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OP-ED: The law and order president

  • Published at 06:00 pm June 6th, 2020
Donald Trump
Not doing what a leader should REUTERS

It’s time to start teaching respect for all colours and ethnicities

On the sixth day of protests over the killing by police of a black resident in Minneapolis, raging from coast to coast in the US that brought out hundreds of thousand of people, President Donald Trump declared himself as the Law and Order President of America and threatened to launch military force in states that cannot “dominate” the street with force.

This he said when crowds had gathered only a few thousand feet away from the White House protesting against killing of George Floyd and demanding justice. Only the day before, the same place had seen thousands of protesters being blocked by armed police and members of the Army National Guard from demonstration in front of the White House. The agitating protesters had stood up against tear gas and rubber bullets while getting injured at the same time. 

The rage of Donald Trump against the protest and the protesters had been rising at the same pace as the protests themselves. While the protest has been against the extra-judicial killing as well as for punishment of the police officers involved in the killing, Trump’s rage has been against his perceived inability of the states as well as Washington DC to stem the rising tide of protests and the protesters and not delve deeper into the protests and offer people his empathy and assurance to stop such police brutality. 

Instead, he went on a rampage threatening to set the military against the recalcitrant states including the capital where a Democratic mayor rules. President Trump called these protests an assembly of looters from the beginning of the protests and threatened to shoot them. “When the looting starts, the shooting begins” he in-famously tweeted. 

But the protests increased both in number as well as venues, and as it happens in such chaos, some saboteurs joined the fray and started to damage property. This gave enough ammunition to President Trump to declare that he will send the military to “dominate” the streets and put down the agitations. 

Those of us in then East Pakistan can find an echo of this threat in the dire utterance of General Yahya Khan on the eve of March 26 when he launched the army on East Pakistan civilians. Although this is a comparison only for the sake of argument, it does convey the frame of mind of Trump and his penchant for having a dictator-like temperament, especially when it comes to pursuing an agenda that seeks to implement his populist anti-global, xenophobic, and racially divisive policies. 

But as much as Trump may like to be a wannabe dictator, his aspirations are tied to the hard reality of the Constitution and limits that it imposes on his authority. True, there are situations where he may invoke his executive powers to move around these limits, but these are temporary and later would need to be ratified by the Congress. 

But in threatening to launch the US Army to quell disturbances in states that cannot themselves contain them, he needs to have the States consent to such deployment. The Insurrection Act of 1807, under which President Trump threatened to use military force, allows the president to deploy the armed forces domestically to quell civil disorder that renders ordinary law enforcement impracticable. But presidents have used it only about 20 times, in most cases at the request of a state governor (The New York Times). 

All such cases were actually mass violence and confrontations with armed militia, such as rebellion against the federal government. But in all such cases such deployment was done to aid the state law enforcement agencies, and not to substitute them. The protests are mainly against use of brutal police force against individuals and communities.

The endemic perception of police here in the US is its racial bias, and unnecessary force -- often lethal -- to subdue people suspected of crime. Although blacks constitute only 13% of the total US population, in 2019 they accounted for 23% of deaths of a total of 1,000 from police shooting. 

In 2018, around 750 out of every 100,000 African-Americans were arrested for drug abuse, compared to around 350 out of every 100,000 white Americans (BBC News). What Trump should have assured people as president is about their rights to protest against police excesses, inequity in justice, and call for reforms in police.

Instead he railed against the protesters calling them looters, anarchists, anti-fascist leftists who were out to destroy the country. No Mr Trump, they are not looters, they are not anarchists or communists seeking destruction of a country that is rooted on human rights for liberty, justice, and equality for all irrespective of race, colour, and religion. What they need from you is an assurance to stop police excesses and extra-judicial killing, whether it is a black, brown, or white life. 

It is true police reform is not easy in the US. Unlike most other countries in the world, police in the US is not a monolithic force. Like all other systems in the US which are unique in the world, police in the US is represented by 18,000 law enforcement agencies spread all over the country in different layers, from federal to state to counties, cities, and towns. Each governmental agency has its own police force, its own rules of conduct, and policies of administration. 

Therefore, one Diktat of reform will not necessarily travel to all of these disparate agencies. What may be necessary is a law enacted by the Congress that asks each state to conform to a set of basic police conduct and behaviour that requires forbidding of physical force in the arrest of individuals, conforming to a minimum set of rules in crowd control, and mandatory training in racial profiling. 

This law should also aim at establishing a transparent process in identifying and prosecuting police officers who violate these rules. Unfortunately, militarization of police in major cities of the US in the past several years has made the police forces even more formidable. 

The police forces in major cities now have access to surplus military equipment such as heavy weapons, armoured vehicles, grenade launchers, etc, making some police forces as intimidating as the army. This mass weaponization of the police alienates police even further from ordinary people, making a police-public confrontation more possible. 

Therefore, the simple enactment of a law for police reform across the country may not be sufficient. The basic requirement would be to change the mindset of the people who join law enforcing agencies. This has to begin from the scratch, from the kindergartens to high schools where the individual mind and how to respect all humans across colour and ethnicity, along with all other human values, are taught. This may not happen in one generation, but one has to make a start now. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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