As I see white mothers and mayors being teargassed on the streets of Portland, Ore., one word keeps bubbling up from my bleeding heart: “Welcome.” Welcome to the world of secret police and nighttime raids. The world where you can be snatched by an unidentified officer in an unmarked van. The world where you get to see an attorney, maybe, after the government is done beating you. Welcome to the world as experienced by brown people with foreign-sounding names in this country since 9/11.
Welcome, and let us now join together to battle the enemy we all clearly have in common: the Department of Homeland Security. Because, while Donald Trump is currently responsible for deploying this army disguised as an agency against peaceful white protesters, the DHS has been deployed against peaceful immigrants regardless of status, peaceful citizens who look like recent immigrants, and peaceful worshipers who pray while Muslim—or, simply, brown—since its inception.
White moms (and dads, and now vets) are being assaulted by the government, but we should have dismantled their attackers a long time ago. The people of Portland are merely the latest victims of a department that has been terrorizing innocent victims since it was formed.
The Department of Homeland Security has been a disaster from the very start. It was created by the 2002 Homeland Security Act, a post-9/11 bill that is basically what a spooked herd of antelopes would write while running away from a lion. The department was given a broad mandate: “Prevent terrorist attacks within the United States,” which is Congress-speak for “apple pie good, everybody else bad.” Because “terrorism” isn’t really a defined term, we end up with the situation in which we find ourselves today—with Trump people deploying DHS agents to defend statues in Portland while the department ignores white supremacists in Charlottesville.
To fulfill its mandate, the DHS absorbed a hodgepodge of other agencies, but (as this Washington Post article from way back in 2005 explains) the process of determining which agencies to place under the DHS umbrella was haphazard, resulting in an incoherent collection of powers. This was predictable. The DHS was, after all, George W. Bush’s idea, and the department’s organization reflects his administration’s general incompetence. There are examples of this chaos and inefficiency throughout the DHS, but I always come back to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Part of the DHS mandate is to “assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that occur in the United States,” and so the DHS took over FEMA. That doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider that terror attacks are relatively rare, while an angry planet is consistently buffeting our country with storms and fire. From 1979 to 2003, FEMA was a wholly independent agency, and if you don’t think that matters, I’d like to introduce you to some people in Puerto Rico who received thoughts, prayers, and a roll of Bounty, “The Quicker Picker Upper,” thanks to DHS-led recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria.
The DHS’s broad mandate is the reason Trump can turn whole sections of the department into his personal storm troopers. It would be illegal, say, for commandos operating under a directive from the Central Intelligence Agency to be deployed under Trump’s “Operation Legend” to protect statues; the CIA is not allowed to operate on domestic soil. It would be a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act for Trump to deploy the Army, because the armed forces cannot be used for domestic police actions. And it would be illegal to deploy FBI agents on the streets to “keep the peace” against citizens who are not charged with nor suspected of committing federal crimes.
But with the DHS, Trump doesn’t have to worry about any of this. The DHS isn’t hamstrung by any of the laws that normally prevent the government from using troops on domestic soil, because “preventing terrorist attacks” can mean pretty much whatever the president says it means, including teargassing protesters to protect federal buildings from meanies.
Still, the reason the DHS has teeth doesn’t actually have much to do with terrorism. For much of its existence, the department has been used to continue this country’s war on drugs. Homeland Security was given control over Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to, get this, “monitor connections between illegal drug trafficking and terrorism,” and that is why this Frankenstein’s monster of an organization has troops to deploy against citizens far from the border. The “Wall of Moms” are, in many ways, just the latest victims of this country’s drug war against its own people.
An organization that can deploy troops on the ground in your town at the sole discretion of the president, without consent from state or local officials or oversight from Congress, is too dangerous for any president to have control over—not just this one. Some weapons cannot be used for good, even when they’re wielded by those with the best of intentions. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote three books you could consult for a more thorough examination of this point.
The DHS has been a Trojan Horse for state-sponsored violence since the day it was written into existence. It’s just that, up until now, brown people have borne the brunt of the violence. It is Muslims who have been snatched out of line at the airport and questioned without an attorney. It is Mexicans whose homes and places of business have been raided. It is brown children who were denied toothbrushes in those cages at the direction of (wait for it) former director of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
The brutality and terror being visited upon Portland is just a taste of what some communities of color have been experiencing for going on 20 years. And moms in Portland know it. These moms are out there putting their bodies on the line to protect protesters. They know what the government is capable of doing.
Still, some pundits are more interested in saving the DHS from Trump than saving us from the DHS. Writing in The Atlantic, former DHS official and author of Security Mom Juliette Kayyem came to this conclusion about the future of the agency: “If progressives respond by demanding the abolition of Homeland Security, much as many demanded an end to ICE, they will give Trump the fight he wants. To blame the bureaucracy is to lose sight of the real problem: Trump himself.”
Frankly, I expect this view to hold sway with the next Democratic administration. Instead of removing the power Trump has abused, moderate Democrats promise only to use the power more appropriately. “Don’t give unaccountable power to that guy. Give it to me, because I’ll use it only against the people who deserve it. Promise.”
For politicians who aren’t likely to be rounded up and sent back to “where they came from,” I’m sure Trump’s use of the DHS seems like an aberration. But of all the aberrant things Trump does, his use of the DHS is not one of them. The aberration is the people he’s using it against.
When Trump is gone, I hope our elected officials remember that. I hope they remember that tear gas stings regardless of the color of your eyes. I hope they remember that people who use leaf blowers for their livelihoods are just as deserving of rights and respect as dads who now use leaf blowers to thwart tear gas. I hope they remember to remove the structure Trump used against us, as opposed to just removing Trump from atop the structure.
Now that the leopards are eating white faces, I hope Congress stops writing legislation calling for face-eating leopards.