On Friday, while Donald Trump celebrated his inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, his administration was busy scrubbing the presidency clean of any kind of social justice agenda. Among things like removing the report on LGBT workers’ rights from the Department of Labor site was a new issues page on whitehouse.gov: Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community. It is a statement of unequivocal support for law enforcement that casts police as victims of a “dangerous anti-police atmosphere,” officially delivering on Donald Trump’s promise to run a law and order administration.
To understand how this language is a direct attack on black folks and other communities of color, one has to situate the administration’s rhetoric, particularly the phrase “law and order,” within a larger historical context of American criminal justice. Like some of Trump’s other phrases — “America first,” for example — “law and order” has a long, colorful history. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander identifies its beginning in the 1950s as an attempt to “mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.” She traces its history through Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, the Southern Strategy, and Ronald Reagan. The most important part of her analysis is the inextricable link between “law and order” (or its sister phrase “tough on crime”) and the Civil Rights Movement. In America, there is no way to talk about “law and order” without talking about it as a mechanism to both curb civil rights and demonize those who agitate for those rights.
Any careful reading of the Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community statement will show it engaged in this same tradition. In one of its most striking passages, we are told that the administration’s job is “not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” This is a not-so-subtle dog-whistle at Black Lives Matter and protesters more generally. For many conservatives, protesters are synonymous with “the rioter,” “the looter,” and the “violent disrupter”; there is simply no difference between them. What this statement does is to draw a line from civil disobedience to anti-police feeling and an unmerited belief in the rise of crime.
Black Lives Matter has been somewhat effective at getting Americans to become critical of police behavior. What we see in the Trump administration is the beginning of a backlash to that effectiveness — backlash that is of-a-kind with the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Though police continue to go unpunished for even the most flagrant abuses of power, the FBI and law enforcement would have us believe that a bare minimum of critical thought has had a “chilling effect” on the ability of police to do their jobs. At the same time, there is no protest non-violent or passive enough for most police (or, indeed, most white Americans) who are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to any criticism of the police. You can’t march, or obstruct traffic, or even kneel at a football game without them crying about their hurt feelings. The implicit suggestion — no, the promise — of the “chilling effect” is that if you’re too mean to the police, they will just refuse to do their jobs.
Swirling around this statement are a number of proposed laws that would make it more difficult to protest as well as easier to hurt protesters and get away with doing so. In my own state, Indiana, a senator has proposed a bill that gives police the authority to quell a protest (defined as a gathering of 10 or more) that obstructs traffic “by any means necessary.” Make no mistake: Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community is an explicit signal to police and their staunchest advocates that the current administration has their backs, unequivocally. It’s also a sign that real civil disobedience is interpreted by Trump as little more than a crime — a disruption to the safety of American communities and a threat to police. Emboldened by their incoming president, conservative lawmakers around the country have begun moving pieces into place to severely limit one’s ability to participate in direct action.
This is particularly notable within the context of the Women’s March that just happened. Some white feminists have bragged online about the lack of arrests, or have posted pictures with smiling, supportive police officers. Such things bespeak a profound ignorance of the kind of action in which they were engaged.
I want to be clear: I have no interest in belittling the Women’s March or its participants. What the organizers were able to accomplish was truly remarkable. But it was, at the end of the day, a show of numbers and solidarity. That is important enough on its own. It is not civil disobedience, though. In fact, in some of the march’s literature, you’ll find statements that say the event was specifically not about disobedience. It should be no surprise, then, that no one was arrested, or that police took cute pictures with marchers. They had a permit. They presented no challenge to police power. This is to say nothing of the inherent white female privilege involved here. White women protest and they are welcomed; black folks protest and the police show up in riot gear.
Black Lives Matter protesters do represent a threat to state power, even if it’s a small one, and the Trump administration clearly interprets them as such. The statement says, baldly, that the anti-police atmosphere in America is “dangerous” and “wrong.” The statement then promises that the Trump Administration will end that atmosphere. Here, they’re speaking directly to the Movement for Black Lives: You’re responsible for this, and we’re going to stop you. It could not be any clearer. In addition, Trump is signaling his support for police and the quelling of protests with the full knowledge that resistance efforts are likely to increase exponentially during his time as president. Given that the most notable protests in recent years have been organized by people of color (black folks and the Native Americans at Standing Rock), this statement can be interpreted as nothing less than an all-out declaration of war against the communities of color that are fighting for their bodies and their lands.
There can be no confusion. This is not the time for equivocation or for the softening of efforts. There is no reason to offer Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt, or any of our support. Not even an inch. Trump and his team of white supremacists are, again and again, showing us exactly who they are. Believe them.