By Craig Johnson
Recently, unidentified men in combat gear started taking people from the streets of Portland. These men claimed to be federal officers but refused to provide their names or their affiliations to those being taken or anyone witnessing the abductions. Those abducted were taken into custody, charged with crimes, and allowed to pursue bail, but the tactics used to apprehend them have set off alarm bells throughout the country. Though the affiliation of the officers remains officially unknown, the defensiveness of Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf regarding the officers’ activity and his threat to have Chicago in his sights suggests that DHS is the spearhead behind these operations. Wolf and others on the right have pushed for these tactics to be expanded as other major cities continue to see dmontstrations from the Black Lives Matter and police abolition movements in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Using unmarked vehicles, officers refusing to identify themselves, simply abducting their targets in public places, aren’t new for the DHS. These are the tactics used by the federal government when policing ethnic and religious minorities and those it accuses of having entered the country without proper documentation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in particular uses these tactics when it raids neighborhoods, buildings, and businesses where it might capture undocumented residents of the US. Secret police abductions have other precedent — see the case of Homan Square, a former secret prison operated by the Chicago police to conduct illegal torture and interrogation. Guantanamo Bay and ICE’s “Immigrant Detention Facilities,” concentration camps where people who have been accused of entering the United States without proper documentation, are similarly troubling examples that long predate what’s taking place in Portland.
What’s new is the government’s willingness to openly use these tactics against its political enemies, a step on the road to a political atmosphere unseen in the US since the Civil Rights movement era or even the Reconstruction after the Civil War. Using these tactics against the left and progressives as political enemies has disturbing precedent in the “Dirty Wars” of Argentina, Chile, and other South American countries in the 1970’s and 80’s.
“Disappearing” in the South American Context
At the heart of the similarity is the paradoxically open and secret nature of the DHS’s tactics. These abductions happen in public, on streets and sidewalks, but by masked or otherwise unidentifiable officers. They can be filmed and documented, but their institutional affiliation isn’t registered or acknowledged. This was also true of the abductions carried out in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and other South American countries under their dictatorships. There, this tactic is called “disappearing.”
When a person was disappeared — someone like a political activist, a union organizer, a journalist, a militant student, or someone affiliated with them — it meant being taken from their home, place of work, or in public, being put in an unmarked vehicle, and then taken to an undisclosed location, often never to be heard from again. Hence the name: according to the government, the kidnapped person had simply “disappeared.” Their abduction, and the torture and murder which often followed, was never acknowledged. Despite the passage of decades, hundreds of trials and international investigations, and thousands of witnesses, many of these abductions have merely been acknowledged as historic wrongs by their country’s civilian governments but not formally prosecuted (often due to amnesties granted upon the return of civilian government to avoid the specter of another coup).
In South America, the tactic of disappearance produced brutal results. Due to their secretive nature exact numbers will likely never be established, but current estimates hold that in Chile the government killed some three thousand people in this way. In Argentina the number ranges from fifteen to thirty thousand. Not included in these counts are the thousands more who were tortured and then released, parents who lost their children, lovers who lost their companions. Even the worst of similar tactics for political repression used in the US, from the anti-Communism of the McCarthy blacklist, to union busting, to the violence inflicted on Civil Rights leaders and organizers didn’t reach this scale of state organized violence and repression.
Knowing how far that oppression set back organizing in the United States tells of the severe, incalculable damage the Dirty Wars had on South American politics. These societies were robbed of countless organizers, mentors, and comrades, current and future politicians, not to mention the expectation that their societies were functional democracies — up until the coup in 1973, Chile was among the longest functioning democracies in the world. Since the return of democracy to the region throughout the 1980’s many of these countries have been slowly recovering, though recent events in Chile and Brazil remind us that these violences have long afterlives.
The DHS’s activity in Portland isn’t yet close to that seen in South America, but as a step in that direction it must be condemned and fought not just on the grounds of liberal democracy and human rights but as part of the global struggle against the right-wing.
The Danger of Civilian Involvement
Another important ingredient in the South American Dirty Wars was civilian involvement in state violence. During the Dirty Wars it was impossible to know if someone’s abductors were from the army, or the police, or from the menagerie of civilian right-wing groups who were their political allies. Further confusing things is that military and police officers mingled with right-wing partisans, clouding the boundaries between the two to the point that they represented a united front against the left. The role of civilians in the disappearances and the terror they caused reveals the essentially partisan motives behind the terror. Its goal was to disrupt the left and to advance the causes of the right as a political force. As in the US today, when the government spoke of “lawlessness” or “threats to national security” they were talking about the left as a political movement.
Cooperation between partisan militants and the state is already present in the US. Since 2016 there have been reports of the police cooperating with right-wing militants, informing them of ways they can target the left or extensively warning them before enforcing the same laws they use to crack down on progressives. Oregon is one of the epicenters of this cooperation, and indeed one of the epicenters of the alt-right itself since its rise around the last Presidential election. Portland itself has seen more of these close connections than many other cities, including evidence that its police chief and the leader of one of the leading fascist groups in the US, Patriot Prayer, aren’t just in contact but are friends. ICE has even begun offering training on how it conducts arrests for interested would-be vigilantes.
As Trump and his administration expand the tactics seen in Portland to other US cities, we must expect to see a rise in this kind of cooperation. Right-wing militants and the violent arms of the state will work together to police and attack populations already disproportionately affected by state violence. This is the scenario nightmares are made of, with the persecution of the right’s political and group enemies increasingly in the hands of right-wing partisans tolerated or supported, but not fully controlled, by the state. Historians and social scientists have a name for such a political system: fascism.
The situation in the United States is still far from that of Argentina in 1976, or Chile in ‘73, or Brazil in ‘65, or that of many other democracies that have fallen to this pattern of state and partisan violence. In some ways the DHS’s behavior in Portland is business as usual. But as a harbinger of worse things to come it demands attention, opposition, and planning. In this we can take up the examples of those who fought those dictatorships, organizers who lived through their oppression to re-from their political parties after the return of democracy. With the benefit of hindsight, we know the threat we face, and understand our moral and political obligation to meet it.