A City Too Far

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

President Donald Trump’s law and order gambit against Democrat-led cities and states that is intended to swing votes his way Nov. 3 could use more law and less disorder.

It’s not enough that the Republican leader has divided the country racially and ethnically but now has encroached on civil, state and even constitutional rights by sending federal law enforcement officers to Portland, Oregon, in his quest for another four-year term, now endangered by poor showings in polls against his presumptive opponent, Joe Biden.

Trump told a news conference Wednesday that he plans to extend his anti-crime campaign from Portland to Chicago and to Albuquerque, New Mexico, both led by Democrats. Attorney General William Barr said 200 federal agents already have been sent to Kansas City, Missouri, and that the same number will be deployed to Chicago. Thirty-five will go to Albuquerque, he said.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas is a Democrat.

Cities and states long have had close relationships with federal law officials such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, both of which Trump plans to send to other cities. But Trump’s dispatch to Portland of uninvited federal officers dressed in military gear as if they were going into combat on a foreign battlefield, many under the employ of the Department of Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection, prompted major concerns as they fired teargas at protesters and rounded them up in unmarked vans.

Their behavior was akin to what Americans believe happens only in other countries, chiefly those that restrict personal freedoms. What’s been happening on the streets of Portland, where most of the demonstrators exercise their right of peaceful assembly in marching for criminal justice reform, has been roundly criticized by elected officials and the public, beyond Oregon’s borders.

A particular worry is that what has been happening in Portland could be a template for similar enforcement activities in cities nationwide, all in the guise of fighting crime.

Trump’s penchant for admiring autocrats, from Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, is well known. Who knows what he may try next to deflect from his catastrophic failure to control the novel coronavirus that has killed at least 140,000 Americans and infected four million others.

“Other cities need help, they need it badly,” Trump said at a news conference Wednesday. “They should call, they should want it. One of them is Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

Most people in New Mexico, once a hangout for Billy the Kid, likely would reply, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Trump’s problem as a wannabe king is he thinks he can import autocratic behavior that would affect a majority of Americans, such as militaristic confrontations on the streets of Washington, D.C. Americans, who can’t even be told to wear a mask to keep themselves from getting sick and dying, don’t like to be pushed around, regardless of who is doing the pushing. (Note the Revolutionary War’s famous Don’t Tread On Me slogan.)

We’re a very spirited people when our freedoms are at stake. And it shows in the fierce reaction of New Mexicans to the idea of federal agents barging in to Albuquerque, a largely flat high desert city of about 560,000 people.

Albuquerque ranked as the second most dangerous metro area after Anchorage, Alaska, in 2018, according to Safewise.com.

“If this was anything more than a political stunt, the president would support constitutional crime-fighting efforts that work for our community, not turning Albuquerque into a federal police state,” city Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, said Wednesday.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, and Attorney General Hector Balderas said this state would welcome a conversation if Trump sought to help local authorities with community policing or “data-driven crime-fighting initiatives,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

But, Lujan Grisham said, “if the Trump administration wishes to antagonize New Mexicans and Americans with authoritarian, unnecessary and unaccountable military style ‘crackdowns,’ they have no business whatsoever in New Mexico.”

Her communications director, Tripp Stelnicki, told the New Mexican that Trump doesn’t know “the first thing about the issues facing” Albuquerque or the state.

“The president couldn’t find Albuquerque on a map. He can shut up and try doing his job. In the absence of the latter, he can just shut up,” he said.

Robert Reich, President Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, said it all plain as day in a Facebook posting Thursday: “Americans don’t want a federal police force. Pass it on.”

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.