Appearing before a backdrop of smiling uniformed police officers on July 28, US President Donald Trump encouraged the brutalisers in blue to be more abusive and violent toward people they arrest in a speech given at Suffolk County Community College on New York’s Long Island.
To rapturous applause and peals of laughter from an audience of cops, Trump gave the green light for abuse and terror from police already perpetrating an epidemic of violence, especially in poor urban neighbourhoods where people of colour predominate.
It was further evidence that the Trump administration is trying to shore up support from its base by promoting the pro-cop backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence.
The administration’s scapegoating of Black and Brown people provides the justification for Trump’s expansion of the powers of local police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
With cops and ICE agents as backdrop, Trump opened his Long Island speech with a lurid description of the activities of the Mara Salvatrucha (known as MS-13) gang based in El Salvador and other Central American countries.
In Vanity Fair, Abigail Tracy wrote that the speech was designed “to stir up some good old-fashioned suburban panic” — and detract from Trump's political difficulties.
Trump described MS-13 as “animals” who “shouldn’t be here”. He neglected to mention that the gang formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s — and was exported to El Salvador by members expelled from the US.
Trump proclaimed that he — unlike other presidents before him — would allow cops to do “their job”. Trump made it clear the job description he had in mind: “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’
“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over, like, don’t hit their head ... you can take the hand away, okay?”
Trump also praised the amount of military equipment that has been given away to local forces: “You want to use military equipment, you can do it.” He then joked that so much heavy weaponry designed for invading foreign countries has been used that “we have none left”.
Trump’s message to the country’s police departments: Be as brutal as you want and we’ll give you the tools to do it.
No wonder there was laughter, smiles and applause from the officers in uniform behind Trump as he not only condoned, but outright ordered the behaviour that caused the murder of Baltimore’s Freddie Grey, for one — who was “thrown into the back of a paddy wagon ... rough”, and then driven around until his spine was severed.
Trump’s rhetoric was so repulsive that several police departments felt pressure to renounce it. For instance, the Suffolk County Police Department, where Trump spoke, issued a tweet claiming that it does not “tolerate roughing up of prisoners”.
But this department has a long record of abuse and misconduct — it is currently under federal oversight for discrimination. One year ago, the previous chief of police, James Burke, was convicted in federal court and sentenced to 46 months in prison for beating and threatening the murder of a man who allegedly took a gym bag from Burke’s car.
With crime rates, including for homicide, at record lows, why is Trump spewing the mythology of violent crime, “blood-soaked killing fields” in US cities, and the need for more heavily armed cops who operate with even less oversight?
There are three functions worth pointing out.
First, the racist scapegoating that depicts Black and Brown people as criminals racialises poverty, allowing Trump — and the rest of the political establishment, including Democrats — to point to more cops as the solution to a desperate social crisis.
Second, by demonising violent immigrant gang members, Trump justifies the huge rise in ICE raids and deportations, where the real targets are millions of undocumented families who live peacefully and do nothing wrong in the US.
Trump’s Long Island speech coincides with the announcement of a “surge” in raids nationwide that are specifically targeting teenagers. Among the criteria being used to pick out which teens are “gang affiliated” includes the vague “frequenting an area notorious for gangs and wearing gang apparel”.
Last, Trump’s comments reflect his connection to the racist Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which backed his presidential campaign. Now in office, he is pushing an agenda that does the FOP's bidding in countering the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement that at its height cast a spotlight on racist police practices.
In particular, FOP is determined to polish the reputation of police after all the negative attention drawn to their daily terrorism. Their friend in the White House is willing to fervently push police violence, while scaremongering about immigrant gangs and Black-on-Black crime.
Unless challenged, the pro-cop backlash championed by Trump will lead to more police killings, while the ICE raids and deportations continue devastating immigrant communities.
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]