Federal forces have been dispatched to several American cities where protests against racism and police violence are taking place. These agents are accused of operating beyond their prerogatives and stoking violence.

“Law and order”. It is under this axis that the American Minister of Justice, Bill Barr, defended, Tuesday July 28 in Congress, the highly contested deployment of federal agents in several American cities, and in particular in Portland (Oregon). “Violent rioters and anarchists hijack legitimate protests [après la mort de George Floyd] to wreak havoc and destruction “, launched che pillar of Donald Trump’s government, which was auditioned by the Foreign Affairs Judicial Committee, controlled by the Democrats.

“This bloodshed must stop. It will end”, declared last week the American president while presenting a plan widening the sending of federal agents in several cities of the country. After Portland, where protests against police violence and racism have been going on for two months now, Donald Trump has also deployed troops in recent days in Seattle, Chicago or Kansas City, but also in Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee on Wednesday.

If the stated objective is to secure state buildings, Donald Trump also intends to fight against “violent crimes”, and mark a new stage in its policy to mobilize its electoral base, in view of the presidential election in November. On the spot, the Democratic mayors accuse these federal forces of exacerbating tensions, of acting illegally, and demanding their departure. The UN itself has worried about possible “arbitrary detentions” and warned against a “disproportionate use” of the force. Explanations.

1Who are these federal agents?

There are dozens of federal agencies, or “law enforcement agencies”, in the United States, reminds The world. Each is responsible for a specific area, attached to a federal order and can operate throughout the country (even abroad). The most famous agency is the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), which reports to the Department of Justice. These federal forces intervene, if necessary, in support of the authorities of each State.

According to New York Times*, several forces were deployed to Portland in mid-July. Officially, Donald Trump sent them to support local police and to protect federal buildings after anti-racism protests centered around the federal court and a building with several federal agencies. These two buildings had been vandalized.

Federal agents deployed to assist protests in Portland, July 27, 2020 (CAITLIN OCHS / REUTERS)

These agents may belong to different units, but their exact distribution is unknown. According to several American media, members of the Marshals (federal police), Bortac (Border Patrol Tactical Unit), CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) have been spotted in Oregon. Usually, these elite forces are deployed at borders or on war grounds abroad, recalls the British daily. The Guardian*. According to an internal note from the Department of Homeland Security, revealed by the New York Times, the department itself ruled that these forces were not “not sufficiently trained to control populations”.

2What are they blamed for?

Many videos posted on social media show these federal agents in military clothing and equipment, launch tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades at the demonstrators. The federal authorities claim for their part to restore order in the face of the violence of the demonstrators, described as “violent anarchists” and D’“agitators” par Donald Trump.

Portland’s Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler was himself sprayed with gas as he went to meet protesters. He denounced a “disproportionate reaction from federal agents”. On July 12, a protester, Donavan La Bella, was filmed in front of the courthouse pushing away a thrown gas object with his foot. Moments later, when he had been disarmed, he received ammunition fired by a federal agent in the head, described The Oregonian*.

In other videos, and according to local media reports, federal agents have been seen exiting unmarked vehicles to stop protesters for no apparent reason. Mark Pettibone, 29, tells the Washington Post* that he was stopped by men in khaki uniforms exiting a civilian van. “It looked like a horror or science fiction movie”, said the young man, who says he was taken to federal court for no reason and released later. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) countered that it had had “informations” that Mark Pettibone was “suspected” physically attacking federal agents or property.

“Usually when you see people in unmarked cars forcibly picking up someone on the street, it is called kidnapping”, denounces Jann Carson, head of civil rights organization (Aclu) in Oregon, quoted by AFP. “We are in a democracy, not a dictatorship. You cannot have a secret police who kidnap people in unmarked vehicles.”, also denounced on Twitter the governor of Oregon, Kate Brown.

3Is their deployment legal?

“The right to send federal armed forces against civilians has been a recurring issue since the beginning of American history. The military was first sent by George Washington, the first president, against jurisdictions of several states which did not want to pay tax on whiskey “, explains to RFI Paul Brace, professor of political science at Rice University in Houston (Texas).

According to article 10 of the American Constitution, states have police powers and Washington can only intervene under certain conditions. “First if the governors or mayors ask the president for military aid. This is not the case today”, says Paul Brace.

He must [le président américain] proves that American laws, constitutional laws are no longer in force due to illegal activities. He can then send troops without obtaining the approval of anyone.Paul Brace, professor of political scienceto RFI

On July 20, Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who is in the interim, broke this legislation: “I don’t need invitations from the state, mayors or governors to do our job. We will, whether they like us or not,” he told Fox News *. The department says it is based on a 2002 law, which authorizes federal agents to intervene in the various states of the country if federal buildings are threatened.

For American lawyers, the question is now whether the agents act in this area or not. “If protesters damaged federal buildings, federal authorities have good reason to stop them”, estimate from the New York Times* John Malcom, lawyer for the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation. “It doesn’t matter how far from the building they breached it.” On the contrary, for the law professor at Harvard University Paul Crespo, beyond the legality of their presence, it is above all a question of verifying that they comply with the law. “Can these agents patrol the streets or make arrests in places that are not near a federal building? What power do they have to control demonstrators? (…) It is not what they’re trained to do. “

4How do the elected Democrats react?

The mayors of six Democratic cities (Portland, Chicago, Seattle, Albuquerque, Kansas City and Washington) have asked Congress to stop the deployment of federal agents. “We call on Congress to pass a law making it clear that these measures are illegal and repugnant”, they write in a joint letter.

Ahead of a weekend of protests, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan vigorously opposed the arrival of federal agents in her city, saying it was an unnecessary escalation of tensions caused by the Trump administration. The governor of Washington State (where Seattle is located), Jay Inslee, had also warned that federal agents risked“make the situation worse and add fuel to the fire”. They finally won their case with the withdrawal of federal agents from the city in the northwestern United States. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, called federal agents deployed in Portland to “stormtroopers” and denounced acts contrary to democracy.

Faced with the scale of the protest, uA formal investigation has been opened by the Department of Justice into the action of officers in Portland. This is why the Minister of Justice, Bill Barr, was auditioned Tuesday in Congress, where he defended the action of the Trump administration, arguing in particular that the “riots” in Oregon were unrelated to the death of George Floyd.

5What is Donald Trump’s strategy?

THeavily criticized for his management of the pandemic and preceded in the latest polls by his Democratic rival Joe Biden, Donald Trump has made the return of “law and order” his main campaign theme. He accuses the Democratic mayors of “laxity” face crime and thus justifies the deployment of federal agents in their cities. The American president notably hardened his speech the day after a shooting in Chicago which left about fifteen wounded during the burial of a person killed by firearm.

In recent weeks he has also spent $ 20 million on insecurity commercials and denounced an alleged situation. “anarchy” in the event of Joe Biden being elected, describes the New York Times*. In one of these spots, an elderly person is seen sitting on their couch watching a report on the police’s declining budget. A voiceover asserts – wrongly according to the Washigton Post – that Joe Biden supports this measure. A man wearing a balaclava then enters her home and attacks her before she has time to get the police on the phone.

On social networks, Donald Trump is also multiplying alarmist messages and has spent at least $ 2 million more for advertisements still focused on insecurity. “Dangerous groups of the far left are running through our streets causing absolute chaos”, can we read in a message published on July 21 about the demonstrators. “They are destroying our cities and rioting.” By doing so, Donald Trump hopes to link the unrest during the protests to the Democratic candidate. In 1968, the year of social movements in the United States, the campaign strategy on “law and order” had allowed Richard Nixon to access the White House, recalls ABC *.

* Links that lead to pages in English