Federal Forces Have Gone Into U.S. Cities Before. Why This Time Is DifferentHistorians in the News
tags: Police, urban history
Federal forces went into Los Angeles to control the Rodney King riots. They entered Washington, Chicago and Baltimore in the days after the killing of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. They went into Detroit during a race riot in 1943, and then again in 1967. They were in Little Rock, Ark., during school integration. For the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago, and across numerous cities during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, they were there, too.
So in some ways, the scenes of officers clad in riot gear this week in Portland, Ore., have a long American lineage in federal responses to domestic unrest. But there is something different in this moment, too, in President Trump’s repeated vows to send forces to other American cities for reasons that slip between protecting specific federal properties, restoring general order and combating violent crime.
“The idea of bringing in troops or law enforcement in its many forms to quell civilian protest is as American as apple pie — it is foundational to this nation,” said Heather Ann Thompson, a historian at the University of Michigan. But then the president began talking about crime in Chicago, and naming cities where protests this summer haven’t turned violent.
“This is what is alarming about where we are now,” she said. “There is a way in which he is taking this to the next level.”
And Mr. Trump has at his disposal a resource unlike what presidents had in 1968 or 1894: a vast array of federal law enforcement agencies that has grown in scale and increasingly come to resemble military troops. He can deploy forces that look and feel to local residents just like the military, without having to take the politically fraught step, which made some previous presidents deeply uneasy, of deploying the military itself into American cities.
With these forces — which have an intricate web of legal authorities to protect federal property, to operate far from the border, to interchange their roles — legal scholars across the political spectrum fear the president is trying to take on a job that the Constitution did not give to the federal government.
Aside from the debate over federal authority, the fast approach of the election makes it hard to separate politics from the president’s actions. This week, Mr. Trump suggested that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland may all need federal intervention. That list of cities, all with large Black populations, includes some with no violent unrest right now. Through June, murders in Oakland were actually down relative to the same time last year.
“The through line here is not the protection of federal property,” said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a historian at U.C.L.A. “It’s the effort to suppress the uprising for Black life. That sounds pretty familiar. That sounds pretty late 19th century.”
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