As we all ponder the significance to our country of the many protests and responses to the horrific murder of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, some local issues with national importance may be overlooked. In the end, all politics is local as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once opined. In each locality and municipality we can work to improve our local community relationships and to ferret out the institutional racism that most citizens must now recognize.
Most striking to me in the video chronicling Mr. Floyd’s murder is the unabashed, even nonchalant way in which the officer pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck and held it there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It took my breath away to realize that the officers were equally unabashed at knowing numerous people were recording their actions even as those civilians pleaded with the officers to let him breathe. The officers just did not care. Clearly, they thought that there would be no retribution for their actions. There was no shame. While I firmly believe that by far the vast majority of law enforcement personnel are good people that do the right thing, in this case there must have been a climate in the Minneapolis police force that gave these officers a sense that there were no personal consequences to their actions.
In that vein, the climate in Washington D.C. is like a powder keg waiting for a spark to set it off. As in most cities, demonstrations have been quite peaceful, interrupted by periodic looting and destruction to buildings perpetrated by petty criminals and a small group of wing nut anarchists from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Yet, this is also a city problem that may have national repercussions.
You would not know that nearly all of the protests in the district, and indeed around the country, were peaceful if you only listened to the impeached Worst President Ever and all around vile human being Donald J. Trump or his side kick Attorney General William Barr. To me, the unprovoked attack on peaceful demonstrators assembled in Lafayette Square last Monday in the District, using rubber bullets, flash bang explosives and chemical weapons was a dangerous turning point. The only objective was to provide a photo-op for the president to strut around and hold up a Bible in front of historic St. John’s Church in a manner that seemed to convey that it was some symbolic object with which he was unfamiliar.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” — of unknown origin.
Many of you have been to Washington D.C., either as tourists or because you live or work there. Still, it is worth reviewing the local political relationships to totally understand the danger inherent in the current situation. Washington is used to demonstrations. They happen all of the time. Many of them occur in Lafayette Square directly across (a closed) Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The Washington Police Department (officially the Metropolitan Police Department) is well trained and used to dealing with demonstrators. Here is the problem. The MPD does not have jurisdiction over the federal portions of the district. A plethora of federal law enforcement agencies have that jurisdiction depending on the situation. Additionally, Washington D.C. has a mayor and city council, but under the Home Rule Act passed by Congress in December 1973, any laws, regulations, actions by the city government and just about anything else that the Congress or federal government does not like can be over-ruled or thrown out. Indeed the federal government moved to federalize the MPD this week before vigorous political push back put that on temporary hold.
So here is the set up as I write. It is a very fluid situation that could change for the better or worse on short notice. The mayor and MPD in the district essentially have been shut out of dealing with their own citizens and controlling their own streets. The federal government, under the direct personal control of Mr. Trump’s very own Luca Brasi, Attorney General Barr, has taken over the city. As documented by the Washington Post, Washington is now an occupied city. There are at least sixteen federal law enforcement and military agencies with thousands of people on the ground. These agencies range from the obvious such as the FBI to the less obvious where agencies have been deputized and given unique authorities outside their charters to patrol the streets and make arrests including the Bureau of Prisons, the DEA, the ATF, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, to name a few. None of these organizations normally operate in the district to police the streets and many do not have training to manage peaceful demonstrations. More ominously, many have been recorded as being in riot gear without name badges, insignia or organizational badges. Never a good sign.
Additionally, 3300 National Guard troops from ten states are operating in the district. This is in addition to the 1200 National Guard troops from the district that are under federal control, rather than local. In the fifty states governors control the National Guard unless they are federalized in extreme conditions. The mayor of Washington has no control over the Guard coming from her own city.
Wait! There’s more!
1,600 regular Army troops from Ft. Bragg North Carolina and Ft. Drum New York are deployed in military bases within a 15 minute drive of downtown Washington. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared that he would not allow U.S. military forces to be used against Americans on the streets of the nation’s capital and ordered them back to their home bases. Within hours the president overrode that order and they remain in the D.C. area.
For what purpose, you may ask, does the city of Washington need 4500 Guard troops, 1600 regular Army troops and several thousand federal law enforcement agents? Good question, as the demonstrations in Washington have been generally peaceful and while large, not as big as in many other cities across the land.
There is one purpose and one purpose only. They are being used as political campaign talking points by Mr. Donald J. Trump so that he can say that he is “tough” and that the only way to deal with “domestic terrorists” (as of yesterday the FBI stated that they have no evidence of any terrorists among the protesters) is to “dominate” them. This while he sits in his basement and fortifies the White House — the People’s House — with extra defenses well beyond the grounds, and speaks of “vicious dogs” waiting to get at the demonstrators like some third world despot.
It is political theater.
But political theater with a cost. Not only does it trample the First Amendment rights of citizens to assemble peacefully to protest against policies — and yes, politicians — of which they disapprove, it significantly increases the mistrust on all sides and with so many elements at play it could easily blow up into a major tragedy where numerous civilians are injured or killed in the ensuing melee. It also puts law enforcement and troops in difficult situations that may cause retaliation and injury.
I put the heaviest blame on Congressional Republicans. Most cannot be found anywhere that will speak up against Mr. Trump’s boast to use American troops against American citizens. There is video available of reporters trying to get a comment from a large array of “name” Congressional Republicans. They should be embarrassed and hope that the tape gets lost. Most shuffled off while mumbling that they did not know anything about it. Some proclaimed they could not comment because they were late for lunch. Others just tried to pretend they did not hear the question. Yesterday, only Republican Senators Murkowski (Alaska) and Romney (Utah) finally spoke publicly against the use of troops in our cities. Shameful.
God help us if American Guardsmen or Army troops open fire on American citizens. I fear that we are not out of danger of that happening. In recent days former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, several former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and numerous Admirals and Generals have raised serious objections to the president’s boasts that he will send “thousands and thousands of heavily armed military personnel” to stop the “rioting.” All military personnel that I knew throughout my 28 year career in the naval service would join me in saying that we signed up to to defend the Constitution and to protect the American people, not to fight our neighbors in our cities’ streets.
There is no organized demonstration scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday 6 June. That is to say no one organization is planning for people to take to the streets like with the Women’s March. However, local media and social media are buzzing with news that people are going to come to Washington tomorrow in what could be one of the largest demonstrations so far. The MPD Chief is on record with his concern that it could be one of the largest the city has ever seen. More important than whether it is big, bigger or biggest is how the demonstrators and federal law enforcement forces face off against each other. Pray that it is peaceful but it has all the ingredients of a disaster.
As many of you know, I have worried for three years as to what lengths Mr. Trump will go to consolidate his power. His autocratic tendencies are well documented. He feels invincible after no one has stopped his relentless assault on our national norms and values. As an expert opportunist, it will not take much for him to make good on his promise to send troops into our streets to show that he is “very strong.” It helps him to successfully deflect from his total screw up in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the Army is deployed in Washington, what happens next? Where does he stop? How does it end? What if he loses the election and claims it was due to fraud? These are dangerous times.
I have faith in my fellow citizens. I have faith in our collective values. We will survive the struggle. In the short run, let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.