“We ain’t destroying our city no more, we’re taking our city back,” a protester told the Washington Post Tuesday afternoon, as he led a group towards the national mall. His comment was as if designed to pre-empt specious reports that any police aggression to come had been triggered. The group that eventually settled in front of the Lincoln Memorial spoke so quietly that an NBC newscaster gave his dispatch in a stage whisper, to avoid interrupting. The scene cast a sharp contrast to the police force that loomed over the protesters. The officers staggered across the steps, blocking the protesters from what has long been the symbolic center of public protest in America. Wearing army fatigues and body armor, they looked like what they were: an army occupying ground.
It’s not hard to miss that when the president floated dispatching “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers,” he was threatening just such a scene. The call for a righteous army to descend on the capital came during a Monday address from the Rose Garden, a speech given just minutes before officers thrust a gathering in front of the White House into chaos with rubber bullets and chemical projectiles, anticipating the city’s curfew, to the protesters’ confusion and horror, by some 25 minutes.
For days Trump has been pushing for military intervention and increased federal control in the capital. Conservative lawmakers have taken to this proposal thirstily, arguing that a show of military power is required to take back the country from what Rep. Tom Cotton described in a bizarre New York Times op-ed as an “orgy of violence” produced by “nihilist criminals.” In Cotton’s twisted vision, the use of the military in the ‘50s and ‘60s to carryout de-segregation orders justifies its use 60 years later to uphold white supremacy, and quash protests that Cotton somehow equates with “domestic violence.”
Yet the military exists to guard power, and its use is an all-encompassing play that ensures that birthright, once given, is kept. And Trump has done his best to transform Washington into a version of Cotton’s fantasy; he’s ordered military planes to hover over the city, in the type of “show-of-force” mission more typically used to warn of incoming troops—an operation reportedly called “Operation Themis” after the Greek figure Themis, a Titaness of “divine law and order.” (That this name is shared with an Italian program designed to secure the country’s borders and eliminate “terrorist threats” is appropriate.) Trump has suggested taking over the direction of the city’s police force, a move quickly countered as unprecedented and decidedly illegal by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Even the city’s curfew is a warning to residents to expect and plan for violence. “It’s after 7, they can do whatever they want to you,” one protester told the Washington Post. “There are no rules.”
Yet at this point, any distinction between soldiers and police officers is negligible—an invisible separation limited to the material composition of the bullets in their respective guns. Though Trump has not yet invoked the Insurrection Act, a rarely-used tool allowing the president to commandeer the military for domestic use, altercations on the ground depict a city that is occupied in everything but name.
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On a conference call, he chastised a collection of governors for not using more force to “dominate” uprisings, calling them “weak” and “fools,” an escalation of police that one congressperson described as declaring “war with the citizens of the United States of America.” As photos circulated of protesters under bodily attack circulated Tuesday morning, Trump took a moment to congratulate himself on a successful execution of his plan. “Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination,” he wrote.
It has been stunning to watch the D.C. police transform into the physical embodiment of total political power—power Trump has long felt entitled to, by virtue of his seat in executive office. The American police are designed to clear space, move bodies at will, deny even the basic constitutional right to assembly. A Pentagon program expanded after September 11 which distributes excess military gear—like bayonets, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers—to domestic police has always been a dangerous ticking time-bomb, one decades in the making, now a handy tool for a regime inching toward authoritarianism.
Though Trump is reportedly holding some 2000 military personnel at an undisclosed station outside of DC, he’s had no need to deploy them. He’s been handily able, instead, to invoke a motley crew of homegrown law enforcement officials, which include “the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals and Bureau of Prisons,” according to a Justice Department spokeswoman. These organizations are armed with tools such as tear gas, a substance prohibited since 1993 by the Geneva protocol for use in war.
Because truthfully Trump has no need for an army, America has provided him a police force that is indistinguishable. And Trump is showing America the terror that a heavily funded police force can sow, an example that’s sure to spread.
Already, across the country, protesters and journalists are documenting police officers thwarting the message of the protesters with cruel and ubiquitous force: There are images of Asheville police emptying water bottles and destroying medical supplies, New York City police driving cars into protesters, a video of Richmond police appearing to spit on a protester they’ve detained. In Philadelphia, police appeared to ignore a mob of white vigilantes who armed with baseball bats began patrolling the streets of an Irish neighborhood, while in Los Angeles, without permission, police commandeered UCLA’s aptly named Jackie Robinson Stadium for use as a “field jail.”
These images only publicize what protesters have long been shouting in the streets, that martial law is merely a technicality and the police are doing what they’ve been trained to do: sparking chaos, wielding control, and carrying out the president’s will unchecked and unquestioned.