Trump is calling Portland protesters 'terrorists'. America's Muslims have been here before

Trump is calling Portland protesters 'terrorists'. America's Muslims have been here before
Comment: The abuses Trump's agents have perpetrated on protesters in Portland were already painfully routine among immigrants and Muslim Americans, writes Imrul Islam.
4 min read
05 Aug, 2020
Since George Floyd's death the US has witnessed over two months of continuous protest [Getty]
On July 16, America awoke to federal law enforcement forcibly detaining Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Portland, Oregon. For the next two weeks, social media was flooded with videos of officers in military fatigues descending from unmarked vans, reports of crowds being baton charged by police in riot gear, and photos of journalists being beaten and arrested for documenting the Trump administration's atrocious overreach of power. 

As tensions escalated, the Trump administration acknowledged that officers from Border Patrol and other agencies under the Department of Homeland Security had been deployed to protect a federal courthouse downtown. As of this week, under increasing pressure, federal forces have been withdrawing from downtown Portland, though 130 agents remain stationed near the courthouse as a "quick reaction force".

But the protests go on. Not just in Portland, but in Louisville, where hundreds continue to demand justice for the murder of Breonna Taylor. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was suffocated to death by police, crowds gather every evening, pulled together by collective grief and anger. In New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and many, many others, night after night, it continues: the largest protest movement in US history. 

But astride it, keeping pace, is the spin. Right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson are leading a charge to rebrand the Portland protests into a campaign event for Trump. Those demanding change, we are being told, are anti-American, anarchists, and perplexingly perhaps, depending on who you ask, anti-fascist (Antifa).

As a Muslim immigrant in America, this narrative of fear and the federal action it has inspired feels familiar

In the last few weeks, isolated incidents of violence - some allegedly orchestrated by white supremacists - have been magnified and manipulated by right wing media outlets to paint a picture of anarchy. America, the president and his posse tell us, is in danger from lawless terrorists.

As a Muslim immigrant in America, this narrative of fear and the federal action it has inspired, feels familiar. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), after all, was created to keep people like me under watch.

Post 9/11, as Islamophobia metastasised across continents, DHS anchored the US "War on Terror" at home by incorporating 22 agencies under one roof. Under the guise of national security, it began profiling individual behaviour, surveilling Muslim, Black, and brown spaces, and targeting peaceful protests and political groups. In 2007, DHS established the National Applications Office and used military satellites to spy on Americans inside the United States.

In 2016, it launched the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme, giving almost $10 million to counter potential "radicalisation" among "at-risk" individuals. Overwhelmingly, these programs targeted Black, Muslim, immigrant, refugee, and LGBTQ communities. 

Over the years, DHS has grown in both size and influence. Today, it employs almost a quarter of a million people and commandeers a budget of billions. It takes the lead on counter-terrorism efforts, cybersecurity, disaster relief, and border control, and in almost every instance, it either fails to meet its own objectives, or abuses its entrenched, broad based power. 

Read more: Trump, racism and America's original sin

But none of what is happening is new.

The full force of the surveillance industrial complex weaponised by DHS at Portland was first piloted on Native American tribes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. A year later, in 2018, as violence displaced millions across the Northern Triangle, Customs and Border Control (CBP) separated children from parents, imprisoned them in cages, and refused to act on reports of widespread sexual abuse of minors.

As recently as a few months ago, when the pandemic shut down American cities, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ploughed ahead with its modus operandus of unconstitutional raids, in-custody deaths, and inhumane deportations. 

The propensity for abuse that we are seeing today is baked into the very DNA of the system. Trump simply supercharged it. 

But because these abuses of power previously impacted already invisibilised communities, the backlash remained restricted to a small audience. We find ourselves talking about DHS now, as a nation, at this moment, because in Portland, overwhelmingly, the victims of state violence are white women, white veterans, white nurses, and white Americans. The aberration is in the incongruity.  

Since the Black Lives Matter protests began, white America has witnessed what the rest of America has long known intimately

Since the Black Lives Matter protests began, white America has witnessed what the rest of America has long known intimately. The motley crew of armed agents across American cities, the Black Hawk helicopters that flew below tree level in D.C, the MRAPs that overran residential neighbourhoods in New York - these are not tools of governance; they are weapons of war.

Trump might have pulled the trigger this time, but these guns have been loaded for a long, long time. We might do well to ask why it took us this long to care.

Imrul Islam works for the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia at Georgetown University. His research focuses on minority rights in South Asia. 

Follow him on Twitter: @glumphish and the Bridge Initiative @bridgeinit

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.