Soon after 9/11, soldiers appeared in Penn Station to search for, and theoretically protect us from, the terrorist. They were dressed in camouflage uniforms, carrying military rifles. I was never comfortable with people standing around a place jammed with people “carrying” military rifles. There was just too much that could go wrong.
But what struck me as goofy was that they were dressed in camo. Camouflage was not the way to blend in at Penn Station. A nice grey suit would have worked, but given the lack of trees and forest, camo was just plan silly. One day I asked one of the soldiers, and she told me that it wasn’t so much that camo was chosen because it was a great look, but because the options were limited. It wasn’t like they had a closet full of color choices for their military work clothes, so they wore what they had, which was designed for use in the desert or woods.
The New York Times makes a point that was first addressed, and with far greater depth, by Radley Balko in his seminal book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, which will soon be reissued with a new intro and conclusion and two new chapters. The federal agents in Portland dressed up in camo, which might be confused with various military cosplayers or intended to be intimidating, but failed to either provide clear information that they were law enforcement or that they weren’t present to wage war against their countrymen. That was a problem.
Masked men, clad indistinguishably from soldiers, yanking civilians off the street in the dead of night and throwing them into unmarked cars is the modus operandi of totalitarian regimes — or the stuff of dystopian fiction.
But that’s now the reality in America. In recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security has sent hundreds of federal agents into Portland, Ore., to quell protests over racism and police violence.
The rental minivan snatchings were wrong and awful, but that’s a separate issue that happened very briefly and ended weeks ago, even if it’s what the Times insists on using for the basis of its editorial. Afterward, the DHS agents remained camo-clad in their defense of the Portland courthouse. Whether it was to “quell protests” or prevent fires and bombings is a matter of perspective, of which the Times has its own.
Many of those federal agents aren’t easily recognizable as law enforcement officials, nor do they act like them. Even the military is concerned about the public confusion sewn into society when heavily armed federal agents dress like soldiers. All the more reason that the federal agents on the streets of American cities be required to wear uniforms that clearly identify themselves and their civilian agency.
The federal agents were neither cops on the beat nor Sheriff Andy.* DHS doesn’t have a police force and these weren’t “cops.” Didn’t anyone tell the Times? They had no ordinary cop suit in the closet to wear, clip-on tie and peaked hat. And they aren’t issued 20 uniforms for all occasions. No one planned on the feds being sent to Portland to defend a courthouse from being torched, so there was no designated uniform for that purpose, carefully planned to serve its protective purpose in a riot while giving the correct impression and providing clear notice that these were neither military troops nor Boogaloo Boys.
Camouflage uniforms are intended to conceal a person’s presence and intentions from an enemy, or hunters from their quarry. But in our masked and militarized moment, the righteous should make every effort to publicly stand out from the wicked. The only reason to wear camouflage in an urban setting — be it federal agents or self-declared militia members — is intimidation.
Camo is silly in an urban setting, because it obviously doesn’t serve to camouflage anyone. And all uniforms incorporate an intent to intimidate, a means of obtaining compliance. State Troopers don’t really need leather knee-high boots or Sam Browne belts, but they make the troopers look very serious. You don’t want to screw with them.
Whether “shattering” bones is distinct from “thrashing” people, or the consequence, it’s true that every government agent should be individually identifiable so that they can be held accountable. And no, the whether the people beaten were protesters or rioters makes no difference, as one doesn’t justify the other. Even if only identifiable by number rather than name, they should be clearly identified by command and some individualized identifier. They are still government agents, and the people they’re “thrashing” are still Americans. And all of this was happening in Portland, not Beirut, so they play by the rules of America.
Naturally, a bill has been introduced in Congress to address this “nightmare,” which is insufferably simplistic.
A new bill, introduced by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., would require on-duty federal and local law enforcement officers to identify themselves at all times, by name,** agency and badge number. That’s a good start, but is also insufficient.
So no more undercover officers to infiltrate White Supremacy groups or the mob? FBI agents should have their names on their suits when they search for Russian spies? Smart, yet not good enough for the Times.
Discarding the woodland camouflage, military-style weaponry and violent tactics while on urban policing duty in Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin would send an even clearer signal that federal agents intend to protect the peace, not wage a war.
While the naiveté reflected by editorial board is adorable, here they have a point. There’s no reason for feds to wear camo other than the government has uniforms left over from the military. They are not soldiers. Americans are not the enemy. The message is wrong, both to those wearing soldier uniforms and those trying to bomb a courthouse.
The feds can’t be blamed for not having a more appropriate uniform. They can’t magically make one appear the instant it’s needed. The situation was exigent and they used what they had. While there will be significant dispute as to what would be the right uniform, what markings it should bear, how protective of agents it should be, and what message it should send, it should distinguish law enforcement from soldiers, clearly notify the public that the wearers are law enforcement and allow for the individualized identification of each agents.
But as new situations arise that were not anticipated and for which there were no opportunity to prepare, the expectation that these DHS agents have clothing for all occasions is idiotic. That the feds have handled themselves poorly in many instances, harmed a lot of people who may not have deserved it together with some who did, doesn’t mean better uniforms pop into existence because either the Times or AOC believe in fantasies.
*It would be great if all police would conduct themselves with the restraint, wisdom and empathy of Sheriff Andy Griffith of Mayberry, although he was just a character on a television show. Then again, it would be great if the public conducted itself like the citizens of Mayberry as well, and the biggest problem the police faced was Otis Campbell sleeping off a drunk.
**In the past, the inclusion of an officer’s name would have been fairly unremarkable. Now, however, as nutjobs on the internet doxx cops’ families, and call their fellow passionate freedom fighters to go after their spouses and children, personal names raise a serious problem.