Even in the midst of the hellish vortex of awful news that is our lives now, last week was a stand out. On July 22nd, President Trump announced he will send more than 30 federal agents to Albuquerque as part of Operation Legend, an initiative whose purpose is ostensibly to aid local law enforcement in “fighting violent crime.” While on the surface, this deployment might seem innocuous — even desirable to those worried about crime in our city — this move should deeply trouble us all.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration’s acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security deployed a similar melange of militarized federal police to Portland, OR, where protests against police brutality and systemic racism have been ongoing since white Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin crushed the life out of George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes. These federal forces, comprised of heavily armed paramilitary units in full battle dress from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshall’s Service, and other federal agencies, have terrorized the predominantly peaceful protesters in Portland with beatings, heavy deployment of tear gas, rubber bullets, and even Pinochet style abductions of civilians off the street using unmarked rental vans.
You might be asking yourself, “What the hell is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection SWAT unit even doing hundreds of miles from the nearest land border doing crowd control in the center of a major American city?” The legal justification for the deployment of federal paramilitary police to a city where they aren’t wanted or needed is a textbook example of the dangerous powers accrued to the post-9/11 security state. Under the vast DHS umbrella is the Federal Protective Service (FPS), an agency dedicated to the protection and security of federal buildings throughout the country. Claiming that the federal courthouse in downtown Portland was under attack by the protesters, DHS used its authority to attach units from other agencies under its umbrella to form a de facto secret police force unaccountable to any elected official aside from the president.
President Trump appears to be so pleased with the resulting images of his federal shock troops brutalizing protesters that he threatened to deploy similar task forces to other cities. Last week he made good on that threat, announcing deployments to Chicago and Albuquerque — both cities, like Portland, led by Democrat politicians with a history of refusing to cooperate with his draconian civil immigration enforcement efforts.
Standing by his side when the announcement was made was Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales. It’s of little surprise that Sheriff Gonzales is in favor of sending unmarked federal forces to our city. This is the same sheriff that has steadfastly stood in the way of reform, refused to equip deputies with body cameras, and resisted all forms of accountability for his department for years. His decision to align himself with Trump is not about public safety; it’s a continuation of the same reckless behavior he has demonstrated throughout his tenure as sheriff. Indeed, his media stunt with the president came one year to the day after three of his deputies shot 28-year-old Elisha Lucero 21 times, which resulted in a lawsuit costing county taxpayers 4 million dollars. In response to his dangerous and self-serving actions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New México, along with New México Senator Martin Heinrich, have demanded his resignation.
All of us should be very concerned about the ramifications of this deployment. It seems clear that the president would like nothing more than to use our community as the backdrop for another one of his campaign ads to further the narrative that cities led by Democrats are rioting out of control and only he can restore law and order. There are plenty of federal buildings in Albuquerque that they could use as an excuse to don battle fatigues and start abducting people from unmarked vans. As we plan future protests in our city, we should take care to avoid physical confrontation with these federal forces where we can in order to avoid playing into Trump’s game.
Our colleagues at the ACLU of Oregon are already in the midst of suing federal agents to stop them from arresting and brutalizing reporters and legal observers in Portland. Make no mistake: if they try the same kind of unconstitutional brutality in our community, we will bring the full power of the ACLU of New México to stop them. We must, however, realize that these are short term solutions to a long term problem. These kinds of rights violations by federal forces are facilitated by the unchecked powers created by the Homeland Security Act, Patriot Act, and other relics of the post-9/11 security state.
When Trump leaves office, we must rededicate ourselves to dismantling the monstrous security state we built during the paroxysms of fear that gripped our nation following the terrorist attacks of 2001. The seeds we planted at the beginning of this century have borne dangerous fruit, and the laws they said were to protect us have left us bloodied in our own streets.
Micah McCoy, Senior Communications Strategist, Communications with the American Civil Liberties Union in New México.
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