This is not the first time federal forces have entered a city to restore order. In 1968, federal troops moved into Chicago, Baltimore and Washington in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1957, then-President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, and then-President John F. Kennedy ordered troops to Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962.
But what President Donald Trump is doing in Portland, Oregon, feels different because it is.
In 1968, local officials asked for federal help to restore order because they were unable to protect people and property. In 1957 and 1962, it was nothing less than the supremacy of the United States Supreme Court in declaring the law of the land and the rights of black students to be free of Jim Crow that demanded a federal presence.
At best, what federal troops are doing in Portland is local police work, which raises constitutional issues, particularly for erstwhile conservatives. As then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said in 2000, with the agreement of his fellow conservatives, “(W)e can think of no better example of the police power, which the Founders denied the national government and reposed in the states, than the suppression of violent crime and vindication of its victims.”
Which is precisely what Trump and his top defenders, the attorney general and the acting head of Homeland Security, have repeatedly said they are trying to do, claiming that restoring law and order in the cities is essential to the federal government’s responsibilities.
Most of my colleagues, conservative and liberal, are raising alarms. Conservatives can’t reconcile the power grab with the tenet of limited federal power. Liberals, who hold to a broader view of federal power, worry about how the president is using a pseudo-military array of agencies to suppress dissent in the absence of any clear federal interest.
The troops are guarding the federal courthouse. Usually, federal marshals do that.
Some of the courthouse windows have been broken. The mayor insists that no help is needed, that the courthouse would be far less vulnerable if federal troops didn’t assemble every night to “protect” it. The mayor got hit with tear gas.
The Constitution is not at stake.
But the rights of black children are.
Trump and his troops have disrupted, distorted and diverted attention from what has been one of the most extraordinary moments in American history. The protests have largely subsided as we moved closer than ever before to confronting the racism that has poisoned the lives of so many people. Symbols were falling. New voices were being heard.
And Trump? Trump wanted to keep the statutes and the bases, keep the symbols and the trophies, deny the critique even as his niece and his former lawyer confirmed his own vulgarities.
He admitted nothing. Nothing is beneath him when it comes to his reelection.
The first day or two was easy. Peaceful protests are also the target of thugs, and too many thugs played into his hands.
But then the worst happened. People stopped protesting in record numbers and began the difficult process of change. The country turned against him on his handling of racial issues.
Send in the troops. Start a war.
Constitutional or not, the Trump troops are one more tool in his desperate campaign for reelection. If the cities won’t explode on their own, he’ll plant the dynamite and light the flame.
Trump takes on the violent protesters. That’s his message every day.
And the message of the protests: It’s not about black children, although that is where the protests started out. It’s about the incursion of federal forces to quell dissent, with no greater interest than broken windows, which is a very important issue but not the one we should be facing right now.
I wish the troops would go home. But if they don’t, I hope the protesters do. Let them stand and protect the courthouse from nobody. Let the rest of us get back to the important work we have begun.