Brown: Trump should not have sent federal troops

Columnist Jake Brown condemns the Portland responses to the protests.

Jake Brown

The Trump administration’s decision to send federal law enforcement in response to protests in Portland, Oregon, is wrong and completely inappropriate. The only purpose it serves is to further escalate violence in the city, and the decision corrodes democracy and makes for bad and ineffective law enforcement.

Reports started surfacing that federal agents in Portland were in unmarked vehicles picking up and detaining protestors. President Donald Trump threatened to send “more federal law enforcement” to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Oakland, California, and other major cities. While the decision is already fighting legal challenges, the question of whether it is appropriate is clear, at least in a nation that says it lives under the rule of law. 

These reports have generated a lot of concern and anxiety. Mary McCord, a lawyer who previously oversaw national security issues at the Justice Department, warned The New York Times that manhandling Portland residents in this way “sends the message that these people are terrorists and need to be treated like terrorists.”

After weeks of nightly standoffs between protestors and police over racism and police brutality, the protests calmed in late June after a judge ordered local police to halt the use of tear gas and other munitions. As soon as federal officers showed up in early July, however, the demonstrations grew more heated and more confrontational than ever. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler expressed he did not invite help from the federal government and said its troops had, in fact, escalated the situation.

Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano condemned the Trump administration for the deployment of troops. “The federal government cannot put troops or military personnel or police on the streets without the invitation of the governor or the legislature of the state,” he said in a news interview. “What happened in Portland over the weekend, it was not only unlawful and unconstitutional, it’s just plain wrong. Sending armed, untrained police into the streets wearing fatigues without the knowledge or consent of local police actually caused more violence.”

The troops are a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and were deployed under the department’s authority to protect federal property. In the case of Portland, the properties in question are the Portland federal courthouse and monuments and statues in the city. The DHS has designated the protection of such monuments a homeland security mission, following President Trump’s expansion of the Insurrection Act with an executive order last month. 

While this authority extends the power to investigate federal crimes and arrest those suspected of them, it is not a general authority to patrol major cities and pick up/detain protestors simply because a federal building may be in the area. 

In addition, federal law enforcement officers should only conceal their identities under highly specific circumstances, none of which involves crowd control or policing a public area. Officers might go undercover in an effort to infiltrate a criminal organization, for example, but it should be unthinkable for armed officers arresting protestors in an American city to not identify themselves by name or affiliation.

While the legality of whether the presence of federal troops is argued, the response does not seem to be working. Peaceful protests only grew in response to the federal show of force. If Trump follows through on his promise to police more cities, the anonymous officers may be met with more large crowds defying his efforts.