White House vow to send federal troops to Detroit sows confusion

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Photo of Customs and Border agents in Portland shared on Twitter by Mark Morgan, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

President Donald Trump has vowed to send federal troops to the Motor City but it’s not clear if that means camouflage-clad federal agents will sweep through the streets. 

If Portland, Oregon, is any indication, these agents may travel in unmarked minivans and pick up people in public places. The law enforcement units in question have appeared in Army-style camouflage with no identification other than a basic “police” label on their outfits. They are special units of the Customs and Border Patrol, an agency under the control of the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump contends the troops are needed to quell violent protests and deter crime. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has called those marching on the streets against police brutality a “violent mob” and “anarchists”.

How many troops are headed to Detroit and what specific role they will be playing is unclear. 

Related: Arrested? Call the Detroit Protest Bailout fund for help

Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Police Chief James Craig issued a statement Tuesday that city officials “had no contact” with any federal agency about the issue. 

“There could be no possible justification for such an action.” the statement said, referring to the use of federal troops in city protests. 

On Thursday, both the mayor and the police chief said the city has had earlier conversations with the Justice Department about bringing federal agents to Detroit as part of an initiative called Operation Relentless Pursuit. The goal is to give police departments more staffing and money in cities with high violent crime rates.  The Justice Department announced the initiative in December. The money could be used to hire officers and buy equipment.

But on Tuesday, Attorney General Willam Barr said that Operation Relentless Pursuit is over.

“Unfortunately, COVID intervened, and we had to abort that — that effort,” Barr said, according to a White House transcript

It appears to have been replaced by Operation LeGend. That too is intended to “combatting violent crime” in cities, according to the transcript.  Barr added: “The operations we’re talking about are the standard anti-crime fighting activities we have been carrying out around the country for decades.  We will be adding federal agents to task forces  — these are street agents, their investigators — who will be working to solve murders and to take down the violent gangs.  And they’ll be working shoulder to shoulder with our state and local colleagues.

“This is a different kind of operation, obviously, than the tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence.  And we’re going to continue to confront mob violence, but the operations we’re discussing today are very different.”

On Friday, a spokesman for the mayor deferred to the police department on whether federal agents in military gear will soon be in Detroit. 

Here’s the advice of two Detroit civil rights lawyers of what to do if you are stopped by camouflage-clad federal agents.

“Be silent!” said Lillian Diallo, a Detroit attorney. 

“Be silent!” – Lillian Diallo, a Detroit attorney

“You don’t have to answer. But, the worst thing you can do is lie to a federal agent,” she said. “It doesn’t look like people are getting any choice,” of going with the agents, Diallo said, based on accounts from Portland.  “At that point, you just gotta survive the stop,” she said.

Julie Hurwitz, a criminal defense attorney and member of the National Lawyers Guild, warns: 

“The rights that you have are different from what can actually happen to you. Whether they do or do not respect those rights is a whole other can of worms.”

The National Lawyers Guild this week launched a hotline for activists and lawyers to report incidents of federal repression, such as FBI “door-knocks” at activists’ homes, grand jury investigations and subpoenas, and any other federal law enforcement efforts to undermine civil rights, including federal grab squads and the use of unidentified federal agents to police protests. Call 212-679-2811 or email massdef@nlg.org 

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