Porlandia Redux: How using uninvited federal LEOs to police public protest will backfire

Portlandia, a satirical television series, makes fun of Portland’s often eccentric hipster community. It is fiction. But the deployment of heavily armed federal law enforcement officers (LEOs), coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, many without organizational identification and dressed in military fatigues, is not.

Though allegedly dispatched to protect federal property such as monuments and court houses, these officers have confronted and intimidated protesters and over the past few weeks regularly used tear gas, stun grenades, and other less-than-lethal munitions to control and disperse peaceful crowds. This is in sure violation of the right to assembly and to free speech. More troubling, have been instances where these LEOs have grabbed protestors off the streets (away from Federal areas), often targeting journalists, and bundled them into unmarked vans.

Rightly so, protesters, local and state politicians, and members of the news media have expressed deep concern about these tactics and many criminal justice professionals (from practitioners to scholars) have rapidly changed their opinion from “hey this is unusual, to this is plain wrong.” The deployment of federal LEOs without the express permission of the mayor or the governor raises all sorts of moral, legal and civil rights concerns.

Indeed the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon have publicly expressed their outrage with the federal government deploying these LEOs to police the protests. More specifically, “The attorney general of Oregon has filed suit against various federal agencies and officers involved and officers involved in one arrest” And some nongovernmental organizations such as the American Civil liberties Union have sued the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service because they perceive that these action violate that constitutional rights of protesters.

Despite how immoral and legally questionable these tactics are, there are other serious concerns, which have received less attention.

To begin with from an operational standpoint, although the federal LEOs appear to be working in close proximity to the Portland PD, it does not seem like they coordinating their activities with them and this is leading to increased confrontations with protesters, and with the possibility of more violence, injuries, for both protesters and the police.

Also extremely problematic is the fact that there is no guarantee that the individuals in military fatigues are bonafide LEOs. Without discernible identification, how do you distinguish between a federal LEO and an alt/far-right paramilitary group, like so called Boogaloo Boys or the Proud Boys. There’s already credible evidence that agent provocateurs (with various political affiliations and motivations) are initiating violence at and engaging in property damage and physical violence at otherwise peaceful protests throughout the United States. Allowing heavily armed and unidentified people dressed in military attire to sweep up protesters also means that local public safety is failing to protect the safety of their citizens. This is a sure sign of authoritarianism, where people disappear and are kidnapped by unidentifiable agents.

Most importantly, although some federal LEOs may actively welcome the opportunity to participate in this type of assignment, it will ultimately backfire. The opportunity to the kick asses of protesters may temporarily get them out of their current work assignment and break up the monotony of their job. Perhaps they like the change of scenery or participating in riot control duties without being properly trained; it provides them with a little bit of “excitement.” One has to wonder, however, if this type of work detail was in the minds of the men (and by all accounts they appear to be men) who joined these organizations. By all accounts, what they are being asked to do is not real policing. It’s not really crime fighting and it’s not improving public safety where it is most needed. In most cases, riot control is not what they were primarily trained to do, nor is this their calling. History won’t forget these men and their actions. When and if there is a congressional inquiry, like there was with Waco, it’s going to be an embarrassing moment when these officers and their superiors are asked to testify. Moreover a decade or so from now when they look back at their careers in law enforcement, what are they going to say or feel when asked why they participated in this kind of operation? Will they feel shame?

Federal LEOs presence sparks increased confrontations and possible violence between protestors and local law enforcement. Quite simply, if neither the mayor nor the governor has invited them, the Federal LEOs don’t have jurisdiction (meaning legal authority) and local law enforcement should immediately arrest them and local prosecutors should charge them with impersonating a police officer, performing illegal arrests, detention, and kidnapping.

The time to act to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our nations’ correctional facilities is now

The United States now has the highest number of people who have contracted COVID-19, and the greatest number who have died as a result of it. But the distribution of people who have been affected is not even. Some people and settings are more vulnerable than others. Since the United States has the highest incarceration rates, it is not surprising that COVID-19 has hit jails and prisons and the people who both live and work there hard.

Correctional facilities are breeding grounds for sickness and the transmission of viruses. Why? They are notoriously dirty places, their HVAC systems are typically obsolete and poorly maintained so bacteria and germs thrive, and health care behind bars is rationed and of poor quality. More importantly, it is difficult for those who are incarcerated to socially distance from fellow prisoners who may be afflicted by many numerous communicable diseases, including COVID-19. Inmates are not the only people infected. Correctional workers, from officers to administrators, who interact with prisoners on a daily basis are also exposed to the same risks. In short, jails, prisons and other correctional facilities make you sick and are nasty places to be sick.

Indeed there have been calls by prisoners, their loved ones, activists and allied organizations to release as many people as possible from correctional facilities. Among those who have been released, it is not entirely clear what “being released” means. In some jurisdictions judges and prison administrators are proposing that inmates should be released until the COVID -19 scare is over or we have significantly “flattened the curve.” But correctional institutions and governments, at all levels, have been slow to respond to these calls. Jurisdictions are reluctant to release prisoners into the community because they fear that these individuals might reoffend, infect other people in the community, or become infected themselves.

This view finds support from members of the public who believe that all prisoners are dangerous and rabidly hyper violent. In fact, a large proportion of people incarcerated in correctional facilities are nonviolent, and those who have served many years behind bars have lower probabilities of reoffending than the general population. Thus releasing a substantial portion of prison and jail populations, who shouldn’t be incarcerated or for so long, would not represent a significant risk to the public and will end up saving lives .

Every day, my twitter feed, includes numerous news reports about the number of inmates who have been infected or died, or correctional facilities that have experienced enormous outbreaks of COVID-19. Also, we now have two relevant data bases (@CovidPrisonData & @Covid19Prisons). One tracks the number of people who are infected in prison and the other amalgamates policies and practices that countries throughout the world are considering or are already using to deal minimize or prevent prisoners from being exposed to the coronavirus. This data is publicly available. Thus neither lack of data nor access to it can be used an excuse to act to alleviate the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. As it is painfully clear the debacle is primarily due to incompetence, inertia, or poor decision-making at the secretary of corrections levels in most states where the Department of Corrections have failed to act. This situation is more dire because as I write this, large numbers of inmates and correctional officers are being infected and some are dying.

Over the last four months, we have seen some unspeakable tragedies that shock the conscience of most caring people in the free world. In a country that prides itself on upholding and protecting human and civil rights, the failure to demonstrate responsible leadership toward people behind bars confronting COVID-19 at the federal, state, and local levels is not only inhumane, but also shocking in its blatant disregard for human life. If we’re appalled and shocked by this and do not recognize our country, then voting in November is one way make this right.

If our essential workers are so important, why aren’t we properly protecting them?

No one can forget that we’re in a middle of a global pandemic. Despite the lack of cohesive federal policy, and the fact that our leaders flip flop on whether businesses and schools should open or close, we should wear masks or not, most rational, sane, and financially solvent people stay home as much as possible, and order online even basic things such as groceries. But there is also a large group of people, our “essential” workers who don’t have the luxury or choice to stay at home. These are the folks in the trenches, the first responders, the people filling our orders, delivering our mail, taking care of us at hospitals and clinics, driving our buses, and harvesting our food. These people are essential because what they do allow the rest of us to stay at home to weather the storm.

The COVID-19 has exposed the deeply rooted class divisions, racial injustice, and economic inequality that are part of the fabric of our society. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the lucky ones. You are a desk jockey. You can perform your job from the comfort of your home, via computer and a good internet connection.

And, I’m not minimizing the strain and discomfort that the effects of COVID-19 have imposed on all of us. If you’re part of the lucky group and have children, you’ve been essentially home-schooling them since March while also trying to work and keep your job. Stressful and fatiguing are understatements. However, our “essential” workers have it worse. If you’re working on a job where the possibilities for social distancing are next to impossible and where you’re less than one-paycheck away from being evicted, then your stress levels are exponential and almost untenable.

Public and private organizations are responding to this inequality in ways that are yet to be seen effective. The message seems to be that we should all do our part and help our essential workers. We are urged to give delivery drivers bigger tips, hang signs on our front doors honoring their work, and support gofundme’s for businesses that have laid off or furloughed their workers. We even have a catchy theme song, “Good Job,” a veritable upbeat pat on the back, written and performed by New York City based musician Alicia Keys, who narrates how much we depend on and appreciate these people. Although these efforts demonstrate our collective good will and they are better than doing nothing, it’s really only a drop in the bucket of financial and emotional support that essential workers need to make it through this pandemic without getting sick or getting evicted.

What do we need? We need a lot and pronto. Thus far, we see some efforts, but it’s too early to determine how effective they will be in the long term. For instance, some businesses and organizations have reconfigured their physical work places to encourage social distancing by establishing barriers that separate workers or workers from customers. Many supermarkets now limit the number of people who can enter at any given time, require customers to wear a mask, and are constantly disinfecting surfaces and carts. These things are helpful and may prove really important in keeping our essential workers safe and the economy running. But, there are many of us who for some twisted logic insist in not adhering to these simple health-mandated rules.

The theme of “we can open but safely” seems to be the chant of many corporations and educational institutions, and politicians. They point to countries such as China, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, who have managed to rearrange their work sites, retail businesses, and schools to permit some measure of normalcy. But it is wrong to compare our strategy (or lack thereof) to these countries. These countries, unlike the United States, had a coordinated effort and very early in the game strictly imposed lock-downs, had massive testing, quarantined those infected, and had serious contact tracing. Unlike the countries that have flattened the curve we have no national policy and thus are subject to one of the highest rates of infection and deaths in the world.

That’s why many so many Americans are skittish about returning to work. Why? When you leave your home, there are large swaths of people who don’t wear face masks and don’t social distance. You increase your risk of contracting Corona virus when you come into contact with them, whether they care or not.

So I ask you these questions. Does your boss really care if you get sick or you die because of COVID-19? If he or she kind of likes you, then the answer will be “Maybe.” Does the owner or the shareholder of the corporation you work for care? Probably not. And don’t let those television advertising spots from corporations with the messages of “we are all in this together” and we’ve donated $2 million to organizations to help people in need fool you. (These amounts are simply drops in the bucket, anyways compared to what they paid in advertising to get their messages out). Any sideways glance at the unemployment numbers and you are going to quickly conclude that you are replaceable. Nowhere was this recently put in to bold relief when selected owners of large meat, pork and poultry processing plants in states like Georgia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota told their workers “You’re feeding America.” This appeal to patriotism was thinly veiled consolation for people who were dropping by the buckets from COVID-19.

What does this mean? Do you really want to be a martyr for capitalism? Probably not.

In the meantime as a socio-economic system that now pretends to care about essential workers, but generally fails to improve their working conditions and pay them a decent wage, we will muddle along, more people will contract the COVID-19 virus and a large percentage of them will die. This will place their loved ones in greater financial and emotional distress.

True societal change will only occur only when the political system recognizes and embraces as its primary mission not to let others less fortunate than us slip through the cracks and not see this as the role of charities, philanthropists, and religious organizations.