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EDITORIAL

Leaders must stand up to Trump’s display of force against protesters

The actions in Portland are a blatant political power play designed to tap the same fear-mongering and racialized appeal that helped boost him to an election victory in 2016.

Mothers form the front line of a protest march toward Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse on Monday in Portland, Ore.
Mothers form the front line of a protest march toward Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse on Monday in Portland, Ore.Nathan Howard/Getty

The Trump administration’s use of federal, militarized force against protesters in Portland, Ore. — and the president’s threat to send federal agents to other cities — has nothing to do with law and order.

It is a blatant political power play designed to tap the same fear-mongering and racialized appeal that helped boost him to an election victory in 2016 — this time, for his reelection bid.

And if the president fails to see how the federal police response to protests of racial injustice threatens democracy and the rule of law, it’s up to other federal, state, and local elected officials of all political stripes to remind him.

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Americans awoke Wednesday to images of mothers — clad in yellow, arms locked to form a human wall in an effort to protect protesters — being teargassed by federal law enforcement officers in camouflage uniforms, but without identifying badges or other indicia. In recent days, the federal agents, who were tasked with protecting a federal courthouse from vandalism, were captured on video using batons to beat protesters. Some agents made arrests by seizing some demonstrators off the street and whisking them away in unmarked vehicles.

And though the demonstrations in Portland and other cities have continued nonstop for nearly two months since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon said a federal police response was not only unnecessary, but it threw fuel on dying embers.

“There’s absolutely no question that the protests were calming down and that the presence of federal troops here, Trump’s troops here, on the streets of Portland has substantially exacerbated an already challenging situation,” Brown said in an MSNBC interview Tuesday.

Brown called the move “political theater” to benefit Trump.

Trump himself seemed to confirm that.

Lamenting that cities with Democratic leaders were “out of control” with “anarchists,” Trump told reporters Monday at the White House: “And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

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Four members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, in a letter to Attorney General William Barr, denounced the use of federal troops, calling the move “chillingly reminiscent of autocratic governments that ‘disappear’ critics and opponents.”

Trump is now vowing to send federal officers to Chicago, Detroit, and other cities — an echo of his 2016 anti-crime campaign rhetoric which he claimed was an appeal to Black voters “living in hell” in those cities, but which landed more as white grievance dog-whistling to white voters. (On Wednesday, the administration announced plans to send police to Chicago and Albuquerque — though ostensibly to respond to crime surges in those cities, not protests.)

Elected leaders across the country must follow the cue of those from Oregon, speaking in a unified voice to denounce Trump’s tactics. Republicans need to speak up too.

After Trump’s ill-conceived threat to send the military into American cities, delivered the same night he used federal officers to clear peaceful protesters away from the White House so that he and his staff could march to a church for a photo op with a Bible, it was military leaders who stepped in. They reminded the president that our troops are tasked with defending the Constitution, including the freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly that the protesters were exercising.

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Now, as Trump shows no signs of reversing his current course of action, it is up to other elected leaders to stand up to him just as the military’s top brass did.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.