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The Feds Aren’t That Good at Keeping Their Cops a Secret

Why conceal anything when the law won't do anything to stop you?

On the night of July 14, videos and photos started to emerge online of men in military combat gear pulling protesters in Portland off of the street, often detaining them in unmarked vehicles.

The videos raised a considerable amount of alarm, for good reason: the men in combat gear did not identify themselves, nor were they wearing any immediately recognizable insignia as to who they were or on what authority they were dragging people off the street into Dodge Grand Caravans.

The thing about secret police forces is that often they are not very much of a secret. They may start that way, or be intended as such, but violence is hard to disguise, and when enough people feel its edge they will inevitably learn who is doing them harm. What this means in practice is that we now have answers to the questions that the above video poses.

The men snatching people off of the street in Portland are largely members of Customs and Border Protection’s Border Tactical Patrol (BORTAC) unit, though there are also U.S. Marshals, other DHS agents, and plenty of non-federal cops. Before 9/11, BORTAC was basically a search and rescue team. Now they have snipers and train as a paramilitary SWAT team — ostensibly to fight drug dealers, but realistically to scare the shit out of undocumented people and, now, anyone exercising the First Amendment.

They are legally allowed to do this for two main reasons. In 1953, the federal government adopted a law without any public comment that allowed federal customs agents to perform stops and searches without a warrant or probable cause within 100 miles of the U.S. border. As the ACLU points out on its website, this flew under the radar in 1953, when there were around 1,100 border patrol agents in the country, but now that there are over 21,000 it’s starting to become an issue. Here’s a map of what that looks like.

The second reason is far more recent. On June 26, Donald Trump signed an executive order on protecting monuments, memorials, and statues, as well as “combating recent criminal violence.” At the time the references to statues and monuments got more attention because Trump had an open and vested interest in keeping America’s many monuments to white supremacy intact. But the order also included this provision (bolding mine):

Upon the request of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Administrator of General Services, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, personnel to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.  This section shall terminate 6 months from the date of this order unless extended by the President.

Many of the protests in Portland have been centered in the city’s downtown area, largely around the Multnomah County Justice Center, and the nearby federal courthouse. That’s what gave the agents their supposed justification to start snatching people — they could say that they were protecting federal property.

Over the past few nights, in response to the camouflaged goon squads kidnapping people off the street, protesters including an organized faction of moms in yellow shirts have been congregating in front of the courthouse, a federal building, to directly confront the agents themselves.

The secret, in other words, is out. We know who these forces are, and what they are doing. We know what their justification for force is, and we have seen what they are willing to do. We even know where the cars are coming from: they were later confirmed to be civilian rental cars licensed to EAN Holdings, which is a subsidiary of the company that owns Enterprise, Alamo, and National Car Rental. (Incidentally, EAN Holdings also owned the van I saw national guard troops loading my dead neighbor into in New York City a few months ago, so clearly it’s doing well on government contracts in these trying times.)

This makes, in my opinion, the references to federal goon squads as “secret police” a bit off-base. To me, using the term implies that the force in question is acting in secret, in the shadows, conducting nefarious deeds that are against the federally mandated laws of the land. This could, in some respects, more aptly describe the FBI’s COINTELPRO programs in the 60s and 70s, but isn’t the best fit for what’s happening in Portland. The simple reason for this is that what’s happening in Portland isn’t really under the table. As Robert Evans, a Portland-based journalist for the investigative outlet Bellingcat, wrote:

The abduction filmed on the 15th did not happen in a vacuum. As other local reporters have noted, it was the end result of more than six weeks of escalating state violence against largely nonviolent demonstrators.

Portland Police have been hiding their names for weeks, instead using numbers that cannot be correlated to names by any means available to citizens. Members of multiple different law enforcement agencies, all with different rules of engagement from the PPB [Portland Police Bureau], have been policing demonstrations since the very beginning.

CBP seems to have gotten more and more involved in early July, and the U.S. Marshals were directly responsible for shooting a protester in the head with a “non-lethal” round in a clash outside of the courthouse on July 11.

The point here is that it’s largely unnecessary for the U.S. to have a true “secret police” when the duties of such a body are already baked in and codified into the responsibilities of multiple state, local, and federal institutions.

Secrecy, in this case, isn’t used to conceal the perpetrators of the violence or its objective, both of which are clear: even without nametags, the cops aren’t hiding that they’re cops. What the secrecy does is make it that much harder for any sort of oversight, transparency, or checks and balances on what the cops are doing on the street. There are attempts to remedy this: today, for instance, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is expected to introduce legislation that will require federal agents to clearly identify themselves.

My worry is that at this point, it’s far too late to worry about the name tags. The Chicago Tribune reported today that the DHS is making plans to deploy 150 agents to Chicago, which is also within the 100-mile border zone. The broad scope of Trump’s executive order and the already-expansive permissions granted to law enforcement to use force mean that the various agencies controlled by the Trump administration can do this whenever they want, and basically wherever they want.

And now that this is commonplace, we can’t be certain it won’t just become part of the existing status quo. George W. Bush pioneered the U.S.’s aggressive extrajudicial-killing-via-drone-strike program, but Barack Obama used it at almost every opportunity, with just a few more nods to transparency and international norms. Would a Joe Biden administration end the practice of using federal agents to suppress domestic dissent? I’d like to think he would, but we should reckon with the possibility that all he’d do is make the feds drive their own cars.

When you’re being dragged off the street by a man in combat gear, the distinction between a paddy wagon and a rental car is largely symbolic. The system that allows them to do this was already in place. It was just easier to swallow when accompanied by the trappings of a bureaucratic state.

Photo via DHS.