiming that nightly demonstrators were “professional anarchists … people that hate our country,” Trump dispatched armed agents to Portland, and threatened the same for a dozen other cities in the throes of social unrest.

Supposedly, the troops were there to guard the federal courthouse. However, they patrolled nearby streets and, after one peaceful protest, grabbed nine pedestrians, disappearing them in unmarked vans. In full military gear, they established a war zone at the courthouse, shooting rubber bullets and lobbing tear-gas canisters at BLM supporters while drones and helicopters flew overhead. They clubbed a veteran for questioning their behavior, fractured the skull of a young man by firing a rubber bullet between his eyes, and have been accused of sexually assaulting a detainee.

The repression backfired. “It infuriated Portlanders that the Constitution was yanked from under our feet to smash a call for racial equality,” says protester Jordana Sardo of the Freedom Socialist Party. Rather than cowering, throngs of teachers, retirees, suburbanites and others swelled into the thousands night after night. Mothers in bicycle helmets and veterans formed a wall of defense while leaf-blowers dispelled tear gas. A national outcry forced Trump and his brutes to back down.

But the Constitution lay in tatters, the right to protest trampled and restrictions on the use of the military against civilians shredded.

Trump’s invasion violated the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments in the Bill of Rights, protecting unfettered speech, freedom of the press, legal due process, and safety from unreasonable searches and seizures. In addition, it breached the Tenth Amendment, which gives local police powers to state and local officials, not the federal government.

Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the Portland Police Commissioner, called on Trump to pull federal forces out. But his demand rang hollow given that, for weeks, he had deployed his cops in full riot gear, tear gas spewing.

The “war on terror” lays the groundwork. Trump’s secret police, as Portlanders aptly labeled them, were primarily from two divisions of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which operates the U.S. Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). DHS was created to implement police-state measures enshrined in the USA Patriot Act, overwhelmingly approved by Democrats and Republicans after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and renewed by Barack Obama in 2015.

DHS is now the largest U.S. domestic law enforcement agency, with 240,000 members in 2018. Headed by Trump devotee Chad Wolf, it is notorious for the abuse of migrant children by its paramilitary Border Patrol, for squalid ICE detention centers and brutal raids, and for terrorizing Muslim communities.

On Sept. 14, nurse whistleblower Dawn Wooten filed a complaint alleging a pattern of unnecessary, forced, or uninformed hysterectomies performed on ICE detainees.

With known white-supremacist sympathies, the elite CBP and ICE shock troops are trained like commandos.

DHS does Trump’s bidding. Its intelligence network spies on BLM and anti-Trump protesters, monitors antifa (anti fascists from the anarchist milieu), and compiles dossiers on journalists and attorneys. In June, before sending troops to Oregon, Trump deployed the Border Patrol against BLM protesters in Washington, D.C., which is a federal jurisdiction.

Karl Marx collaborator Frederick Engels identified governmental “special bodies of armed men” as essential to class rule. U.S. capitalists have always used police to maintain their power and property. That, not public safety, is the job description for this country’s 17,983 local, state and federal police entities.

Now, however, a mega-authoritarian in the White House has gone rogue with the federal cops at his command.

Trump is also using the Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr. “Operation Legend” is sending hundreds of uninvited cops from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency to cities like Chicago to combat what Trump calls “heinous crimes of violence.”

Also being deployed against protesters is the National Guard, which, during the Vietnam War, fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four. This year is the 50th anniversary of their deaths.

Why now and what next? Undoubtedly, Trump’s unconstitutional reliance on federal cops is part of a “law and order” electoral strategy, throwing red meat at his hard-core base. (See “Overcoming a combined threat.”)

But more is going on. The profit system is in deep economic trouble and facing a social-justice uprising with a passion and breadth not seen in many years. Trump’s increased repression is in service of saving his beloved capitalism from crashing and burning.

The people of Portland showed that Trump’s gambit will not be a slam dunk. A radical, organized, democratic mass movement has the potential to both stop the use of federal cops against protesters and go on to achieve fundamental change.

Besides expelling federal agents from the cities, let’s demand that local officials be investigated for their own violations of civil liberties, and insist on a halt to all attacks on the right to assemble.

We refuse to back down in the pursuit of a more just and equal world, a better world. Let’s meet police terror with national resistance!

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