Should we be afraid right now? We believe the answer is “yes.”
President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr announced that the Justice Department will “immediately surge” federal law enforcement officers to Chicago and Albuquerque in an effort to combat violent crime.
The deployment is an expansion of Operation Legend, which the Justice Department launched July 8 in Kansas City, Mo., as a coordinated initiative “across all federal law enforcement agencies working in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight the sudden surge of violent crime.”
In Portland, Oregon, more than 1,000 people filled the city’s core for the second straight night Tuesday to rally against police violence and systemic racism. Residents have amassed every night since late May to demand reforms to the criminal justice system. The crowds had decreased in size. But repeated use of force by federal officers against protesters — which occurred again this week — has fueled larger crowds and attracted nationwide scrutiny to Portland.
This is beginning to feel like science fiction, like the premise of “V for Vendetta” or even the dark back story of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. And yet, it is 2020 in the United States of America.
In Oregon, federal officers were first seen at the nightly demonstrations 31 days into the protests and have received repeated support from Trump and his administration. The acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security emphasized the need for federal officers in Portland and rebuked local leaders for failing to curb the nightly “lawlessness.”
According to media accounts, as well as television broadcasts and social media, agents fired tear gas into the crowd and began detaining — violently — peaceful protesters.
Oregon is a state with a deep history of racism that included racial-exclusion laws that extended into the 20th century. The Portland protests have persisted since George Floyd’s killing even as Black Lives Matter demonstrations have waned in many other parts of the country.
But some leaders in the Black community, grateful for a widespread discussion on race, worry that what should be a moment for racial justice could be squandered by more violence.
According to one account in The New York Times this week, “Amid the Gordian knot of frustrations and escalations, most everyone seems to agree about one thing: The combative deployment of camouflaged federal agents has only made things worse.”
The president is pushing a law-and-order message for his re-election campaign. His administration claims that the protests in Portland are the work of “anarchists” who “hate our country.”
And yet it seems like regular, old-fashioned protesting. The president’s portrayal of Portland and the crackdown he has unleashed have infuriated protesters who believe he is trying to use the city’s unrest as political theater during an election year, according to pundits.
The Times reported that “to the protesters, the president’s unusual deployment of federal power has provided yet more compelling evidence that their fears about rising fascism in the United States are justified.”
That feels accurate.
What is worrisome is that events thousands of miles away could end up happening here.
Vermont is a liberal state with a penchant for protesting and standing up against wrongdoing. Does speaking out potentially put citizens here at risk of being accused of being part of antifa? Should Vermonters keep quiet about social and racial injustice? Should we not be denouncing police militarization and a punishing criminal justice system? Should we all just shut up?
Despite what we are meant to believe right now, we are meant to disagree. We are protected in our right to do so. Likewise, citizens are protected in their right to protest. The First Amendment is fundamental in that way.
What should scare us is the effort to stifle Americans from having an opinion.
Protesting should not be an act of self-defense. It is worrisome that the Trump administration seems to be setting a precedent that would encourage other presidents to embrace a more expansive use of federal forces in order to silence naysayers — regardless of political stripes.
Suddenly, in the most chaotic time in modern history, we find ourselves face to face with an uncertainty found in science fiction and fantasy.
The narrative needs rewriting.