Trump’s Secret Police Are Waging a War on American Cities

Donald Trump's deployment of federal agents to American cities is a continuation of bipartisan police repression. But make no mistake: he is also tapping into some of the darkest corners of far-right authoritarianism, which seek to stamp out the radical "enemy from within."

Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. (Matt McClain-Pool / Getty Images)

On July 16, thanks to a story by Oregon Public Broadcast (OPB), the world learned the saga of Mark Pettibone. Pettibone had been leaving protests that OPB described as calm. While departing, he was warned that camouflaged men were snatching protesters off the street and throwing them into civilian cars. Shortly after, Pettibone himself fell prey. Four to five men in camouflage shoved him into a vehicle and whisked him away.

For those familiar with what was unfolding in Portland, none of this was news. Sometime earlier in the month, Trump had deployed US Marshalls and Customs and Border Patrol, both part of the Department of Homeland Security, to Portland, ostensibly to protect federal courthouses from petty vandalism. In reality, they were there to suppress protests. Reports, and even a chilling video, had already emerged of men in camouflage abducting protesters off the streets. While their uniforms said “police,” the men gave no indication what agency they were with or who they were.

Pettibone’s story helped propel the frightening situation in Portland into the national spotlight. The phrase “Trump’s secret police” became commonplace not just among activists, but sitting senators.

Not everyone, however, recoiled in outrage. For Trump, members of his administration, and some in the right-wing media, the public backlash to his secret police spurred a sense of defiance. They not only made excuses for police criminality, but openly praised the tactics used. And most disturbingly, they claimed it as a model for other cities.

Trump’s Secret Police

Murmurings that Trump would expand the brutality visited upon Portland to other cities began about as soon as people expressed horror at his secret police’s crimes. The plan was finally cemented on July 22, when Trump announced federal law enforcement would head to Chicago, Illinois and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Unlike the Portland deployments — ordered under the pretext of defending courthouses and federal property — the latest deployments are allegedly a response to high-profile shootings. More accurately, they’re part of Trump’s broader attempts to paint cities as crime-ridden and desperately in need of federal intervention. The deployments are an expansion of Operation Legend, a Department of Justice initiative led by Attorney General William Barr that sends federal law enforcement to aid local police in fighting a supposed “sudden surge of violent crime.” The program is already underway in Kansas City, Missouri, where it is named after LeGend Taliferro, a four-year old killed by gun violence in the city.

It isn’t just Kansas City that is witnessing an influx of federal agents. Border patrol agents were sent to Seattle, Washington earlier this month to take on protests. (They are now reportedly demobilizing.) Washington, DC, which thanks to its lack of statehood enjoys a colonial-like status with the federal government, saw a litany of unidentified federal agents deployed against its will to bully protesters. (Infamously, they tear-gassed peaceful protesters so Trump could have a fascistic photo op where he waived a Bible around outside a church.) And while the Trump administration announced earlier today it would withdraw federal agents from Portland, the White House said it would expand Operation Legend to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

It doesn’t end there. In December 2019, the Department of Justice announced “Operation Relentless Pursuit.” This Barr-led initiative is designed to “increase the number of federal law enforcement officers and bulk up federal task forces in Detroit, Memphis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Albuquerque.” The exact relationship between Operation Relentless Pursuit and Operation Legend remain murky.

And of course, it is impossible to talk about political repression in the US without mentioning the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI, which is both a law enforcement and domestic intelligence agency, has a rich history of suppressing dissent that continues to this day. FBI agents assisted Seattle police in evicting the “Capital Hill Occupied Protest Zone.” Local police across the country participate in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which Barr has pledged to use against protesters. Barr has also announced the creation of a new FBI task force on “violent anti-government extremism” that has Antifa in its sights.

There is reason to worry that Trump will continue to boost these federal deployments. During an interview with Fox News personality Sean Hannity, Trump claimed he was considering sending 75,000 law enforcement officers to police America’s cities. By the last tally, there are 100,000 federal law enforcement officers in the entire country.

Trump is not pioneering police violence. Across the country, local police have frequently responded to peaceful protests with violence. Police in Washington, DC have long used jump outs, a “paramilitary tactic in which unmarked police vehicles carry 3 or more officers not wearing the standard police uniform. Their objective is to stop and intimidate ordinary citizens into submitting to interrogation or an unwarranted search.”

In Baltimore, under liberal Mayor Martin O’Malley, the police systemically used sweep arrests that are arguably quite similar to those of Trump’s secret police. Baltimore police arrested random African-Americans without probable cause and held them without charge. At the height of this policy, police were “sending thousands of people to city jail, hundreds every night, thousands in a month.” Baltimore police even had forms allowing people to secure their immediate release if they waived their right to sue for false arrest.

The US police state, like the brutal austerity policies that it accompanies, has been thoroughly bipartisan. But make no mistake: while Trump may be part of this bipartisan continuum, he is also tapping into some of the darkest corners of far-right authoritarianism.

Energizing the Base

If you listen to the right-wing commentariat, the nation is under siege from an enemy within. Anarchists, Marxists, far-left agitators, and other un-Americans are marauding through the streets of US cities threatening not only law and order, but America’s culture, institutions, and government. The toppling of statues is the beginning of the literal collapse of civilization. Local Democratic-led governments, far from seeking to quell this would-be revolution, are actively complicit in it. At the same time, these very same cities are subsumed by violent crime. And thus, Trump’s bold interventions, against not just the criminals, but the politicians and constituents, are required.

Both of these narratives — cities are overrun by protesters and cities are war zones of violence crime — demonize large urban areas where the bulk of the US’s population resides. With few exceptions, no one in these cities actually appears to be asking for Trump’s help. In fact, Trump seems to openly brag that he is sending in federal agents without the assent of cities. Dispatching federal forces is not designed to help the people of these cities; it is designed to punish them.

In the minds of Trump and the far right, large swaths of the domestic population are the enemy. Defending America means attacking many of its people. And with Trump’s attacks on these cities’ elected leadership, painting them as radicals and deploying federal agents to flout them, he is making a spectacle of cracking down on his perceived political opponents. It doesn’t matter that most of them are really centrists fully complicit in police violence. Trump’s goal is to energize a base that, for the most part, is not even located in these cities.

So why is this a potent message?

As legal scholar Jonathan Simon points out in Governing Through Crime, “tough on crime” policies are often sold based on the idea that there is a zero-sum tradeoff between the rights of “criminals” and those of victims or police. Any right gained by a criminal (or someone accused of a crime) is a right taken away from their victims.

This has broad implications. Procedural rights, by their very nature, are designed to protect the innocent from state power. Stopping an innocent person from being assaulted or murdered at random by police isn’t a victory for those who break the law. However, if you believe that some people are inherently criminal, that certain people by their very nature deserve to be brutalized, then the picture changes.

The same goes for the second category of victims and police. It is not just literal victims of crime, but the ideal populations who are losing the rights gained by “undesirables.” This is how prohibiting police from terrorizing random African Americans constitutes an act of aggression against the God-given rights of a white suburbanite living on the other side of the country.

The Right has long used this logic to launch faux-populist appeals. And now Trump is pulling from the same tradition in hopes of exciting his base.

Two Different Visions

The current crisis in the US has historical antecedents.

In the 1960s, urban rebellions swept the nation. When a bipartisan national advisory commission, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, was appointed to study the cause of this “civil disorder,” it found that lack of economic opportunity, police brutality, and white supremacy had triggered the rebellions. Law enforcement violence, far from being a force for order, was often the spark that incited urban uprising or escalated them once they were underway.

Another body also sought to uncover the causes of civil unrest — the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1968, it released a report entitled “Guerrilla Warfare Advocates in the United States.” One of the most bonkers documents ever put out by an official US body, the report lambasted everyone from “convicted Communist” Nelson Mandela to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and suggested black self-defense advocate Robert Williams was seeking to become king of the United States.

When discussing urban uprisings that broke out in Harlem, Cleveland, and Watts, the report downplayed the existence of police brutality while excoriating opponents of police violence for inciting riots. HUAC believed that the riots were partially the result of the careful, preplanned work of “Communists and black nationalists.” The authors claimed North Vietnam had been training US guerrillas in Cuba.

In a final section, the report gave a chilling description of what could be done to respond to “guerrilla warfare.” “The ghetto would have to be sealed off from the rest of city” and within the cordoned-off area, civil liberties would be suspended, curfews imposed, and “anyone found without proper identification would be immediately arrested.” HUAC toyed with the idea of invoking the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, a McCarthy-era law that allowed for domestic subversives to be interned in concentrations camps. (Outrage at this suggestion, and a campaign by the Japanese American Citizens League, led to the repeal of the Emergency Detention Act in 1971).

The Kerner Commission and the HUAC report represented two very different visions. The failings of American capitalism, unchecked police violence, and white supremacy are still with us today. And we are still confronted with stark choices about how we wish to confront them.

Donald Trump has clearly chosen to operate in the tradition of HUAC: it is not police violence, but those who condemn it, that are the problem. Law enforcement must be supported uncritically, and given the green light to engage in wanton repression. Huge swaths of the domestic population are to be excluded from the body politic. As an enemy within, the government must go to war with its domestic foes to defend the “real Americans.”

Trump has been a remarkably incompetent authoritarian. He often suggests outlandish ideas without following through. His bellicose rhetoric around deploying federal forces is largely a stunt to rile up his base in an election year. And while he is odious, it is important to remember that federal police are not the sole source of police violence. Local police, often operating under liberal governments, have engaged in similar brutalities and operated as occupying forces in many neighborhoods.

But Trump’s decision to go to war against America’s cities, even if it is just a rhetorical war to whip his base into a furor, is disturbing. And his attempts to deploy federal agents into communities already struggling with police violence must be vigorously opposed.