The surge has come home.
Using language borrowed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Trump on Wednesday unveiled an open-ended deployment of Justice Department, FBI, and Homeland Security officers to Chicago—a place whites have often described in euphemistic and racist terms—and, to a lesser extent, Albuquerque.
Trump, joined by Attorney General Bill Barr, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and FBI Director Chris Wray, previewed a much-heralded “surge of federal law enforcement into communities plagued by violent crime.”
The way Trump and his officials described the coming operation built on the “American carnage” theme of Trump’s inaugural address, even as Barr recognized a current spike in violent crime is nowhere near the highs seen in the early 1990s. Sounding as if they were describing an urban counterinsurgency in America, they said federal law enforcement would aid local police—whom they repeatedly hailed as “heroes”—in taking back American streets from enemies as varied as violent criminals and what Trump called “the lawlessness pushed by the radical left.”
The senior officials distinguished the so-called Operation Legend from Wolf and Barr’s widely condemned crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, something Chicagoans interviewed by The Daily Beast viewed with extreme skepticism. But Barr blurred the distinction. “We had that terrible event in Minneapolis”—the gruesome police slaying of George Floyd went unsaid by Barr—“but then we had this extreme reaction that has demonized police,” leading in his view to “a significant increase in violent crime in many cities.”
Trump’s language of struggle and resilience echoed George W. Bush’s 2007 speech previewing his escalation in Iraq and Barack Obama’s 2009 speech previewing his escalation in Afghanistan. “This will be hard, painstaking work, it will take time, the tide will not recede overnight,” Trump said. Neither surge achieved lasting security—though both involved an increase in federal law enforcement as well as military forces—and only increased bloodshed. This time, however, the subjects of the Trump surge are Americans.
In Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot has cautiously welcomed a federal augmentation but warned against its use against protesters, longtime attorneys and activists feared that the bolstered federal law enforcement presence will jeopardize Chicagoans’ rights, whether they’re protesters or not.
Era Laudermilk, an official in the Cook County public defender’s office, said her office had yet to be briefed about what was to come in Chicago just hours before Trump’s expected announcement. She was particularly concerned that ICE will be “targeting noncitizens” in Chicago, a sanctuary city. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations component will be deployed to Chicago, Barr and Wolf confirmed.
“I expect them to be deploying in neighborhoods on the south and west side of the city, primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods,” Laudermilk said. “We’re concerned we’ll have clients arrested and we won’t know what law enforcement agency is doing the arrest, we won’t know where they’ll be detained, or if they’ll be given access to a phone to call.”
“We can see from what happened in Portland that what these secret police do only exacerbates the situation. It’s a complete disregard for the human and constitutional rights of protesters, and it’s a racist political gambit Trump is doing in desperation because he’s losing in the polls,” said Flint Taylor, the Chicago attorney who has spent decades litigating against police violence.
Tracy Siska, the head of the Chicago Justice Project, said he expected the expanded law-enforcement presence to be primarily security “theater” that will do nothing to address the sources of violence in Chicago.
“If they come in as identified law enforcement, as they have for decades, they probably won’t be cracking heads and doing the totally unconstitutional stuff they did in Portland,” Siska said. “If they come in as Stormtroopers, like they did in Portland, then it’s big trouble.”
Taylor added that he feared this coming weekend’s Black Lives Matter protests would prove to be a flashpoint. Chicago police reacted with violence to last weekend’s protests ahead of the federal plus-up. But Taylor said the scenes of resistance from mothers in Portland would also be a harbinger of what will confront a Chicago crackdown.
“That is only going to be reproduced in kind here in Chicago, because people here do not want Trump to invade the communities in which they live,” Taylor said. “They can see through the pretext, to see the racism that underlies all of this.”
Barr said Operation Legend, underway for the past several weeks with about 200 federal agents in Kansas City, would send around that many to Chicago, with another 35 for Albuquerque. Trump vowed that other cities would soon join the program.
Wolf, the Senate-unconfirmed acting DHS secretary who has been the face of the Portland crackdown, said “every reasonable American” would agree with Trump’s surge in the interest of public safety. He hailed action “to protect and defend the peace and liberty we value in this country.”
But former DHS and immigration officials contended that Wolf’s actions in Portland has brought DHS into disrepute and savaged public confidence.
DHS’ aggressive posture in Portland—and Wolf’s apparent eagerness for the Chicago project on Wednesday—contrasted with how the Pentagon pulled back after facing withering criticism for its involvement in the early June crackdown on Black Lives Matter protests in Washington D.C. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called his uniformed walk with Trump across a Lafayette Square cleared of protesters a mistake. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper publicly dissented from Trump on using the active-duty military against citizens protesting.
“Esper and Gen. [Mark] Milley recognized that military involvement in the unrest here in D.C. was potentially damaging to the reputation of the military as crossing a line between the traditional role of the military and domestic law enforcement,” said David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel and former official at both DHS and the Pentagon. “I don’t think DHS is, because it doesn’t have the history that the Defense Department does, or, it seems, the concerns for crossing that line.”
Lapan said that DHS’ leadership, which has not been confirmed by the Senate, was permitting the department to become an adjunct of Trump’s re-election.
“The president has been very overt in talking about it. He has put it in stark partisan terms, directing his ire and these actions at quote-unquote ‘Democrats and the radical left.’ Now DHS is being politicized because of how the president has DHS carrying out his wishes,” Lapan said.
“DHS now, in its senior ranks, has no Senate-confirmed appointees, everyone is ‘acting,’ so the ability of those officials who are responsible for these agencies to push back and hold their own against the improper use of these organizations has been deeply undercut and undermined by this administration,” added Doris Meissner, a Clinton-era commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor agency of ICE.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, a primary reason behind the ultimate futility of the surges was the substitution of violence for a sustainable political framework accepted by besieged populations. Trump seemed to replicate that, treating as interchangeable urban violence with the Democratic political leadership of the cities targeted by Operation Legend—as well as the largest protest movement in American history that has demanded a reckoning with hundreds of years of white supremacy enforced by the state.
“My vision for American cities could not be more different than the lawlessness pushed by the radical left,” Trump said. “I want to support and honor our great police.”
That pointed to another legacy of the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their most lasting constituents were not the people of either country in whose name America claimed to act. Lasting support for the surges came instead from the foreign security forces dependent on America. At home and abroad, people who endure such surges often come to look on those forces with fear and distrust, not respect.