The phrase battleground state has taken on a whole new meaning.
As reports from various urban battlefields come in, the picture of what is happening is becoming clear. Let’s summarize. (1) In a number of American cities protests turn into organized violence once nightfall arrives. The violence does not appear to come from protesters, but appears to come from organized groups intent on stoking and escalating violence. (2) Federal law enforcement officers have been ordered to some areas by the Trump Administration with orders to protect federal property. It appears that at least some federal law enforcement officers have engaged in conduct that is clearly illicit. That conduct includes but is not limited to detaining citizens, handcuffing them and then releasing them without any justification or charges. Further, the evidence strongly suggests that some of these detentions were conducted by federal officers without proper identification using unmarked vehicles. Moreover some of these detentions have taken place well beyond perimeters established for protecting federal property. (3) Local authorities have been unable or unwilling to contain the violence.
For some perspective, it is worth taking a look at what is going on in some (but not all) cities. The You Tube video (below) taken in Portland is an example of the violence; but it is not necessarily generalizable to other cities. On the other hand it is worth noting that the national media has been reluctant to characterize this type of violent behavior as violent as … violent.
Further complicating matters is the legal situation. The extent of federal authority to intervene to establish order absent a request from local authorities is unclear. Certainly the federal government may use federal law enforcement to protect federal property. But that authority is narrow. It seems reasonably clear that federal law enforcement lacks the authority to free-lance and expand its mission beyond the narrow one of protecting specific federal properties. It certainly does not empower law enforcement to go searching for alleged miscreants outside of narrow perimeters established to protect lives and federal property.
It is also clear that local law enforcement is not enforcing state and local laws. And the reason for it is that they have been instructed not to do so by locally elected officials. In the U.S. system it is elected officials, not police who are charged with determining the extent to which the laws will be enforced. Moreover the police have no legal obligation to protect lives or property, which is to say they are not vulnerable to a civil lawsuit for a willful refusal to protect lives or property. This is further complicated by the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” which makes it virtually impossible for police officers to be sued individually for their behavior, no matter how outrageous.
Let’s also note that it is highly probable that the Trump Administration has escalated the situation simply for political advantage in the upcoming election. It is also the case that Democratic office holders are fairly silent about the violence because (1) they see no need to comment while Trump is busy committing political suicide and (2) they see no profit in antagonizing the party’s left wing, which they need to prevail in November.
So what is to be done?
The simple answer is that the remedy lies at the ballot box. Local officials are for the most part responsible for managing police and setting policy. They have the legal authority to determine the extent to which public resources will be deployed to enforce state and local laws. The line of both authority and accountability runs straight from the citizenry to the ballot box to elected officials. The same logic applies to federal elections.
Citizens, who are sovereign, have a democratic choice to make. They can elect federal, state and local officials who promise to enforce the laws on the books to protect lives and property when they are threatened. Or they can elect officials who think it is more important to deploy public resources in other ways they deem to be more important. Citizens can also choose to elect local public officials who will take responsibility for the management of public agencies like police departments and education bureaucracies, or they can continue to vote for officials beholden to public sector unions. Citizens who don’t like the results can leave.
Those are the harsh realities; but they are realities. To govern is to choose. Unless citizens hold elected officials accountable for conditions on the ground over which they have control, results will not change. We will simply have more of the same until the next explosion. That seems to be where we are headed.