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Pepper Spray and Stun Grenades: Inauguration Offers Preview of Trump-Era Policing

We can expect an expansion of unconstitutional policing tactics, including racial profiling, under Trump.

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As much of the United States waits in collective distress to see exactly what the presidency of Donald J. Trump will bring, it is already clear that the country is in for an unprecedented assault on ethics regulations and legal obligations from the White House. At the same time, all the signs point to a renewed era of harsh law enforcement for the rest of the country, focused primarily on already heavily policed and marginalized communities. An ominous statement posted to the official White House website today reads: “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”

It remains to be seen exactly how law enforcement will change under Trump, and whether he will actively pursue some of his most discriminatory campaign promises, like subjecting Muslims to increased surveillance and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. Inauguration weekend is giving the country a preview of how police will handle massive demonstrations under the Trump administration, as thousands of Americans flooded the city to protest Trump’s swearing-in, and many thousands more are arriving for the popular-front Women’s March on Saturday.

On Thursday, anti-fascist organizations confronted Trump supporters leaving the so-called Deploraball, a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, many of whom refer to themselves as the “alt-right.” Over the course of several hours, police did not hesitate to use pepper spray to control the anti-fascist protesters, who threw bottles and chunks of flowerbed at Deploraball attendees in evening wear. The police allowed the anti-fascists to remain in the street outside the National Press Club, where the event was taking place, until the activists marched away of their own accord. “I remember when DC cops were actually good at crowd control,” one protester taunted.

Similar confrontational actions took place throughout the course of inauguration day, though the Women’s March on Saturday is planned to be a more traditional mass gathering, including a rally with a lineup of prominent speakers and a designated marching route.

One of the most successful actions of the morning was organized by the DC chapter of the Movement for Black Lives, which totally shut down a checkpoint near the police headquarters for several hours. The line of activists was several rows deep, and inauguration-goers who attempted to pass through — including one car — were turned away. One member of the Bikers for Trump group punched a Black Lives Matter activist, according to a witness.

Later in the morning, a gathering of hundreds of protesters dressed in black (in keeping with the “black bloc” tactic of using clothing to appear as a unified mass) left Logan Circle around 10:20 am, immediately taking to the streets with signs that read “No Peaceful Transition,” and “Make Racists Afraid Again.”

Police straggled behind the march at first, as the protesters snaked through the District’s streets, but once they caught up, the police used pepper spray liberally on the protesters and any journalists who happened to be close enough to inhale the fumes. Loud booms rang out, which numerous observers identified as stun grenades. A few protesters engaged in property destruction and rearrangement, smashing a Bank of America ATM storefront kiosk and dragging newspaper boxes into the street.

Police corralled the march at 12th and L streets, and after a brief standstill, roughly a dozen protesters charged the police line. In the immediate aftermath, two protesters were brought to the ground in the middle of the intersection and subsequently arrested. “Don’t tolerate this,” one of the two yelled at the activists and bystanders looking on. “I don’t know why I’m being detained. I haven’t been read my rights.” He declined to provide his name as he was being led into the van.

After the charge, police created a “kettle” (a police-controlled containment area) that trapped in place roughly 75 additional marchers. A source inside the kettle said a sergeant told them they were all getting arrested, but had not been charged or taken into custody by deadline.

By late morning, police were using pepper spray liberally against protesters as documented in this video, taken at 11 am today at the corner of 12th and L St. NW in Washington, DC:

Police also unleashed stun grenades into crowds of demonstrators, as documented in this video taken at the corner of 12th and K St. shortly after 2 pm:

For all the open questions of the Trump presidency, some major changes in law enforcement are all but certain. For one, his pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, said during his confirmation hearing that he will direct the Department of Justice not to pursue civil rights violations with the zeal of the Obama administration. He claimed that “law enforcement has been unfairly maligned and blamed” and that he was “not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination.”

Under Obama, the DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights issued blistering critiques of police departments in Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore, leading those cities to enter into consent decrees to address racially discriminatory practices. On Thursday, The Hill reported that the Trump transition team is preparing to reduce funding for the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, and to eliminate the DOJ’s Violence Against Women Grants program, which includes transitional housing aid and legal assistance for survivors of domestic violence.

“I think we’re definitely gonna see retreat from federal intervention or oversight trying to reform abusive police practices by state and local law enforcement,” Darius Charney, attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me. “We unfortunately believe [the] Justice Department is going to step back on civil rights enforcement.”

Although the majority of local and state police department policies are made internally, the federal government can have a large impact on police practices throughout the country. Oversight of civil rights violations is one way, but funding is another. Almost every police department throughout the country gets at least some federal funding, usually with some strings attached. Following 9/11, departments were given massive counter-terrorism grants which helped accelerate the militarization of the police.

Fusion Centers — intelligence-sharing hubs for state, local and federal cops — and other federal-local partnerships are other ways the Trump administration will have an impact on day-to-day policing. One of the most controversial partnerships is known as 287(g), which deputizes local cops to act as agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump during his campaign, released a white paper outlining a proposal for Trump’s first 100 days, calling for a ramping up of 287(g), as well as a return to explicit racial profiling. The paper also called on Trump to repeal executive order 13688, part of Obama’s efforts to scale back police militarization. The executive order provided additional oversight of the 1033 program, which provides local cops with decommissioned military equipment.

As for the newly installed president himself, Trump has proved that anti-Black policing will be a top priority of his administration. He appeared to call for a nationwide policy of stop and frisk — which was ruled unconstitutional by a judge in New York City — as a tool to be used in cities across the country. Over the summer, Trump falsely accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the murder of police officers.

Charney was one of the lawyers who successfully argued that Stop and Frisk was unconstitutional, and is disappointed Trump is calling to reinstate it. “Obviously that’s very alarming and hugely concerning to us, because not only was stop and frisk proven to be discriminatory, unconstitutional, draconian, but it was also just a plainly ineffective policing tactic that drove a wedge between police and communities and really undermined public safety in New York, in Philadelphia, and in other places where it has been used aggressively,” says Charney.

In his campaign rallies, Trump repeatedly urged his supporters to act violently against protesters in the crowd. He is also allegedly planning on retaining his own private security detail, an unprecedented decision for an incoming president. The security guards are tasked in part with identifying and removing protests from Trump’s rallies, sometimes incorrectly or before any protest has actually taken place.

In October of 2011, Trump suggested that the Obama administration should step in and put a stop to the Occupy Wall Street protests that were sweeping the country. “I do think that government maybe is letting this go a little bit too far,” Trump said at the time, according to Politico.

In a likely signal of what’s to come at the state level, at least six state legislatures have introduced bills that would explicitly target protesters with heightened prison sentences or fines. Several of the proposed laws would increase penalties for obstructing traffic, a tactic recently used by Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis and elsewhere. In North Dakota, where anti-pipeline activists have shut down highways, State Rep. Keith Kempenich co-sponsored a bill that would allow motorists to run over protesters as long as it was allegedly accidental.

Also this week, Trump promised a “major action” on immigration. It was unclear what he meant specifically, but he could be signaling an expansion of the 287(g) program. Federal partnerships like that could extend beyond immigration enforcement, a prospect made all the more chilling following reports that the FBI questioned more than 100 Muslims in the US in the days before the election.

The United States right now feels like it is standing on a trapdoor. Today, the bottom falls out.

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