Something dangerous is taking shape within the Department of Homeland Security.
We got our first glimpse of it last week in Oregon, when unidentified federal agents clad in camouflage and tactical gear descended on Portland, beat and tear-gassed protesters and pulled others into unmarked vehicles for arrest and questioning.
Apparently cobbled together using personnel from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard, these “rapid deployment teams” are formally tasked with securing federal buildings from graffiti and vandalism in tandem with the Federal Protective Agency, which is ordinarily responsible for the job. But they’re being used to suppress protests in what appears to be an election year gambit by the Trump administration to create images of disorder and chaos on which the president can then campaign. “This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety,” Kate Brown, the Democratic governor of Oregon, said last week, “Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”
The official tasked with coordinating all this action, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, is an enthusiastic participant, casting protesters as “violent anarchists and extremists” in order to justify what’s been done to them. “The city of 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,” Wolf said. “This siege can end if state and local officials decide to take appropriate action instead of refusing to enforce the law.”
On Sunday, Wolf’s deputy, Ken Cuccinelli (whose official title is “Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security”), told NPR that Homeland Security would be taking these tactics nationwide. Wolf affirmed this, telling Fox News that his agency can act with or without local cooperation. “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job,” he said. “We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.” President Donald Trump likewise vowed to send federal law enforcement agents to several more cities, amid reports that a Portland-like force was headed to Chicago.
Democrats, thankfully, seem to recognize this. “We live in a democracy, not a banana republic. We will not tolerate the use of Oregonians, Washingtonians — or any other Americans — as props in President Trump’s political games,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Saturday, in a joint statement with Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “The House is committed to moving swiftly to curb these egregious abuses of power immediately.”
But rhetoric isn’t enough. Democrats should condition final passage of its Homeland Security appropriations bill on a complete halt to operations in Portland and other cities and the dissolution of the response force.
There’s also the issue of the Department of Homeland Security itself. Since its creation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the department has been criticized for its size, scope and waste. Report after report show an agency practically defined by waste and dysfunction. And if the Trump years have shown anything, it is that the agencies within DHS, and especially ICE and CBP, are in desperate need of root-and-branch reform or some other fundamental change.
Should Trump fail to win reelection, perhaps the way to prevent a replay of the abuse in Portland is to dismantle the institution behind it. Just as local communities do not need militarized police officers, the federal government does not need an alphabet soup of militarized law enforcement agencies, as well as the cultures of prejudice and brutality that have gone along with them. If and when we close the book on Trump, perhaps we should use the opportunity to close the book on Homeland Security, too.
Jamelle Bouie is a New York Times columnist.