U.S. cities need personal protective equipment and tests, not shock troops

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President Donald J. Trump on July 22, 2020. Image: The White House/Flickr

Camouflage-clad paramilitary vigilantes have been terrorizing Portland, Oregon, grabbing people protesting racism and police brutality, pulling them into unmarked minivans and driving off. These roving shock troops, with no insignia or badges, proved to be federal agents from a slew of agencies, ordered to Portland after President Donald Trump issued an executive order on June 26, a month and a day after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Trump's order, "Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence," was a rambling diatribe against the massive, diverse protest movement that has swept the country in the wake of Floyd's murder and the police killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and so many more.

Juxtapose these fallen innocents with the statues Trump is desperately trying to protect: Confederate president Jefferson Davis; General Robert E. Lee; John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice-president of the U.S. and a strident defender of slavery, and Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to African Americans. Add to these the Southern military bases named after Confederate officers, which Trump has declared will not be renamed under his watch: Benning, Bragg, Hood and others.

As more Confederate statues and shrines to slavery and genocide have fallen, so too have Trump's poll numbers. In response, he is putting into practice his frightening penchant for authoritarianism, unleashing a clandestine shadow army on the citizenry, criminalizing protest as he struggles to inflame white supremacy.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic surges through the country, and Trump is utterly failing to provide essential federal resources, from personal protective equipment (PPE) to testing and contact tracing, all the basic elements needed to contain this deadly virus. Democratic Washington governor Jay Inslee recently summed up the situation, saying, "I wish he cared more about living Americans instead of dead Confederates."

On March 16, early in the pandemic, Trump told U.S. governors, "Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment -- try getting it yourselves." This pitted 50 governors against each other and the federal government in the open market for masks, gloves, testing swabs, reagents and other supplies, driving up prices and causing lethal shortages. Tens of thousands of people died unnecessarily as a result of Trump's dereliction of duty.

"We saw health-care workers in garbage bag gowns and reusing the same N95 masks for days on end while they risked their lives to save others," senators Leahy, Durbin, Murray and Tester wrote to Trump this week, demanding to know why an estimated US$8 billion of taxpayer money appropriated for the COVID-19 response, specifically for masks, testing and other supplies, remains unspent.

Reports in recents days, based on unnamed White House sources, suggest Trump wants to completely cut funding to the CDC and NIH for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, angering even Senate Republicans.

The U.S. has a quarter of the global COVID-19 infections and deaths, but less than five percent of the world's population. Nationwide, 60,000 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19 and 1,000 people dying from the disease every day. Shortages of masks, ICU beds and space for the dead in morgues are mounting.

Currently, on a per capita basis, the hardest hit states are Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee and Georgia -- a list that includes all seven of the original Confederate states. Despite the worsening catastrophe, the Republican governors of Florida, Georgia and Arizona, all staunch Trump allies, refuse to issue state-wide mask mandates.

They are only following their leader, President Trump, who also won't issue a national mask mandate, claiming to respect state and local authority. In almost the same breath, though, Trump threatens to send a "surge" of armed federal agents to major cities across the country, against the wishes of those very cities and states. President Trump's job is to protect public safety. That includes protecting the public health, especially in this time of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and police brutality.

The response in Oregon to Trump's outrageous and likely unconstitutional deployment of federal agents has been resoundingly critical. Governor Kate Brown denounced "secret police abducting people," and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has sued several of the federal agencies involved. In the streets, a contingent of women has grown nightly, protecting protesters by forming a "wall of moms." Senator Ron Wyden, describing the federal agents as "essentially fascist," warned, "if the line is not drawn in the sand right now, America may be staring down the barrel of martial law in the middle of a presidential election."

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: The White House/Flickr

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