Y esterday, at the anti-Alt-Right rally in Berkeley, I watched groups of masked Antifa members in Black Bloc formation swarm individuals who were apparently antagonizing them, and pummel them with their fists, feet, and flagpoles. When the victims tried to escape, they were run down, and in at least one case, cut off by the Antifa mob and beaten down some more. In the incidents I witnessed, about five or six Antifa members at a time participated in the attacks, while perhaps 50 others stood behind them, forming an impenetrable wall that blocked bystanders from intervening, or documenting the violence on camera. Those people would also help chase the victims when they fled.
In one case, as a crowd of non-Black Bloc protesters yelled at the assailants to let their victim go, an Antifa activist yelled, “He’s a Nazi!” over and over again, justifying the assault. Then, abruptly, maybe after realizing that the victim was not, in fact, a white nationalist, he changed his mantra. “He doesn’t have to be a Nazi!” he now shouted. The suggestion was that even if the victim wasn’t a fascist, he still deserved to be beaten. For what was unclear. Maybe because he supported Trump? Or he objected to Antifa’s tactics? Or refused to do something they ordered him to do? Who knew? The only thing those of us watching from a few yards away could tell was that a man, by himself, was on the ground, with a bloodied face, covering his head with his arms, being kicked and punched by a group of masked people, who were shielded by dozens of their comrades. My guess is that a lot of the Antifa people in the crowd who were passively assisting in the violence, including the guy yelling that he was a Nazi, didn’t know anything more than that, either.
Last week, Mark Bray, a historian of Antifa, said on Trumpcast, Slate’s podcast on all things Trump, that Antifa members are “some of the most caring and compassionate people I’ve met.” I just finished directing a short documentary about the online origins of the Alt Right, for which we interviewed several Antifa members, and I can affirm his depiction. To a person, our interviewees cared deeply about egalitarianism and anti-racism, and spent much of their day-to-day lives either working professionally or volunteering for organizations and in activist groups that fought for the social and economic rights of the disenfranchised. They gave eloquent and persuasive explanations for why fascism must be confronted head-on, with tactics up to and including violence.
But parsing out the nuances of moral justifications for violence in a quiet room somewhere is an entirely different thing than standing in a park with a mask on and a flag in your hand, with hundreds of your comrades, and making snap decisions about whose ass to beat and whose not to. Or whether to back up your comrades when they start beating someone up, when you have no idea how the altercation even began, or who the victim is. Or whether to go online afterwards and claim that everyone who got beat deserved it because they were all Nazis.
What happened in practice in Berkeley yesterday was that anybody who challenged the Black Bloc made themselves a target, whether they were a white supremacist looking to stir shit up (and there were maybe five or six of those in a crowd of thousands), or a liberal who yelled their disapproval at their tactics, or a reporter taking pictures after being commanded to stop. If you pissed someone in the Black Bloc off, and someone came after you, the rest of the bloc followed. Suddenly you were facing a hostile mob, the time for arguing your case expired, literally fearing for your life.
I was at the protest with a film crew, working on a documentary. We were in a public park. It was a big news event, where everybody knew there would be media. Activists in the Black Bloc were concealed by sunglasses and ski masks to protect their identity for exactly this reason. They carried flags and banners, to make themselves a spectacle. Yet for their personal security, many of them decided that it was their right to command photographers not to take their pictures, to physically block them from doing so, and if they persisted, to smash their equipment and assault them. That’s what apparently happened to the guy who the Antifa member kept calling a “Nazi,” until he changed his mind. One of my filmmaking partners and I got pushed around by Antifa, too. We were targets because we had cameras. The only reason we didn’t get administered a beat down is because when we were ordered (not asked) to point our cameras elsewhere, we only pushed our right to film them so far. Had we pushed it a bit farther, we probably would have ended up with some smashed equipment and black eyes.
There was a moment of triumph during the demonstration, before all the violence began, when just after facing what looked like the beginning of a confrontation with the Black Bloc, the police line that surrounded the park retreated, the checkpoints into the park, where police were searching bags for contraband, were taken down, and everybody outside of the perimeter flooded onto the field. Following upon the unambiguous victory over the Alt Right in San Francisco the prior day, it should have been the capstone of the weekend. The Alt Right had surrendered; the people had taken their public space back from both the “fascists” and the police. But it probably hadn’t been an hour before that feeling dissipated entirely. Soon, it was Antifa, instead of the police, who were occupying the park. The rest of the crowd, who many of the masked radicals probably disdained as wimpy, bourgeois liberals, shrank from the violence that had begun to overtake the scene, as well as the yelling and the physical domination and the general sense of schoolyard bullying emanating from the massive Black Bloc. At one point I turned around and all I could see was Antifa. They had spread throughout the park, and everybody else had gone home.
When you criticize Antifa members or their defenders for the tactic of mob violence, the reflexive response is usually something like, “There are literal Nazis marching in the streets, and you’re attacking us over your precious little non-violence principles?” But Antifa doesn’t have a monopoly over concern for what’s happening in this country. They’re no more woke than the squishy liberals who showed up to protest with their signs and their voices and not with their fists. The revulsion to violence on the part of most people on the left, from liberal to radical, is not born of naïveté over the scale of the right-wing threat. It’s the expression of basic moral principle, as well as a pragmatic political understanding that random mob violence by masked vigilantes on the left isn’t going to defeat the Alt Right. In the Bay Area this weekend, the Alt Right was already defeated. All Antifa did was transform that message of people-powered victory into a cascade of headlines bolstering Trump’s “many sides” talking point.
The revulsion to Antifa’s violence is also an indication of the paucity of trust Antifa has established with much of the wider, non-activist world. People want the white nationalist movement smashed into dust; that’s why they’re showing up by the thousands and the tens of thousands to protests against the Alt Right. That doesn’t mean they want to hand leadership over to a subcultural vanguardist movement that barks at them from behind masks and shields and threatens to beat those who disagree with them into submission.
Most Antifa members are anarchists. It was an ironic thing to see these anti-authoritarian, anti-government activists essentially acting as a de facto state on that little quarter acre of lawn, ordering photographers around, deciding who could be in the park and who couldn’t, responding to dissent — even from liberals — with physical confrontation, and dishing out violence on whoever they decided deserved it, whether they were a “Nazi,” a non-compliant liberal protester, or a reporter with a camera. It was a bleak alternative to the far right dystopia we face under Trump. It was much more like the last days of the Occupy movement than like the first. It was dark, it was scary, and it was ugly.
Jose Escobar earned good money — close to $130,000 a year — working in construction to provide for his wife and two kids in Houston. He paid his taxes. He committed no crimes. He lived in the United States for 17 years.
But ever since his mother missed a deadline to file some paperwork to maintain his residency status when he was a teenager, Jose, who grew up in El Salvador, was technically undocumented. While he waited for the government to get his status in order, Jose checked in with immigration services regularly. He wasn’t hiding from anyone.
Then, a couple of months ago, at one of his routine check-ins, immigration agents turned his family’s life upside down. With barely an explanation, they deported Jose back to El Salvador.
Now, Jose lives his life in a veritable cage. He can’t leave his aunt’s house without his nephew with him to act as a bodyguard, because the local gangs might mistake an unfamiliar face for a rival and murder him in the street. He does nothing all day but pace around the house, take care of his aunt’s parakeets, and talk to his wife, Rose, and his kids on Facetime. He’s thinking about getting a job at a call center for $200 a week. Back home in Houston, Rose struggles to keep her once solidly middle-class family from slipping into poverty.
The Escobars’ lives have been destroyed over a missed deadline from more than a decade ago and President Trump’s revolting impulse to pander to racists. Jose Escobar presents no threat to public safety; he’s the very picture of the American Dream. But in Trump’s America, none of that matters.
“When this new administration came in,” Rose explained, “it’s a brand new playground.”
I grew up in California. As a kid — and, in fact, as an adult — when I heard people mention Tijuana, it was usually in reference to some sordid bachelor party, or a day trip in search of pharmaceuticals, or as the backdrop for some tasteless joke. The way many Californians think of “TJ” reflects the way that many Americans think of Mexico: with condescension, and with the assumption that it exists as a thing to be exploited, not respected.
But for those who live there, it is a place of hope, as well as a place of despair. Thousands upon thousands of migrants pass through the city as the penultimate stop in a long journey to the north. And thousands of deportees are exiled there, often at the beginning of an equally long voyage south. There is a taken-for-granted culture of compassion in the city, which undergirds an infrastructure of humanitarian aid for the many desperate people who find themselves stranded there, briefly or indefinitely. Tijuana is a city where people from across two continents find their dreams sustained and where others find them dashed.
My filmmaking partners, Armando Aparicio and Adam Markle, made this short documentary for The Intercept, with a little bit of help from me. It’s beautiful and eye-opening. I hope you’ll watch it.
Also, please read my latest article for The Intercept, just out today, about the impossible situation undocumented victims of domestic violence find themselves in as a result of Trump’s immigration policies.
Fortunately for the Democrats, one of those trifecta states is the most populous and economically powerful in the country. Additionally, California has, by far, the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: 2.4 million out of about 11 million total. Moreover, three-quarters of Californians oppose mass deportation measures of the kind that President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for, and nearly two-thirds believe immigrants who are already here should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship. California is now simultaneously the welcome home (relatively speaking) to more than a fifth of America’s unauthorized residents, and one of the last strongholds of a besieged Democratic Party.
A collision between the Trump administration and Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento is inevitable. California lawmakers are counting on it. Today the president is expected to sign an executive order authorizing construction of his vaunted border wall, and to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Since November, in anticipation of actions such as these, state legislators in California have been rushing to pass a slate of new laws to put the state’s undocumented population as far out of reach of federal authorities as possible, and to give them at least a modicum of protection from summary deportation once they’re ensnared by Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Here are the ways state lawmakers are preparing for the coming showdown.
NON-COOPERATION WITH ICE
Shortly after Trump was elected, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck declared that his officers would continue to adhere to the department’s long-standing policy of not assisting federal agents in deporting immigrants. Beck referenced Special Order 40, a directive from 1979 that prohibits LAPD officers from questioning people about their immigration status.
The LAPD’s hands-off approach to immigration enforcement is part of why Los Angeles is considered a “sanctuary city.” But despite Special Order 40, the department in fact routinely collaborates with ICE, whose agents and the LAPD conduct joint operations together. The LAPD shares intelligence with ICE, and LAPD officers have rounded people up on raids ostensibly unrelated to immigration, then allowed ICE to take custody of those arrestees for the purpose of deportation. Outside of the LAPD’s jurisdiction, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has allowed ICE agents to operate inside county jails.
Immigration attorneys and immigrant-rights advocates have criticized this kind of cooperation between local police forces and federal agents throughout the Obama administration. Now, with Trump pledging to deport two to three million immigrants — the equivalent of the total number of removals through eight years of record-setting deportations under Obama — California lawmakers are finally proposing to put an end to the practice.
A bill introduced last month by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles would bar state, local and school police officers from pursuing or helping federal agents track down people for immigration violations. That includes sharing information with ICE that’s gathered in databases such as California’s “CalGang” system, which purports to track gang affiliations. The bill would also stop law enforcement from helping the feds put anyone on an identity-based registry, such as Trump has proposed for Muslims living in the United States. In effect, the bill would make California a sanctuary state.
Passing this bill would throw a pretty big monkey wrench into Trump’s deportation machine. Without active, concerted assistance from local law enforcement, it’s hard to imagine the federal government having the intelligence or the sheer manpower to track down millions of undocumented California immigrants. “Trump’s deportation plans really depend on cooperation or voluntary assistance from states and localities,” Jessica Karp Bansal, an attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told me. “This bill just says no. We’re not using our local resources to assist in deportation.”
NO DATA SHARING
De León’s bill would also prevent state agencies from collecting information from people beyond what they need to perform their official duties, and from sharing that information for any reason other than fulfilling the services they’re tasked with.
In an era of Big Data, this might be one of the most significant requirements of the entire package of legislation. One immigration attorney told me that there are probably two to three million undocumented immigrants who the government can already track down easily through biometric data gathered from prior interactions with the state, whether through criminal convictions or simply going to the DMV.
It’s unclear how many and which state agencies have already shared their data with ICE, though we know that law enforcement agencies have done so as a matter of course. However extensive the practice has been, de León’s bill would work to put an end to it.
DUE PROCESS FOR DEPORTATION DEFENDANTS
Under federal law, non-citizens have no legal right to government-provided lawyers in deportation proceedings — there is no public defender system in the immigration courts. Most defendants, unable to afford an attorney, are forced to represent themselves. A 2015 study of over 1.2 million deportation cases between 2007 and 2012 found that just 37 percent of defendants had counsel, and only 14 percent of defendants who were in detention did. Having a lawyer makes a difference – with legal representation, detained defendants were up to 10.5 times more likely to avoid deportation.
The Central American refugee crisis, which peaked in 2014, provided example after example of what “due process” can look like without the guarantee of legal representation. When I reported on the subject for Capital & Main two-and-a-half years ago, Lindsay Toczylowski, currently executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, told me: “I’ve seen infants going into court. I’ve seen a five-year-old girl questioned by a judge while she’s sitting in a chair big enough so her feet don’t even touch the floor.” Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and senior staff attorney at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, described the process as “a joke.”
Last month, State Senator Ben Hueso of San Diego introduced a bill that would require the state to guarantee legal representation to immigrants who are in detention and facing removal proceedings by contracting or subcontracting out to nonprofit law firms. The bill would also establish a legal defense fund that could take donations from private foundations to pay for the lawyers.
Pro-immigrant municipal and county officials are also creating legal defense funds at the local level. In San Francisco, where an estimated 44,000 undocumented immigrants live, Supervisor David Campos has proposed that the city and county put $5 million toward establishing such a fund (the measure has become bogged down in a dispute with the mayor over whether the funds should go largely to the city’s Public Defender’s office or exclusively to private nonprofit community legal-services groups). In Los Angeles, the county has voted to contribute to a $10 million legal fund for immigrants in removal proceedings; the city is expected to take a similar vote.
IMMIGRATION LAW TRAINING FOR PUBLIC DEFENDERS
Another bill, introduced by East Bay Assemblymember Rob Bonta, sets up centers to train public defenders in immigration law. When undocumented immigrants are charged with crimes, their plea deals can often create unexpected problems related to their immigration status, even when they might result in a lighter criminal penalty. Public defenders who are versed only in criminal, and not immigration, law can unwittingly advise clients to agree to accept charges that end in deportation. Bonta’s bill aims to solve this problem.
The immense power of the federal executive can be dangerously abused, especially when a prickly chief with autocratic tendencies and single-party control of all three branches of government sits atop it. But rounding up, detaining and deporting millions of people is a hard enough task even with pliable and obedient state and local agencies to work with. In California’s case, these agencies are soon likely to become not just unhelpful, but legally obligated to recalcitrance. And these agencies happen to serve the largest concentration of undocumented immigrants in the country.
Open, unbridled confrontation with a hostile federal government is an unenviable scenario to be in. But so is having the core commitment of your entire presidential campaign depend, in large part, on the decisions of people who are committed to defy everything you stand for. The emerging showdown between Sacramento and Washington over the fate of millions of California residents will be forced into a standoff, a compromise or an epic political battle.
Published in Capital & Main:
P resident-elect Donald Trump hasn’t yet sworn his oath of office, but his announced policies have already thrown a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting into pandemonium.
Yesterday, supervisors met to hear public comments and to vote on a measure to create a new Office of Immigrant Services, and to direct a civilian review board to oversee policies on the handling of undocumented immigrants in county jails by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. It was pretty humdrum stuff, compared to what state legislators are doing.
But that’s not what you’d guess from the reception the hearing received.
Seated before an audience of hundreds in their sleek auditorium the size and shape of a movie theater, with a bevy of cameras surrounding them like a firing squad, the supervisors struggled to slog through a long series of dry presentations by county bureaucrats on the measure, followed by over a hundred oral comments from the public.
Every five minutes, from some corner of the room, a clamor of cackles, chants or boos erupted, either from the large contingent of immigrant rights activists in the crowd, or from the only slightly smaller throng of Trump supporters decked out in red T-shirts and “Make America Great” baseball caps.
“ICE out of L.A.!” a dozen pro-immigrant activists chanted at the assistant sheriff, after he testified that ICE is in county jails “on an almost daily basis.”
The pro-Trump crowd, mostly seated together on one side of the aisle, met the chant with noisy boos. They turned their live-streaming cell phones, held perpetually aloft in front of their faces, in the direction of the perpetrators. “Kick them out!” they yelled to the supervisors.
The outbursts and counter-outbursts repeated themselves another half dozen times through the half hour or so of reports by county officials, initiated first by one side, then by the other, like dueling fans at a USC-UCLA football game. Over and over, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who presided over the meeting, warned that offenders would be ejected from the room, his threats sounding increasingly weary and empty with every repetition.
T hen it was the public’s turn to recite their comments. The majority of them, by far, favored the resolution, which was mildly pro-immigrant. But the handful of outraged voices aligned against it did score points for creativity.
One middle-aged woman who identified herself as an L.A. public school teacher accused Democrats of smuggling millions of undocumented immigrants into California in order to turn them into child prostitutes.
A middle-aged man invoked Vice President John Calhoun and the Nullification Crisis of 1832 to charge each of the supervisors of being Confederate sympathizers for putting “state’s rights” before federal authority in their support for “sanctuary laws.” A young man from West Covina complained that his city’s switch to district elections, made to help increase Latino representation in city government, showed that California was becoming an “apartheid state.”
A weathered-looking woman declared that California was becoming “a petri dish for globalists,” and called for Trump to “intervene in California’s affairs.” The pro-Trump audience members clapped and cheered. Ridley-Thomas pleaded once again for quiet.
Another commenter explained that the Mexican drug cartels are lashing out, upset about being deported. The argument didn’t make much sense, but was greeted with a hearty “Deport them all!” from one Trump voter.
Finally, after two hours, Ridley-Thomas made good on his threat. He declared that the Board was going into executive session, which meant that the entire audience was barred from the room. The auditorium emptied.
The proposal passed by a 4 to 1 vote, except for the part about oversight of the sheriff’s department, which was supported unanimously. A few hours later, with a week and a half left until Trump takes office, President Obama gave his farewell speech. He deplored the deep divisions in our country, rallying his supporters to defend political pluralism, and to safeguard the Constitution against intolerance and autocracy.
T oday, California legislators returned to their jobs in Sacramento, facing a new year and, for the Democrats, a distressing new reality: their first session under the incoming presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Last November, in an election that turned traditional political allegiances upside down and threw at least two “reliable” blue states to the GOP, California continued its long march to the left, bringing even Orange County into the Democratic column for the first time in eight decades.
Had the election gone as pretty much everyone expected, this year, Sacramento lawmakers would have been preparing to further expand their bank of pathbreaking legislation to slow down climate change, protect immigrants, restrict gun access, extend labor protections, and advance other progressive goals.
Instead, there’s only one overriding political imperative for California’s Democratic supermajority: Resist Trump.
As Trump’s agenda rolls out over the first 100 days of his new administration, the period during which presidents traditionally seek to put legislative “points on the board,” Californians can expect to see a slew of countervailing bills emerge out of the State Capitol, touching everything from healthcare access to the civil rights of Muslims. With the Democrats in Congress stuck in a bicameral minority and with Chuck Schumer looking ready to play nice with the new president, whether we like it or not, California is now at the center of the fight to stop Trump.
Depending on how you look at it, the new spirit in California is one of defensiveness or of defiance. This morning, Democratic leaders announced that they were retaining former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to represent them in the many fights they expect to have with the Trump administration. The team Trump is assembling in the White House represents “a very clear and present danger to the economic prosperity of California,” Senate Speaker Pro Tem Kevin De León told The New York Times.
De León has made his intention to resist Trump particularly clear when it comes to immigration. Along with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senator Ben Hueso, and Assemblymember Rob Bonta, he has introduced new legislation designed to provide a layer of protection between federal law enforcement and California’s immigrant communities.
Expected to be voted on prior to Trump’s inauguration, these bills will prohibit state and local police forces from cooperating with ICE, create a fund to provide free legal counsel to every immigrant facing deportation charges, and train public defenders to assess immigration-related risks facing their clients in criminal courts. Officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles are bolstering those protections at the county and municipal levels with measures to provide local legal defense funds for immigrants. Defending these initiatives against a hostile Trump administration will inevitably be the top priority and overriding focus of Attorney General nominee Xavier Becerra, whose confirmation hearings begin next week.
The landmark environmental achievements California has made under Governor Brown (and under Schwarzenegger before him) are likewise threatened by the agenda of the President-elect, whose fossil-fuel-friendly cabinet appointments indicate an imminent wholesale abandonment of the global effort to prevent, or at least mitigate, a future of cataclysmic climate change. Brown has loudly proclaimed the state’s intention to go it alone on global warming, even if it means creating a foreign policy for the state separate from that of the country as a whole.
Addressing fears that Trump might cut earth science research by NASA and end Department of Energy funding for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and other California labs that study climate change, Brown had fighting words for Trump. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight. We’re ready to defend,” he told a conference of earth scientists last month. “And, if Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.”
In the Hunger Games world of Trump’s America, California is now District 13. Today is the start of what’s likely to be a bruising battle between Sacramento and Washington, DC, which will not let up for at least the next two years.
The picture above, tweeted out last night by Politico co-founder Mike Allen, is one of the saddest images I’ve seen since Election Day.
— Mike Allen (@mikeallen) December 19, 2016
Here are a couple more gems that followed.
— Mike Allen (@mikeallen) December 19, 2016
— Mike Allen (@mikeallen) December 19, 2016
— Mike Allen (@mikeallen) December 19, 2016
The occasion of these tweets, in case you haven’t heard, was the off-the-record cocktail party Trump threw for his traveling press corps — the same reporters he mocked throughout his campaign, and continues to call a bunch of liars, along with the rest of the media. The same reporters who watched Trump single out one of their own at three separate rallies in front of his hopped-up crowds, knowingly and deliberately putting her physical safety at risk. These reporters were invited to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort, to chat with him for a half hour over drinks, on the condition they don’t tell their readers (us) anything about what he says. Mike Allen thought we might be more interested in pictures of the fancy drapes at his exclusive beach club than his answers to boring policy questions, I guess.
It’s hard not to hear the utter glee in Mike Allen’s voice that pervades these tweets. This isn’t Mike Allen presenting Exhibits A through D of the utterly depraved way in which Trump manipulates his critics and seduces them into servility with cheap theatrics and mid-shelf champagne. This is Mike Allen reveling in it.
The defensive response from Mark Caputo, Politico’s Florida correspondent, while the gusts of the dust storm that Allen’s tweets kicked up blew at 100 miles per hour on Twitter, is perhaps even more pathetic.
Trump shouldve had a press conference or 2 by now, but are reporters supposed to foot-stomp & refuse to talk to him off record as a result?
— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) December 19, 2016
The answer to Caputo’s question is yes. Obviously, yes. When a president refuses to meet with reporters in public and on the record, openly lies about things that stoke hatred and can get people hurt, and discredits the very notion of independent journalism, you don’t meet with him on his unprecedentedly anti-democratic and lop-sided terms. You don’t go and treat yourself to his roast beef with Lay’s potato chips or whatever garbage that is in the spread he put out for you, ask him whatever questions you had that you’re keeping secret from the rest of us, and then dutifully refuse to tell the public anything about his answers. Why do journalists covering the President-elect of the United States need this explained to them?
Trump has been flogging the media for almost two years now. More, if you include his birther crusade. Now, by accepting his terms — seaside wining and dining and a photo op for your Twitter followers in exchange for keeping your mouth shut — Trump’s traveling press corps has signaled their submission to his dominance over them. They have internalized his message to them — an incredible one for a reality show media creation whose path to the White House was made possible solely and exclusively through his years in front of network TV cameras — that they need him but he doesn’t need them back. They have telegraphed to Trump that he owns them now.
They might not see it that way, but it doesn’t matter how they see it, because from everything we know about Trump, we can be sure that’s how he sees it. And if he sees it that way, then behold the new rules of engagement for relations between the next Washington press corps and the President of the United States for the next four to eight years, at least.
Take another look at the picture. This is the indelible portrait of what Speaking Truth to Power now means, under President Trump.
A few weeks ago, I met with a family of Syrian refugees at their temporary home in Anaheim, California. Sixteen members of the extended family had fled the country together, and now were living under a single roof. One couple slept on the floor of a tiny bedroom, next to their four children, who shared a bed. The grandparents slept in the hallway. The grandfather told me their living conditions were worse than at a refugee camp.
The family came from Homs, an industrial city whose residents were among the first to join the peaceful protest movement that eventually became the Syrian Revolution. The grandfather, who was a member of the city’s Local Coordination Committee, the civilian administrative apparatus of the revolution, told me he was present for the very first hour of the first protest in Homs. His son was arrested by the regime and tortured for five months before they fled. While he was in prison, their home was bombarded. The family was driven underground, and then into exile, first to Egypt, then to the United States.
The family’s story tracked the history of Syria’s path from protest to revolution. That history has been told many times. But given the level of confusion and indifference in the West to the nearly incomprehensible catastrophe that has unfolded over the last five years, it’s worth retelling it many, many more times.
The uprising is usually traced back to the moment in 2011 when a group of mischievous teenagers in Daraa spray painted an anti-regime slogan on the wall of a school. “Your turn, Doctor,” the graffiti read. The “doctor” in question was Dr. Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president, or more accurately, its tyrant and dynastic leader. “Your turn” was a reference to the revolutions overturning dictatorships all over the Middle East at that time, at the height of the Arab Spring.
The regime arrested 15 schoolboys for the crime and tortured them mercilessly, beating them, burning them, and ripping out their fingernails. When the boys’ parents demanded their release, they were told to forget about them. “Sleep with your wives and make more children,” the fathers were told. “Or send them to me and I’ll do it for you.”
A country whose people had been terrorized by their government for generations was set aflame by the news. People gathered in the streets to protest the regime. They were unarmed, carrying only banners. That didn’t stop the military from firing on them with live ammunition, killing dozens. Nor did the regime’s murderous response stop the protests from swelling, not just in Daraa, but in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Douma, Hama, and in other cities and throughout the countryside. The demonstrations began each week after Friday prayers in the mosques, not for any religious reason but simply because that’s when and where people routinely gathered. The demands of the protesters were liberal and secular: more political freedom, and more economic equality in a country in which half of the nation’s wealth was in the hands of five percent of the population, and in which wealth and opportunity were distributed to Baath Party loyalists by the President’s patronage machine.
The impetus for the protest movement was the arrest and torture of the boys in Daraa, but of course the seeds of revolution were much older. They began with Bashar al-Assad’s neoliberal “reforms” of the economy. Bashar inherited his rule over the country after the death in 2000 of his father, Hafez, who was also a tyrant. As a soft-spoken, Western-educated opthamologist, Syrians hoped that Bashar would bring compassion and political liberalization to their country. But beginning that year, Assad privatized farm lands, which led to peasant evictions, cut subsidies to food and fuel and dismantled the social safety net, which further immiserated the poor, and liberalized real estate, which shifted ordinary Syrians out of decent housing and into slums that were emerging around the cities like mushrooms after rain. What Syrians experienced as economic dislocation the regime celebrated as “modernization.” But throughout this “modernizing” process, the old, crude, feudal political structure of state repression overseen by Hafez persisted unchanged: the kind of apparatus that was capable of torturing schoolboys and gloating about it to their families.
The uprising was violent from the very beginning, but the violence was in one direction only: the state inflicting it upon unarmed protesters. That changed when soldiers in the Syrian army began to defect. Unwillling to bend their consciences to fear or loyalty, a growing number of SAA troops abandoned their posts and took their weapons with them. Knowing that the consequence of their arrest would be death, they turned their guns against the regime as much for personal self-preservation as for defense of the civilian communities they had re-joined. With guns pointed now in both directions, and with the Assad regime completely unwilling to entertain any of the protest movement’s demands, the uprising entered a new phase. It had become a revolution.
Assad knew that a secular revolution against his tyrannical rule was an existential threat, since such a vision was capable of uniting Syrians across sectarian lines, and of galvanizing a consensus of world opinion against his rule. Thus, from the start, it was his imperative to jihadize the opposition. He began this process in 2011, by releasing 1,500 Salafists from his prisons. Among those released were founding members of Jabhat al-Nusra — Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — and two future key leaders of ISIS. As Assad unleashed the full force of his military on the secular Free Syrian Army militias that had mobilized out of the protest movement and his own army’s defectors, he steered his battalions away from the jihadists, allowing their networks to metastasize. In theory, the jihadists were committed to the fall of the regime; in practice, their first priority was to clear the field of competition and commandeer the popular revolution. Soon, the FSA found itself fighting on two fronts: against the regime on the one hand, and against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra on the other.
The FSA was composed, in the main, of “soldiers” who had been school teachers, farmers, electricians, pharmacists, janitors, and bus drivers before the revolution, along with a small contingent of SAA defectors. Syrian society had always been largely secular; religious extremism was a fringe movement there, never a broad mobilizing force. The FSA, with its secularism and roots in the early uprising, had a monopoly on credibility with ordinary Syrians who opposed the regime. But as the war dragged on, it became increasingly obvious that the jihadists — in particular Jabhat al-Nusra (ISIS was too far beyond the pale) — with their funding from the Gulf states and their inflow of war-hardened foreign fighters from Iraq and Chechnya and Afghanistan, were capable, unlike many FSA contingents, of actually defending their cities and villages from the professional armies of Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah.
In their desperation, it became possible for Syrians to entertain the possibility of making common cause with the jihadists, for the time being, as a matter of survival, and rid themselves of the extremists later. That distasteful wager became inescapable after Obama allowed Assad to cross his “red line” and use chemical weapons against civilians with impunity. Obama’s retreat was the moment that convinced Syrians once and for all that the international community — aside from meager and intermittent arms supplies to the FSA orchestrated by the CIA, usually upon the condition that they train their sights on ISIS instead of Assad — would never ride in to their rescue. They were on their own, and could either tentatively ally themselves with Al Qaeda terrorists or be annihilated. It was a Devil’s Bargain; there was no way around it. It was a question of life or death.
That decision, if you can call it that, proved to vindicate Assad’s cynical gambit. The “marbling” of the FSA with al-Nusra and other jihadist contingents muddied the morality of the entire revolution to observers in the West — observers, it should be noted, whose governments had done nothing to help the opposition when it faced the prospect of extermination, and whose inaction created the vacuum that Al Qaeda eagerly stepped into. For every call for solidarity with the revolution, questions were now raised about who the opposition really was, whose geopolitical interests it really stood for, whether we were being told the whole truth about them. The left-wing media, at outlets like Salon, Alternet, and Electronic Intifada, have played an especially nefarious role in this respect. Over time, doubts about the righteousness of the revolution became wholesale conspiracy theories on these websites of a Western-backed “regime change” plot against Assad, complete with staged rescue operations and faked reports of atrocities by covert shills pretending to be civilians under bombardment. This counterrevolutionary narrative reached its crescendo even as Russia entered the war and began dropping incendiary bombs on neighborhoods and targeting schools and hospitals, bringing the level of suffering and death to world historical proportions.
This week, after four years under opposition control, the east side of what was once Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, finally fell to the regime. As reports of atrocities crowded the headlines of the “mainstream” media, the conspiracy theories of the “alternative” media flooded the internet in tandem, both echoing and echoed by Russian state-owned propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik, impugning every eyewitness, adding a touch of murkiness to the sudden clarity with which millions of people around the world finally beheld the scale of Assad’s monstrousness.
Aleppo was exceptional in Syria in that it was where the opposition was the freest of jihadist control and perversion. That did little to stop Assad’s apologists on the left from portraying it as a terrorist stronghold, even as its population was massacred. These apologists have small platforms, but their voices are intensified by the ignorance and indifference of much of the world to what’s happening in Syria. When you know next to nothing about a subject, it doesn’t take much to confuse you. And all these concocted counternarratives really need to do is to confuse, not necessarily to persuade. Confusion is enough to impede solidarity and derail the consensus necessary for concerted action. With all of Aleppo now under regime control, Assad’s war machine will move on to Idlib. Surely its demented apologists will follow it there.
I haven’t spoken to the family in Anaheim since eastern Aleppo surrendered to Assad. I’m not sure what I’d ask them if I did. From a world away, they’ve watched Aleppo fall, and with it, the revolution that started for them with a demonstration in Homs and ended with a sad and transitory existence in a strange land in Southern California. I wonder if they believe they’ll ever return to their ravaged home in Syria. I wonder if they’ll ever want to.
A couple of weeks ago, I objected to certain slogans coming out of the protests against Trump that implied he was an illegitimate president. If those of us who oppose him are going to be forced to spend the next four years defending the rules, procedures, norms and institutions of democracy from a potential autocrat, I argued, we have to start by respecting those things, which meant recognizing Trump as the legitimately elected President-elect.
Now, with the intelligence reports of Russian interference in the election building a head of bipartisan steam, I’m not so certain anymore. The legitimacy of President-elect Trump has shifted from settled fact to an empirical question. Unfortunately, the evidence underlying the answer to that question is highly classified, which is why Democrats and a handful of Republicans have been calling for investigations and for the declassification and public disclosure of the CIA and FBI findings.
Today, more Congressional Republicans jumped on board with the call for an inquiry. Those Republicans include Senator Mitch McConnell, who was presented with the agencies’ evidence prior to Election Day and responded to it by threatening to accuse the White House of playing politics with intelligence should they have made it public. Paul Ryan is also on board.
Of course, any investigation will be controlled by Republicans, as the majority party in both chambers. Republicans will dictate the timeline and the zeal and the overall direction of the effort, and the calendar and witnesses for hearings. They’ll be able to turn the inquiry on full blast and then tamp it down to a trickle and back again at will, like a spigot.
McConnell insists that “this cannot be a partisan issue.” But partisanship will inevitably enter into the inquiry, and it is more likely to come from the party that McConnell leads, the one that can actually dictate the course of the investigations, than from the Democrats, who can’t.
Trump may be the leader and the President-elect of the Republican Party, but that doesn’t mean he’s trusted by the establishment leaders he spent his entire campaign belittling, and whose free market orthodoxy he pilloried more effectively than any Democrat in living memory. Trump’s economic cabinet appointments must come as a great relief to Paul Ryan, but it never hurts to have something punitive to wield just in case the President changes his famously capricious mind about whatever deal they’ve undoubtedly made to sign Ryan’s precious deregulatory, tax-cutting, austerity-imposing fiscal agenda into law — especially given what a risk that agenda poses to Trump’s coalition.
Controlling an investigation into potentially treasonous activity is leverage, indeed. It’s a powerful tool for Congressional Republicans to force a bullying, recalcitrant president back into line. Even one from their own party.
Which makes the advent of an investigation into Russian election tampering good news for Republican leaders — but not necessarily so for the rest of the country.