As anger and violence erupted in US cities over the weekend in outrage over the death of George Floyd, President Trump and the Justice Department focused their ire more on the protesters — with plenty of allegations about thugs and looters and the radical left — than on the core issue of the protests: police brutality.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose city is one of many to be hit with demonstrations, said Sunday that Trump’s comments were “making it worse.”
“We are beyond a tipping point in this country. And his rhetoric only inflames that. And he should just sometimes stop talking," she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The federal response has been met with condemnation and rebuke from criminal justice groups and civil rights leaders, Democratic lawmakers, and some law enforcement officials, who called the protests the culmination of a decades-long cycle of racism and police brutality against Black people and years of failed reforms under Republican and Democratic presidents.
But they said perhaps no other administration in modern US history has done more to curtail investigations and efforts meant to curb corrupt police practices, militarize law enforcement agencies, and stoke racial tensions than the Trump administration.
“We don’t need condolences, we need justice,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “And right now, you have a Department of Justice who believes in everything but justice."
Trump said Saturday that state and federal authorities were carrying out an investigation into what, if any, further charges could be filed against the three other officers involved in Floyd’s killing. Trump said his administration had also asked Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department to expedite a civil rights investigation into the case.
But Trump’s comments about the case in recent days have largely been inflammatory, with remarks and tweets threatening protesters and decrying them as “thugs” and the “radical left.”
“The violence and vandalism is being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses, and burning down buildings,” Trump said Saturday. On Sunday, he said the US would designate Antifa, which is short for anti-fascist and is a loose confederation of Americans with far-left views, as a terrorist organization. Legal experts doubted if Trump could make such a designation of a domestic organization.
Barr reminded the public on Saturday that it was “a federal crime to cross state lines or to use interstate facilities to incite or participate in violent rioting.”
But activists and civil rights leaders said Trump and Barr showed a deep misunderstanding of protesters’ anger and the roots of the violence — the death of Floyd, a Black man, after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The incident, in broad daylight and on camera, took place because Chauvin knew he would not face repercussions in a broken criminal justice system that absolves police officers and disproportionately criminalizes Black Americans and other people of color, those activists said.
Florida Representative Val Demings said Barr has so far missed an opportunity to call for unity, reassure communities, and lead a federal response to deal with misconduct involving police officers. He should condemn violent agitators, she said, but he should also acknowledge “what brought us here in the first place.”
“The attorney general can speak not only just to the American people but also to police officers as America’s top cop,” said Demings, a Democrat and former police chief of Orlando. “And I have not seen anything that indicates that they intend to represent everybody, that they even get it. It is disappointing.”
She and others saw the weekend protests as the culmination of frustration after the Trump administration rolled back measures to prevent police shootings, demilitarize police, and improve relations between police and the communities they have been charged to protect.
“They have not brought a single pattern and practice lawsuit against a major municipality where there’s systemic police abuses in America," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” of Barr and Trump. “They have actually tried to walk back their involvement in key states where they existed under the Obama administration.”
The push to address police brutality most recently ramped up in the summer of 2013, when three community organizers launched the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watchman, in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black high school student. The activists brought attention to the killings of Black and Latino Americans at the hand of police.
The culmination of their efforts came as protests hit Ferguson, Mo., over the death of another unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in 2014.
President Obama launched the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing through an executive order six months later. It created standards to investigate police misconduct and it put a focus on developing trust between communities and law enforcement. Through consent decrees, or court-ordered settlements between the Justice Department and state and local law enforcement officials, the Obama administration monitored different departments’ efforts to overhaul abusive practices.
“It is important to note that this was something that not only civil rights groups were involved with but also a lot of police and law enforcement leaders were involved with because they recognized that greater trust creates more effective policing,” said Becky Monroe, who was the director for policy and planning and senior counselor to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice under Obama.
The deaths of Black men and women continued ― among them Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling — and some saw those reforms as too little, too late. But civil rights leaders and activists on Sunday said the Obama administration had at least tried to make changes and struck a different tone. Soon after Trump took office, former attorney general Jeff Sessions rolled back Obama’s executive orders, put aside federal investigations into police departments, and shifted away from “a guardian" law enforcement model, experts and scholars said.
Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the underlying failure of both administrations — and those that have come before them — to address police brutality has been prosecutors refusing to bring charges and punish police officers.
“We had a commission after Rodney King, we had a commission after Freddie Gray, we had a commission after Michael Brown," she said. “We have to look at the prosecutor’s office and reform the prosecutor’s office.”
On Sunday, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien rejected the notion that Trump’s comments have poured fuel on the fire. He said the president stood behind “the peaceful protesters who are out demanding answers and petitioning their government about what happened to Mr. Floyd.”
But Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley said police brutality demanded a systematic solution. She and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, both Democrats, have co-authored a congressional resolution to condemn all acts of police brutality, now one of the leading causes of death among young men, particularly young Black men.
“I feel heavy and resolved, and I think that is what we see bearing out through protests and demonstrations throughout the country, and in my district, this is a horrific and devastating systematic déjà vu," Pressley said.