“These tactics include deploying federal agents without identifying insignia in an apparent effort to evade transparency and accountability, snatching people off the street with no apparent reason for apprehension, and using potentially deadly munitions to harm peaceful protesters. These actions are out of control. They are more reflective of tactics of a government led by a dictator, not from the government of our constitutional democratic republic,” they wrote, adding they were “chillingly reminiscent of autocratic governments that ‘disappear’ critics and opponents.”
Trump has blamed Antifa — short for anti-fascist, a loosely based movement with no formal leader or headquarters — for acts of violence amid largely peaceful protests. There is no legal instrument in the US to designate wholly domestic groups as terrorist organizations, yet Trump continues to insist he will have the group outlawed.
Who is a terrorist?
Definitions have been a major problem since 2001, Conor Gearty, a professor in human rights law at the London School of Economics, told CNN.
“What you had was the UN saying ‘Get out there and do counter-terrorism and we’ll let you decide what terror is.’ And that was just a gift horse for authoritarian regimes,” he said.
While the picture in the US may not be as grim as in places like China, Turkey and Egypt, the events in Portland, as well as an earlier crackdown on protesters outside the White House recently, are just the latest signs that Trump is looking to those countries for inspiration, said Gearty, who describes Trump as an “aspirant authoritarian.”
That should give Americans cause for concern, he said.
“What Americans should also be worried about is the apparent support for this from the rank and file, and the absence of any very senior voices opposing this,” he said.
Not only does the country’s security apparatus lack vocal opponents of the repression seen in Portland, some of its most senior members are suddenly taking an active part, even though they are supposed to be independent of domestic politics.
A pre-election gamble
He argues that these cities — all with mayors who are Democrats — have been overrun by criminals, particularly as anti-race protests continue. He has criticized local leaders and police for failing to take a tough line on crime.
But his critics say Operation Legend is an unabashed re-election pitch by Trump to project himself as the country’s law-and-order president ahead of the November vote, one that seeks to paint his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, as anti-police.
What could easily happen is that these protests transform from an anti-racism movement to a wider anti-government movement, according to Luis Schiumerini, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
“There’s a clear pattern in many countries. Protests can start small, demanding something in particular, but when there’s an attempt at repressing them with so-called ‘less-lethal weapons,’ like rubber bullets and tear gas, instead of suppressing the protests, they grow, and they often grow to become massive movements,” Schiumerini said.
There are many recent examples. In Iran, demonstrations that began last year against a hike in fuel prices that were met with heavy force became months-long wider anti-government protests. Peaceful demonstrations against an extradition bill that began in 2019 in Hong Kong quickly turned into more aggressive pro-democracy protests after police used rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters.
Experts said that in Trump’s case, he may be provoking such an escalation in the hope that a divisive event will evoke a strong reaction from his base.
Whether this will work in Trump’s favor at the polls will depend partly on which side comes across as more violent and which side appears to be more reasonable, Schiumerini said. Voters will also evaluate whether the President’s actions are reducing or exacerbating violence, he said.
“Trying to brand protesters as terrorists, it’s something we saw consistently in our study, especially in the case of Turkey. For the government to benefit from this, however, it’s very important to turn public opinion to depict protesters in a negative fashion,” he said.
“The success of that hinges on how protesters behave. The label of being a terrorist becomes more convincing when the behavior of protesters can be described in a similar way.”