Saturday, September 19, 2020
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Defending government property at the expense of liberty

by Jim Elliott
| August 9, 2020 1:00 AM

As I read of the use of Federal officers sent to Portland against the wishes of the Governor of Oregon and the Mayor of Portland for the purpose of “protecting federal property,” I thought of these words from the Declaration of Independence enumerating one of the reasons for rejecting the rule of the British King;

“He [King George III] has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”

The few hundred federal agents sent might not constitute standing armies, but they certainly were there without the consent of the elected officers of the State of Oregon. Of course, they felt they needed no invitation, as the Acting Director of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said, “I don’t need invitations by state mayors or state governors to do our job — we’re going to do that whether they like us there or not,”

They apparently don’t need identification either, using unmarked vehicles and “uniforms” that had nothing but the word “POLICE” on them, if that. Law enforcement officers wear badges and identification with good reason, and, I hope, with pride. If they remove that identification before entering into action, as did the federal officers, it is because they do not want to be held responsible for their actions either legally or morally.

Nor did they seem to believe that they had a responsibility or need to follow the law, detaining people without reason or explanation, holding them captive, and then releasing them also without explanation or identifying their agencies. Whatever federal agency they represented, their actions were “bush league” and would have been a discredit to their uniform, had they worn one.

Their arrogance, secretiveness, and their very reason for being there are marks of despotism and have no place in America.

The reason that they were sent is less important than the fact that they were sent at all. An administration that refuses to mount a national defense to a national pandemic that respects no state borders cannot, with any credibility, decide that it can then act unilaterally to police the people of the individual states of the Union. Nor should they have been sent without a request by state governors. I can think of only two instances in the last 100 years where federal agents were sent into a state to enforce the law without the express invitation of the governor because in both cases it was the governors themselves who were breaking the law by ignoring Supreme Court orders to integrate schools in Arkansas and Mississippi.

That they were sent at all chills me. There is such a concept as states’ rights and there is a well-established distrust of Federal agencies overstepping their bounds. Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge in Idaho are examples on the right. And the right and the left share legitimate concerns: if we let this happen, what happens next?

Nobody of any political belief demonstrates against authority because it is fun. They demonstrate because they have deeply held beliefs that have been offended by government actions. Their convictions are so deeply held that they are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to defend them. Yes, there is often looting and property damage by irresponsible demonstrators and outside agitators, and yes, property should be defended from theft and destruction—but so should liberty.

The inability or reluctance of governments to respond to a public demand for change is well known. Governments will acknowledge a problem, sympathize will those affected, and address the issue so slowly due to an excess of caution that little is resolved. The public is patient, but not stupid, and sees inaction for what it is; a snub to their concerns. The more that their cries for action are ignored, the angrier the public becomes, and the more impatient.

So, there is a vicious cycle that could be avoided by government taking the issue seriously in the first place. The longer the delay of justice the angrier people become and the angrier they become the more reckless and impetuous their reaction and the more unrealistic their expectations. Expectations which were initially realistic.

—Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator, and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.