July 29, 2020 — To some, the idea of seeing government agents in camouflage uniform, without identification, holding firearms, and driving unmarked military vehicles down the streets of US cities sounds like something out of a war movie. But today, it is a reality that is terrorizing the lives of hundreds of peaceful civilians. The Trump administration has deployed federal police units to patrol the streets of several US cities in the name of controlling civil unrest or simply curbing violence. While the images we are seeing today might come as a surprise for some, militarized and punitive actions by law enforcement agencies have quite a history in the US. These strategies have also been institutionalized throughout federal agencies, and particularly when it comes to immigration enforcement.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created by Congress in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with the primary purpose of preventing and neutralizing future terrorist threats to the homeland. Since its creation, Congress has continued to feed the monster agency allowing it to grow and expand to what it is today, receiving an appropriation of more than $92 billion in FY 2020. DHS was given major power and minimal oversight that has resulted in the targeting and abuse of millions of immigrants and nonimmigrants. After 9/11 members of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities were disappeared by DHS agents, they were arrested without warrants, and thrown into unmarked cars by officers who refused to identify themselves. Many were tortured. Today, those same practices are being implemented against protesters inspired by the Black Lives Matter demand.
These military tactics have been justified by this administration as an effort to support local law enforcement. However, the use of specialized, SWAT-like units, from different federal law enforcement bodies against protesters represent a clear abuse of power by the Trump Administration, as well as an attempt to project President Trump as a strong man in an effort to please and strengthen his appeal with extremist-minded voters in the road to the upcoming presidential election. Thousands of armed DHS officers are being sent to cities like Portland, Seattle, and Chicago with an alleged purpose of safeguarding federal monuments, and protecting communities from crime. Yet, there is already evidence that DHS officers are perpetrating and inciting violence. A recently uncovered internal memo highlights that DHS officials are not properly trained to manage civilian protests. DHS officials operate without oversight and accountability as they have since its inception.
The use of the heavily militarized police units to respond to emergencies and for security purposes, is a common practice in Central America. El Salvador resorts to the military both to intimidate citizens, and to ensure compliance with contention measures during the pandemic, or to attempt to avoid the impact of a lobster plague in its agriculture. In Guatemala, states of emergency are an all too frequent recourse to contain supposed acts of sedition. In Honduras, president Juan Orlando Hernández maintains a close relationship with the military, which has been vital to his remaining in power, by increasing defense expenditure and appointing generals to governmental positions.
While the US is currently experiencing multiple crises, there are some things that can be immediately done to quell this federal overreach and terror caused by the operations of the DHS. Local governments should think about the long-term consequences of using military tactics in their communities, and question what the federal government’s true purpose is. Where will these DHS officers be during the upcoming elections in November, and what impact will this have on the public’s right to exercise their freedom of speech and other democratic freedoms? Local authorities must unequivocally reject their presence both politically and legally. Congress must also defund DHS considering that it is using its personnel for nor intended purposes, in the context of the pressing needs of a nation impacted by a pandemic. Tax payer dollars should not be funding rights violations by public officials against protestors. As civil society we must organize ourselves and call on our legislators to direct tax dollars to initiatives that support our families and our communities, not agencies that tear them apart.