By Thomas Coffin
Certain dates are never erased from memory. Dates such as July 4, 1776; Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps June 1, 2020, may be destined as another.
It was on this date that a peaceful assembly gathered in protest of the murder of George Floyd and numerous other African American victims of police brutality. The assembly was a time-honored tradition of people engaging in the practice of rights secured to them by our Constitution — rights to assemble, to speak, to minister, to pray, to heal.
It took place on the hallowed grounds of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The gathering included members and clergy from the church who were engaging in dialogue with the protesters, and providing respite, hospitality and comfort to all who were present. No laws were being broken.
Suddenly, without warning, the gathering was attacked by federal police in riot gear deploying tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets and a low-flying military helicopter to stampede and scatter the people.
The sole reason for this unconscionable assault on citizens who were exercising their Constitutional rights was that Donald Trump had decided to pose in front of St. John’s with a Bible in his hands for a photo-op.
There had been no advance notice to the pastor of the church nor any request from the White House for permission to co-opt this place of worship for Trump’s use as a political prop. No lawful authority for this sudden, unprovoked and excessive misuse of force and power has been cited, because there is none.
As is usual with this administration, straight answers have been slow in forthcoming as the players scramble to coordinate their narrative. Reports are oozed from the mire that Attorney General William Barr ordered the police to clear the area upon learning of Trump’s desire to occupy and use the church grounds.
The president, parroting the legendary Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, “knows nothing” about it.
There is much to unpack from this outrage, which sums up this administration in so many ways.
First, the context of the peaceful gathering at St. John’s is framed by the graphic and brutal killing of George Floyd at the hands of four members of the Minneapolis police department.
His death added yet another victim to the ever-growing list of African Americans who have died from excessive and lethal force applied by white police officers and vigilantes such as those who took the lives of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery.
Violence against African Americans has long been entrenched in our culture. Jim Crow laws in the South and segregation in our institutions persisted for almost a century after the Civil War. The heroic efforts of Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists, many of whom were bombed, shot, attacked by police dogs and murdered in the process, focused attention on the grave injustices within our society and resulted in measures such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other remedial legislation.
But it is painfully obvious that our nation still has a long and arduous journey ahead to eradicate the cancer of racism and establish true equality among all people in the diverse population that defines the U.S.
When Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president in our history, one dared to hope that a corner had been turned. But the embers of prejudice and racism are not extinguished easily amidst a heritage of white supremacy bias passed down and kept alive by generation after generation.
The 2016 election cycle put the country on the cusp of further progress. But into this delicate moment of history stepped Trump, whose campaign emphasized going backwards, not forward. His emphasis was on division, not unity. He promised to build walls and deliver massive deportations to keep out and rid the country of supposedly undesirable Hispanics whom he vilified.
His rhetoric fed and validated the prejudices of those who would become his base. MAGA was a not so subtle call for a return to nationalism, and nationalism is a synonym for less diversity and a more homogeneous culture. Unsurprisingly, he attracted adherents of white supremacy into the fold. The former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, endorsed him.
Once in office, Trump began dismantling programs implemented by his predecessor, which included federal oversight of police departments with a history of using excessive force against people of color.
Even more disturbing, he used his platform as president to message approval of police methods that crossed the boundary of what was lawful. He heaped praise on Rodrigo Duterte, a dictator who utilized police and vigilante death squads to murder suspected drug users and dealers in the Philippines; he encouraged a large gathering of police officers in Long Island to use excessive force in arresting suspects; he pardoned a notorious sheriff who had been convicted of contempt of a federal court order by continuing to violate the rights of Hispanics, and he pardoned a Navy platoon leader convicted by a military tribunal for his role in actions that involved the death of a prisoner of war.
None of this is lost on those who wear badges and wield the heavy responsibility of authority in their interactions with people of color. Police chiefs and commanding officers seeking to train and maintain discipline within the ranks find their efforts swept aside from above. It is the equivalent of the principal telling the students that they can just ignore their teachers.
The murder of George Floyd and the justified anger it generated cannot be understood in a vacuum. Our famously thin-skinned president views all protesters as thugs to be “dominated” by the brute force of military might. It is certain he has never entertained the thought that his own rhetoric and actions may well have played a significant part in contributing to the crisis enveloping the country over yet another death of an African American at the hands of the police. The tactics he has encouraged and approved from his presidential pulpit are tactics that are excessive, unconscionable. And unlawful.
In Barr, Trump has a like-minded attorney general in his approach to authoritarianism and empowerment of the police. In speeches to law enforcement, Barr has dismissed the concern about police brutality as being nothing more than a narrative from “an increasingly vocal minority that regularly attacks the police.”
That statement itself explains why protests are necessary to awaken the conscience of America to the injustices still being perpetrated against African Americans. Marches and protests were an integral part of the civil rights movement and the changes that would not have occurred in their absence.
Such protests are vital to democracy. As the nation’s attorney general, Barr should be cognizant of his duty to defend the right of peaceful assembly, not disparaging of protests as disrespectful or “attacks” on police, or rabble to be dispersed by tear gas at the whim of a president inconvenienced by the presence of protesters.
It is not difficult to grasp and understand the frustration of vast numbers of people in the country who are witnessing the erosion of their rights and democracy itself. A bedrock foundation of the nation — the rule of law, which holds everyone, whether prince or pauper, to equal stature and accountability under the law — is being shredded before our eyes.
Trump, Barr and what passes today as the Department of Justice are engaged in applying a double standard in their treatment of the friends and allies of Donald Trump. The cases of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn bark loudly of arbitrary favoritism and flouting of the judicial system, as do the pardons or commutations of sentences of the likes of Michael Milken, Rod Blagojevich and David Safavian.
The law is not being applied equally, and the DOJ has forfeited much of its credibility under an administration that treats it as an arm of the White House, not an independent upholder of justice for the people it is sworn to serve. It is thus no mystery that people have lost confidence in our criminal justice system or have concluded the system is tilted in favor of white privilege.
Peering further into the June 1 debacle we find the invocation by the administration to use military power to suppress nationwide protests and label the streets of America as battlefields to be conquered. Unleashing the military might of the country’s armed forces against its own people is the benchmark of every tyrannical government. It is the action of rulers who neither represent the people nor care about their welfare, and whose only interest is in maintaining the power of office.
Such misuse of the military would forever stain our democracy and imperil our liberty. We should recognize this call for military action for what it is — a test of the military by Trump. Will the armed forces obey a command to attack our own citizens, or will they remain loyal to their oath to uphold the Constitution?
It is encouraging to have heard the responses of retired Gen. James Mattis and other military leaders to this attempt to involve troops against the people. But the pressure to do so will in all probability intensify, and the future of our democracy is in the balance. We must hope the military stands fast in its resolve to protect the people and our heritage from someone who has no regard for either.
Finally, I arrive at the layer of the St. John’s episode that implicates freedom of religion and the alliance of conservative Christians with Trump. In the assault on St. John’s and his sequel performance at the Catholic shrine of John Paul II, the president evidenced both an appropriation of religion as a political prop and an intent to dominate religions and their sacred spaces for his own purposes.
His intrusions were clumsy, disrespectful, arrogant and even violent as well as uninvited at one of the venues. Christians should reflect on whether any alliance for transitory political favors is worth surrendering their core values, their integrity and being turned into props like upside down Bibles.
Thomas Coffin is a retired United States magistrate judge. He served 24 years in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, from 1992 to 2016.