If you think what’s happening in Portland is OK, spare us your John Lewis tributes

Jul 22, 2020 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Georgia Congressman John Lewis waves at the 50th Anniversary of the march on Washington and Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream Speech in 2013. - Joseph Sohm, Shutterstock
Joseph Sohm, Shutterstock
Georgia Congressman John Lewis waves at the 50th Anniversary of the march on Washington and Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream Speech in 2013.

By Saturday afternoon, even those whose lives are anathema to everything John Lewis fought for were tweeting his praises — or trying to. Republican senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska earned the internet's mockery by posting photos of themselves with Elijah Cummings, a different recently deceased Black congressman.

Less embarrassing but more cynical was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's tweet that he "will never forget joining hands with John as Congress sang We Shall Overcome at a 2008 ceremony honoring his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

Last year, the House passed a bill to modernize the Voting Rights Act, restoring a requirement, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, that states with histories of racial discrimination receive preclearance from a federal judge before changing their voting or election laws. Securing the right to vote was a central cause of Lewis's life. For more than 200 days, however, McConnell has refused to so much as bring the bill Lewis and his colleagues passed to the Senate floor. We shall overcome, indeed.

President Trump tweeted that he was "saddened" by the death of a "civil rights hero," though just before his inauguration, Trump had huffed that Lewis should "spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested). ... All talk, talk, talk — no action or results."

In retrospect, Donald Trump calling John Lewisone of the 13 original Freedom Riders, and a man savagely beaten by state troopers in Selma, Alabama in 1965 — of being all talk, while dog-whistling about his "crime infested" district, probably foreshadowed Trump's first term better than any of us imagined.

That brings us to the most tone-deaf response to Lewis's passing, from Chad Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security.

Wolf's tweet was, in itself, anodyne, two sentences of platitudinous nothings: "Let us always honor the legacy of Rep. John Lewis. America is a more just place because of his sacrifices." What's galling is the context in which it takes place. Here is Wolf praising the "sacrifices" of a man whose skull was bashed in by racist cops even as he's dispatched secret paramilitary police to snatch Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland — and soon, any other progressive city where a president losing his re-election by double-digits wants to beat his chest about "law and order."

Make no mistake: This is happening. And you should be alarmed.

Last week — as part of President Trump's new initiative to use federal troops to protect Confederate monuments and federal buildings from protesters — DHS officers in green battle fatigues swarmed Portland, the site of mostly peaceful BLM demonstrations over the last two months, over the protests of local officials. The officers wore nothing indicating what agency they were with or what their names were. They grabbed protesters off the street, threw them into unmarked vans, and hauled them to the federal courthouse, for reasons that weren't always clear. They shot and severely wounded a young protester in the face with less-than-lethal bullets. They've deployed tear gas to disrupt protests, despite a state law forbidding local agencies from doing so for anything short of a riot.

Wolf has justified it by saying that Portland "has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city. Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it."

His officers, he added, had been "assaulted" with "lasers and frozen water bottles." As proof of property desecration, he tweeted photos of graffiti. His agency "will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch," he promised.

This is only the beginning, acting DHS deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli confirmed to NPR: "This is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we're responsible for around the country."

It's helpful to imagine how you'd think about this situation if it were happening in another country: A flailing regime has sent unidentifiable agents in unmarked vehicles to an opposition region to kidnap, detain, and interrogate demonstrators it has unilaterally deemed "violent extremists" and "anarchists." It has done so without warrants, in violation of civil liberties, and over the objections of local officials. And it now wants to expand this "posture" into other opposition regions ahead of the election.

This comes after the regime tried to declare the opposition movement antifa a domestic terrorist organization — though the nebulous antifa isn't an organization, and the regime lacks the authority to make such a designation even if it was — conflated those protesting police violence and systemic racism with "violent mobs," and called "Black Lives Matter" a "symbol of hate."

Does this sound more like a healthy democracy or an authoritarian regime test-driving the suppression of dissent through intimidation, brute force, and by marginalizing communities? Or is it a president desperate to paint his opponents as agents of chaos hell-bent on upending traditional American culture, and him as the only thing standing between order and upheaval?

Secret police in unmarked vehicles. Declaring opponents "violent anarchists" and enemies of order. Snatching them off the street under vague pretexts. Escalating conflicts and provoking violence.

This is the obscenity that Chad Wolf directed while praising John Lewis's contributions to a more just country, as if Lewis's life did not stand in stark opposition to Trump's goon-squad tactics in Portland.

If Wolf really wanted to honor John Lewis's legacy, he'd resign. Of course, anyone who gave a damn about honoring John Lewis's legacy would never have taken a job working for Donald Trump in the first place.

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