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EDITORIAL: Disband the secret police

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Federal law enforcement emerge from the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse as fires burned during a protest in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 22, 2020. With the deployment by President Donald Trump of militarized federal agents in early July, the protesters now number in the thousands, showing up nightly. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

The unleashing of federal combat troops to violently remove peaceful U.S. protesters from a park outside the White House last month was evidently just a dress rehearsal.

Heavy-handed forces have been deployed for weeks now in Portland, Oregon, where, as in Washington, D.C., they’ve used aggressive tactics against protesters denouncing police violence in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

And President Trump says he plans to send similar forces into other cities. In doing so, the self-anointed “wartime president” is going to war with his own citizens.

As he did in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, where he turned his attacks on science, public-health practices and Democratic governors, the president is once again ignoring legitimate threats in favor of an artificial, more politically convenient scapegoat.

Instead of addressing the very real issues of societal racism, police brutality and an inequitable justice system, the president is instead taking aim at those protesting these institutional failings.

So much is wrong with his unnecessary, unprecedented and likely unconstitutional action it’s hard to know where to begin:

-Trump has blatantly mischaracterized the protests as justification for sending in troops. Far from the aggressive anarchists the president describes, demonstrators in Portland had been largely peaceful -- at least until Trump’s paramilitary-type forces showed up and exacerbated tensions.

-The forces are neither wanted nor needed. Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor have both pointedly demanded the troops be withdrawn. Federal forces occupying an American city is the type of scenario conservative, small-government voices have warned about for decades. Where are those voices now?

-The officers are curiously under-identified. Heavily armed and wearing camouflage uniforms (pointlessly, in the middle of a city), the troops often lack identifying badges other than a generic insignia reading “police.” Does the president now have his own secret police force?

-They’re assaulting peaceful protesters -- in one widely seen video, armed agents beat and tear-gassed a Navy veteran -- and hauling demonstrators away in unmarked vehicles. Such gestapo-like maneuvers are more typically seen in authoritarian regimes, not on American streets.

-These officers, largely from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Services, have no business -- and very little expertise -- in civilian policing. They are mis-deployed and ill-quipped.

-Trump’s response has reignited the protests. Demonstrations had been waning in Portland until the arrival of the federal squads. Their subsequent aggressive crackdowns have now swelled the crowds, including a “Wall of Moms” and leaf blower-wielding dads fighting back against teargas.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however is the likely illegality. Generally, federal troops are not dispatched without the express request of a local official. That’s nowhere near the case in Portland. Administration officials’ contention that they “don’t need an invitation” to protect federal property -- in this case, the courthouse where they hole up -- is a laughably thin reed on which to hang such an aggressive response.

And there’s legitimate question as to whether the person leading uninvited deployment, acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf, has the authority to do anything, much less order an incursion. Like many Trump Cabinet officials, Wolf’s designation as “acting” means he has not been confirmed by the Senate for the directorship. He has also served in that capacity well beyond the legal limit of 210 days.

That’s par for a president and administration that seldom trouble themselves with piddling bothers like legalities.

The president is no doubt resorting to these depot-like measures to distract from his horrendous failure on the coronavirus pandemic and his utter inability to understand, let alone formulate a response, to the societal disparities fueling the protests in memory of Floyd.

As a distraction, it’s not working. As a practice, it’s endangering communities. As a policy, it’s likely illegal and patently unAmerican.

This authoritarian measure should not be expanded, it should be disbanded.