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The Feds Have A Long History Of Snatching People Up. Only Now They Are Targeting Middle-Class White People

Federal agents have been unfairly arresting Black and brown people for decades. Now that white Portlanders are seeing it up close and personal, they are outraged. Better late than never.

A federal officer stares down a protester in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.Getty Images

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Federal police have descended upon Portland. They arrived in unmarked vehicles, camo-clad and anonymous, snatching protesters off the street with little to no provocation. As a flurry of national media attention aims its gaze upon Portland and the seemingly draconian measures of the federal police agencies, outrage and alarm is mounting across the country. Politicians have spoken out in opposition, lawsuits have been filed, and the tactics decried as fascist. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler and Governor Kate Brown have objected to the federal police presence, and Wheeler was even subjected to the wrath of federal tear gas. But their vociferous denunciation of federal police violence rings hollow after months of documented incidents of violence—including plenty of tear gas—used against protesters by the Portland Police Bureau itself.

Here’s the thing: What is happening in Portland is egregious, but it is anything but new. It is just the latest iteration of a long-standing practice. Since the inception of the federal government, federal authorities have enforced their will upon states’ residents with no avenue for recourse. Most of the time this meant the direct oppression of marginalized people. This time, however, the oppressed are mostly white and have political capital. 

Federal law enforcement agencies, which surged during the war on drugs, have often gone into cities to arrest residents for acts that were not necessarily considered crimes by local authorities. In the biggest ICE raid in history, 680 workers at chicken processing plants in Mississippi were arrested last year, and ICE was revealed to have set up a fake university for the sole purpose of arresting people who got student visas by enrolling there. From the DEA proudly championing the war on drugs (an agency whose own agents decry systemic racism), to firearm and gang operations with large racial disparities, and immigration enforcement, federal operations often target Black and brown people, many of whom are poor. 

Today, Portland, a city containing plenty of white and privileged people, is being patrolled by unwelcomed federal police, who are arresting people arbitrarily. Now—and only now—is there outrage and mass media attention.

The federal criminal justice system is terrifying. The potential sentences are incomprehensibly long, often many times longer than the state would give, if the state would convict at all. When Black and brown people were getting plucked out of their cities by federal police and sent to federal prisons and detention facilities across the country, the nation did not cry foul. 

But the people getting arrested in Portland haven’t committed any crimes, you say? They are being arrested for little more than exercising their first amendment right! It’s almost as if people are getting arrested not based on their conduct or any notion of public safety, but rather what is politically popular at the moment. It’s almost as if this is the way it has always been … but today’s political pawns are mostly white, often educated, and politically active.

American criminal law has never been politically neutral. If our laws and policies were based on outcomes, evidence, and data, they would look quite different than they do today. Politics have always reigned supreme. For decades, it meant that mostly Black and brown people—who were mostly poor—were given decades-long sentences, their families and communities destroyed: collateral damage of the war on drugs. 

The label of “criminal” expands and contracts to fit the political manipulations of the day. But this is a democracy; how is this legal? You can get prosecuted for the exact same crime by the state and the feds and have to serve two separate prison sentences. This is called the dual sovereignty doctrine, meaning ‘double jeopardy’ does not apply when two different sovereignties are prosecuting under their distinct code of laws; the state and the federal government are separate sovereignties.

The bizarre applications of federal law that seem unjust don’t stop there. In an article for Forbes, Nick Sibilla, a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice, wrote that “Under ‘nonjudicial’ or ‘administrative’ civil forfeiture, not only can the federal government confiscate property without filing criminal charges, owners can permanently lose their property without a judge ever hearing their case.” This practice, shady as it sounds, is legal and continues on, uninhibited by morality or common sense.

The feds have alarming leeway in how they intervene in local justice. Getting federal charges does not require crossing state lines, being a drug kingpin or in the mob, nor any other stereotypes found in procedural crime dramas. In reality, getting federal charges only requires their desire to charge you. Perhaps they don’t think the state will give you long enough in prison. Perhaps your crime was investigated by a federal agency. Or, most nefariously, perhaps what you did is not considered a crime by your state (such as the experience of Morgan Godvin, one of the authors of this piece, with a federal drug-induced homicide prosecution). 

Nothing new is occurring now. The feds have always arrested political unfavorables to win points with voters, to bolster statistics by arresting low-hanging fruit. But federal police intervention in otherwise autonomous cities has never been so visible as it is today in Portland. Their presence is concentrated, prolonged, and politically motivated. We are being forced to critically analyze the systems in place that encourage this. 

It’s been happening to Black and brown people for decades. Now that middle-class white Portlanders are seeing it up close and personal, they are outraged. Better late than never.

It’s great to see people finally questioning this practice. If only it wouldn’t have taken a fascist attack on white people to do it. 

Morgan Godvin was sentenced to five years in prison out of the federal courthouse in Portland. Her writings have since been published by The Washington Post, The Oregonian, and The Marshall Project. Leo Beletsky is a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, where he directs the Health in Justice Action Lab.