By Benay Blend
On July 20, Michelle Goldberg published an Op-ed for the New York Times titled “Trump’s Occupation of American Cities has Begun.” At one time, “the idea of unidentified agents in camouflage snatching leftists off the streets without warrants,” Goldberg wrote, might have seemed unreal. But “now it’s happening” in Portland, and consequently, it is all over the news.
The Trump administration announced that as part of Operation Legend it would send federal forces to other cities, so that Chicago; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Kansas City, Missouri are targeted to be next. Dubbed Operation Legend, these agents are under the authority of Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), who is part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Apparently, the troops who are getting used to committing violence on the border are now brought in to commit the same violence only now against people in the interior.
“These cities were already occupied,” responded Justine Teba (Santa Clara and Tesuque Pueblo). As an Indigenous person, she understands that the Occupation of the Americas has been ongoing for over 500 years. An organizer for the Red Nation, Teba acknowledges that the Occupation of Historic Palestine, too, is ongoing.
For decades, people of color have been arguing that police are an occupying force in the inner cities. Native Americans are also keenly aware that sovereignty means very little when corporations want the natural resources located on their land. In the words of Red Nation-Santa Fe organizer Elena Ortiz (Ohkay Owingeh), occupation is not about protection or peace. Instead, it is about “maintaining the constructs of settler-colonialism. It’s about creating fear by flaunting military power. Occupying cities creates urban apartheid. These fascists have no power. Power resides with the people.”
Labor might also remember the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in Southern Colorado, when Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to quell the striking miners. In the end, 66 men, women and children were murdered, but very little of what really happened found its way into the papers.
In first-hand accounts of clashes with federal troops that are posted on Facebook, the comparisons between Portland and Palestine are stunning. For example, in an eyewitness account posted by journalist Myles Hoenig, the federal paramilitary forces wear military camo but no badges. They are equipped with “flash-bang grenades, less-lethal bullets, pepper bullets, pepper spray and tear gas. They will pull goggles off of protesters and spray pepper spray into their eyes.”
Moreover, because the witness is a medical doctor, he spent time talking with other medics.
“They say they are being targeted by the paramilitary personnel. They are often the first to be shot at and tear-gassed. When they try to help an injured protester, the paramilitary personnel throw flash-bangs and tear gas at them (they carry gas masks). One of them was beaten, dragged away from the injured person they were treating and arrested.”
For anyone who has followed the behavior of Israeli military personnel, the parallels should be obvious at first glance.
Trump says that he is sending federal forces to cities in need of help in fighting crime, but it seems that he is in reality targeting cities with liberal mayors. In addition to Chicago, Trump said,
“We’re looking at New York. All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.” He continued: “This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen. And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”
Like Israelis who have for decades portrayed Palestinian resistance as terrorism, the President is portraying all who oppose him as violent criminals and promises to bring back law and order in a bid to win the election.
Even though it took attacks on white people for the word “occupation” to show up in the news, the historical context for Trump’s actions is nowhere to be seen. Moreover, as Mack Mckensie notes, when white moms used their privilege to shield Portland protestors from the police, their actions were hailed across social media, while no mention was made of black mothers who have been doing the same for years.
In both historic Palestine and the United States, the history of any form of Occupation has been erased. In the former, there is opposition to Israel’s threat of further annexation, but very little recognition that the Occupation has been ongoing since the creation of the Zionist state in ’48. In the latter, there is seldom any mention by commentators, scholars, politicians and the like of living on stolen land.
As of this writing, Congressional Democrats are debating the expansion of surveillance powers and allocation of new funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), both issues complicated by Trump’s deployment of secret police. As Ryan Grim reports, House Democrats are proposing lumping in DHS funding with appropriations for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, making it harder for progressive Democrats to oppose.
As for surveillance, lawmakers are confused about what the intelligence community considers legal, given the secretive nature of its procedures. At issue is the legality of “dragnet surveillance” that would enable the department to collect data on every person who visits a website sympathetic to protests in Portland and elsewhere, then using that information to surveil and possibly arrest individuals on spurious charges—an act that might be carried out by unidentified secret police arriving in unmarked cars.
“What you’re seeing is this giant Trump administration machine deputize every arm of government to engage in their agenda at the expense of democracy and the Constitution, so there aren’t traditional boundaries anymore for any of those pieces of legislation,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. “Every argument is about, do you want to give more tools to the Trump administration to destroy our Constitution?”
While Democrats give lip service to opposing Trump’s use of shock troops, they are in practice giving him the means to carry out these very acts. Within the Democratic Party, too, there are the same maneuvers, but this time in reference to another occupation, that of Palestine.
For example, presidential candidate Joe Biden opposes Israel’s plans for further annexation, but only because he believes that such a move would destroy the possibility of a two-state solution, a measure that was dead many years before.
Moreover, Biden has inserted his campaign into the Party’s platform by making sure the word “occupation” does not appear in reference to Israel/Palestine. Using a rightwing position that Philip Weiss says even liberal Zionist groups view with dismay, Biden is out to prove that the Democrats are not anti-Israel by deferring to its Zionist voters.
Still, the word “occupation” is being used at all by mainstream media is noteworthy. Even if only because now it has expanded beyond communities of color, perhaps this will offer an opening to a broadened comprehension of the word—an understanding that includes the history of occupied communities in this country along with an awareness of the ways in which the United States has long practiced neo-colonialism abroad. Perhaps, too, the word will make its way into the Democratic Party platform in such a way that makes funding the occupation of Palestine, as well that of American cities, impossible.
– Benay Blend earned her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.