This poem appears in Counterbound, Issue 3 (August, 2020).
To read all essays and poetry, purchase the print edition.
To read all essays and poetry, purchase the print edition.
Made in Americaby Theo Whitcomb
In mid-July, Oregon Public Broadcasting obtained a video of a silver minivan rolling up to a curb in downtown Portland. It was filled with bulky agents in military outfits, packed tightly together in what looked like a rental vehicle. The occupants were anachronistic, too-large versions of what we might imagine traditional occupants of such a car to be. They were dressed in beige fatigues, military grade bullet proof armor, and no visible identification beyond their apparent militarism.
The video tore through social media, partly because the agents were unmarked, absent of nametags, emblems, or identifying symbols. Partly because of the harrowing accounts which surfaced later of the unwarranted detention of protestors. The video added to the onslaught of dramatic imagery: police-led, violent escalations towards protestors via a barrage of toxic tear gas and less-than lethal munition, broadcasted on nightly news to a national audience.
Social media lit up. Politically engaged citizens were quick to point out the similarities between the tactics of the federal police and other repressive regimes. Trump’s own ‘secret police’ were lambasted by Democratic leadership in Oregon and across the country. Calls to action against Trump’s dictator-like maneuver spread across social media and anti-federal police demonstrations, most in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests, spread to other cities. The protests in Portland grew larger, and, with each night, documentation piled up of increased force and violent escalation.
What was a ‘rapid-response team’ sent in by Trump to protect federal property was part campaign stunt, part authoritarian experiment. Capitalizing on racist sentiment against the Black Lives Matter movement, the President motivated his political base with images of cruel violence against demonstrators. This was a test, a trial balloon action he could potentially use on other cities. The Department of Homeland Security, under the directorship of the Trump loyalist Chad Wolff, was a bludgeon wielded by the president.
The situation was what many had feared since the election: an American strong-man with violent and repressive tactics committed to quashing dissent. Yet the powerful law enforcement apparatus the president is testing on political rivals long predates him. While many are experiencing such actions for the first time, they are nothing new – the militarized federal occupation in Portland was tightly wound up within a ballooning, unchecked, and, most importantly, bipartisan immigration apparatus.
Violent escalation by the country's federal Police have, for a century since the creation of the Customs and Border Patrol, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, been turned outward towards the southern border. Immigrants have absorbed the bulk of this violent style of American police-led militarism and have long called for its defunding.
The Department of Homeland Security, its agencies built on, and plagued with, nativist resentment, “has largely escaped scrutiny,” wrote Jonathan Blitzer for the New Yorker. This is “despite the fact that it comprises the largest law-enforcement body in the country, with the biggest budget and the fewest mechanisms of public oversight and accountability.”
In Portland, the units deployed were predominantly from the DHS, and the notorious Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were primary actors in escalating violence against protestors.
Towards the end of the federal police presence in Portland, right around the time local government struck a deal with the administration to withdraw federal police, the DHS was simultaneously busy at the southern border.
BORTAC, the tactical unit of Customs and Border Patrol, which was also deployed in Portland, stormed into a humanitarian camp in southern Arizona with an aircraft, two dozen marked and unmarked vehicles, ATVs, and armored personnel carriers. These places are well over a thousand miles apart, but the tactics, brute force, and authorized personnel are the same.
In Arizona, the agents zip tied volunteers and arrested 30 undocumented migrants who were being helped after trekking through the desert in a heat wave. They confiscated volunteers’ cell phones and migrants’ medical records, and eventually trashed the camp before leaving.
“What is the border?” journalist Todd Miller, who covers the Border Patrol, wrote on Twitter in response to the video in Portland and before the raid in Arizona. “Is it an arbitrary line imposed after a violent, bloody takeover of indigenous land and more than 50 percent of Mexico? Or is it the place where the status quo meets its dissidents? Or both?” Miller is pointing to, and questioning, the ever expanding frontier of influence of border-related law enforcement. With a jurisdiction of 100 miles from any land or sea border, the agents are virtually unchecked to profile and detain.
These agencies have, as a former DHS agent described to the Nation, slowly expanded their influence over the past three presidents. The vague and broad powers given to them by the post-9/11 ‘national security’ state have been broadened with consent from Democrats and Republicans alike. And, as Trump realized, the cruel power unleashed on migrants – arguably Trump’s signature campaign issue – is a force he can now use on dissenting citizens. Specifically, those protesting another pillar of his administration: anti-Black racism.
Trump is turning the power of a cruel and unjust immigration system back on its own citizens, and he'll likely get away with it. These institutions are designed to respond to ambiguous threats. The legal justification to protect federal property could not be more broad.
The DHS has continually been well-funded by Congress, and support for expanding immigration detention has been green-lit regardless of political affiliation. Deportations, a key metric to understand the influence of border law enforcement, peaked under Obama’s administration, which, in 2013, deported 432,000 migrants, and has consistently remained higher than Trump’s numbers. While Trump has pushed a cruel system to its limit, he is not the only proprietor of a fundamentally corrosive system.
A singular message is uniting the Democratic party (both its moderate and left wing) around the actions in Portland: Trump’s response, that of a ‘dictator,’ are a US anachronism, antithetical to American values. “This is disgraceful behavior we would expect from a banana republic – not the government of the United States,” Speaker of the US House of Representative Nancy Pelosi tweeted in response to the federal police in Portland.
State repression and violence is unconscionable in modern America, according to Pelosi. Aside from the fact that the Democratic party is hardly sin-free when it comes to supporting cruel militaristic intervention. There is further irony inherent in Pelosi’s statement. The US has a certain reputation in Latin America for installing ‘banana republic’ dictators and armed junta, relying on right-wing strong men propped up by coups and proxy wars to protect US economic interests.
It seems state violence is only unconscionable when directed by an unstable demagogue within the US.
The extrajudicial military force used by the DHS in Portland was one step closer to the authoritarian state Trump has been building over the last four years. He’s poured federal money, attention, and, perhaps most importantly, validation into the violent and regressive homeland security apparatus. Trump campaigned on racist nativism and won. But we gave him the tools, honed by previous presidents on populations within the United State’s ever-expanding border of influence. They are only now being repurposed to silence dissenting voices within the US. This goes beyond Trump. To oppose Trump’s federal law enforcement is to oppose an American police state, built at the border, a century in the making.
Theo Whitcomb is a writer and editor with Counterbound