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Opinion: As protests create issues in some large cities, politics complicates the situation
Portland protets
Federal officers use chemical irritants and projectiles to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Beth Nakamura /The Oregonian via AP)

In a year that has been defined by the acceleration from one crisis to the next, another looms on the horizon; this one encompassing various aspects of individual freedoms, government responsibility, constitutional law and public safety.

The decision by the Trump administration to send federal law enforcement officers into major urban areas to quell long-running protests, some of which have turned violent, has set the stage for a legal, civic and moral debate that may have ramifications long after a vaccine for COVID-19 is found and the civil rights protests of the summer have quietened.

Having already deployed officers to Portland in an attempt to bring protests under control, President Trump said Monday he likely would do the same to other major cities in order to help restore law and order.

The president’s decision to create a new force of officers drawn from Homeland Security, Border Patrol and U.S. Marshals and to then deploy them in cities without being asked to do so by local officials has sparked controversy and legal questions, none of which are likely to be quickly nor easily resolved.

Nor is it easy to decide if doing so is the right thing.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo
  • Mandy Harris

Evaluating the validity of the law enforcement effort would be much easier if President Trump did not make it so very clear that his actions are motivated as much by politics as by concern for public safety. On more than one occasion, the president has noted the need to do something in cities run by “liberal Democrats,” and has made no secret of the fact that doing so is as much a matter of political posturing as it is enforcement of the law.

Yet it is also impossible not to note that, in some major urban areas, local officials have gone so far in their efforts toward appeasement as to create impossible situations, including having armed civilians take over entire neighborhoods. We need look no further than the death of a child in Atlanta to see what can happen when armed mobs are allowed to do as they please without fear of intervention.

Some have labeled the confrontation between the federal government and local governments as a constitutional crisis, and it is easy to see why they would think such was the case. As Americans, the concept of anarchists taking over city streets to do as they please is as inconceivable as is the heavy-handed deployment of federal officers over the vocal objection of local government leadership.

As a nation, are we willing to abdicate local government control to an omnipotent federal government? Do we have to do so in order to feel secure and safe? Those are questions with no good answers, and yet answered they must be. That such a dual-edged sword of bad choices exists is, as much as anything else, a testament to the damage done by the current political climate.

Some things we think rational people should agree upon:

  • We think the president has the authority to do what he has done. The “Insurrection Act” enacted more than 200 years ago allowed presidents to send federal troops into communities to quash rebellions, and we suspect that legal authority is sufficient today. The same Act allowed federal forces to be used to help local communities during the tumultuous years following passage of Civil Rights Act, often to the chagrin of local officials
  • Federal officers sent into cities must follow accepted police procedures and legal “rules of engagement” in everything they do. Reports from Portland of officers in military gear detaining protesters and putting them into unmarked vans for an unknown fate, without following procedures for legal arrests and detainment, stoke fears of an all-powerful federal government that does whatever it wants without fear of repercussion. Those concerns should be of more consequence than small bands of anarchists taking over city landscape.
  • Local leaders, and local law enforcement, know their cities and communities better than do those in the federal government. That they are not included in coordination of efforts to control the streets makes no sense. That they refuse to accept that the situation in their cities is out of control and that they need help also makes no sense.

All of this would look different if a presidential election were not on the horizon. The president’s mandate should be protection of the citizenry, not making “liberal democrats,” look bad. The mayors, and in some cases governors, would do better to focus on fixing their problems rather than hoping that a storm of political chaos will build.

One of the primary functions of government is to provide for the public safety. Another is to protect the freedoms guaranteed to all American citizens by the Constitution. It does no good to focus on either of those realities and ignore the other.

And lest conservative law-and-order supporters be too quick to cheer the federal action, remember that the power given one president will extend to others, and that somewhere down the road a liberal administration might be using the same authority to deploy federal officers on issues such as gun control.

The president has said he plans to send similar enforcement officers to Chicago, where armed violence seems to have overtaken the city. Oakland, Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee and other major urban areas have been mentioned as possibilities for federal law enforcement efforts. You have to expect Atlanta may also be on that list.

But all of the nation’s urban areas are not out of control. All of the cities are not being besieged. The current drama does not prove that life in a major urban area is impossible, or that dystopian landscapes drawn from science fiction portrayals of the future are becoming realities.

The hard truth is that a relatively small number of city officials, and in some instances state officials, have allowed situations to get out of control and have refused to take action. It remains to be seen whether the federal “solution” in such cases creates more problems than it solves.

For now, we have videos of heavily armed law enforcement officers dispersing crowds of people and angry politicians standing behind microphones to either protest or defend the actions being taken. In the weeks to come, we will have litigation and court cases. And virtually none of that will address the concerns that created the crowds of protesters in the first place.

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