It was a scary sight in Washington, D.C. last week: like something Chris Carter had dreamed up for The X-Files. Rows of armed agents surrounded the protesters. They had no identifying badges. They had no names, no numbers, no insignia of any law enforcement agency: federal, state, or local. They were simply men in black, in riot gear, reports NPR. These armed riot officers are usually seen, says WUSA9, wearing plain T-shirts under their riot gear.
5PM WHITE HOUSE — These are the unidentified DOJ officers holding the perimeter at 15th and H Streets.
They won’t tell the public to whom they report exactly…
It’s generating HUGE frustration here #GeorgeFloyd @WUSA9 pic.twitter.com/GOSbeyplLb
— Mike Valerio (@MikevWUSA) June 3, 2020
These are men with no identifying badges with very large guns surrounding the protesters. Who are these mysterious Men In Black, who could totally just be white supremacists, for all we know, and come from, according to The New York Times, F.B.I., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Prisons?
Yes, you read that last part right. The Bureau of Prisons.
In a letter to Trump, Nancy Pelosi wrote that, “Some officers have refused to provide identification and have been deployed without identifying insignias, badges and name plates… The practice of officers operating with full anonymity undermines accountability” in the middle of protests about police accountability. In other words, people are on the streets protesting that officers need to be held accountable for their actions, and federal administrators (and the head administrator in particular) are holding up a giant middle finger by deploying officers who simply, by their lack of identification, cannot be held accountable for their actions. Even the agency they work for can’t be held accountable. Virginia House Democrat Don Beyer asked NPR, “How do you ever hold people accountable if you don’t know what their name is?”
According to The New York Times, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and Christopher S. Murphy D-CN have introduced laws making it necessary for all law enforcement officers and “members of the armed forces” to “identify themselves and their agency.” Murphy told NPR in an email that, “President Trump is trying to intimidate peaceful protestors by having unidentified and unaccountable federal law enforcement officers and members of the Armed Forces roam the streets of DC.”
Beyer told NPR that he worries because the officers with no identifying badges are laden down with so many “guns, batons, shields, helmets and tactical vests,” facial recognition software wouldn’t even be effective.
So… Who Are These People With No Identifying Badges?
Well, they might look like Trump’s secret goddamn police force, but they aren’t. The officers, as Pelosi discovered and The New York Times reported, come from the F.B.I., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Prisons. The Bureau of Prisons people, says the NYT, are the ones without identification, and when asked, WUSA9 reports they say they work for “the federal government” or “the Department of Justice.”
The New York Times confirms that Attorney General William P. Barr empowered the Bureau of Prison people (without identifying badges!) to make arrests at the demonstrations.
Let’s unpack this.
George Floyd was killed as a result of police brutality and the lack of police accountability. Those of us who have watched the video have seen the impunity with which the officers stare at the camera. They aren’t pretending it’s not there. There is simply no conclusion to make except this one: they think they will not be punished for this. So as people protect the lack of police accountability, the administration sends people onto the streets who, because they have no identifying badges or emblems, have no accountability. And not only do they have no accountability, Trump’s pulling some of the people who are most likely to loathe what the protesters stand for: prison guards: people who guard people already arrested by the police, and who have an adversarial relationship with those people.
And these aren’t average prison guards. These are the prison guards you bring in when the regular prison guards fail. The Bureau of Prisons told WUSA9, “The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has specialized Crisis Management Teams (CMTs), including Special Operations Response Teams, which are highly trained tactical units capable of responding to prison disturbances.” These are the people with no identifying badges: the police who protect the police when the police fail to protect themselves. They were deployed to LA during the Rodney King riots — to protect federal facilities. Not to arrest peaceful protesters.
And When There Are No Identifying Badges…
Without identifying badges, how do we know someone’s not a random-ass militia member with no actual ties to the federal government?
Furthermore, how do they (the other law enforcement officers, from varying branches) even know someone’s not a random-ass militia member with no ties to the federal government?
Um… there might be a problem here.
Even Don Beyer asked NPR, “How do we tell these alleged federal police officers from white supremacist militia groups?” One graduate student, upon seeing a line of these unidentified, unmarked officers standing in front of the National Guard, said to The New York Times, “There was just no way to identify who these people were or who they were working for.”
And, as that graduate student says, what happens when one of those officers uses excessive force on someone, such as a baton, or tear gas — and someone catches it on video, and there’s no way to tell who they are, or even what agency or level of government they work for?
Anyone conducting police work on protests in the United States, on any level, needs proper identifying badges that state their name, serial number, and agency.
Anything else is unacceptable and un-American.
What’s This Mean for Protesters?
Well, number one, when police have no identifying badges, protesters have no legal recourse when police brutality occurs… while they’re protesting police brutality. Anyone think there might be a problem here? And these protests have been rife with reports of police brutality. There’s been tear gas release on protesters in Columbia, South Carolina, of all places, simply because police claimed they were “in violation of curfew.” Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a prayer rally in Washington, D.C. so Trump could hold up a Bible at the Episcopal Cathedral.
Without identifying badges, these protesters have no recourse to legal action. Rubber bullets, according to a study in the British Medical Journal, have caused significant injury and death in the past 27 years in crowd control situations, and they “do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings.” This is what people without identifying badges are firing at people, who then have no legal recourse to sue them when they’re disabled for life.
The Black community itself faces even more discrimination. Their civil rights are eroded further when cops without identifying badges can abuse them with impunity. Imagine if George Floyd was killed by a man in full riot gear without an identifying badge, without the ability to be recognized through the current available software. Imagine if we couldn’t file murder charges.
Today this is not an implausible scenario.
This is unacceptable.
Police officers need badges identifying their names, numbers, and agencies. Full stop. Anything else is unacceptable and turns the America we love into a police state.