The Rebellion in Defense of Black Lives Is Rooted in U.S. History. So, Too, Is Trump’s Authoritarian Rule.

Authors Keisha Blain and Stuart Schrader are this week’s guests.

Photo Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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Donald Trump is threatening to escalate the violent crackdown on national protests against police killings of African Americans. This week on Intercepted: With the threat of a widespread military deployment in U.S. cities looming, the president is acting as an authoritarian dictator. Keisha Blain, author of “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom,” discusses the history of black rebellion against police violence, the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, and the life of journalist Ida B. Wells. Blain, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, also discusses the context of various protests tactics and the weaponization of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Police forces across the U.S. are functioning as violent militias equipped with military gear. Operating like a violent counterinsurgency force, the government has used drones and is using other military and intelligence-grade surveillance systems on protesters. Stuart Schrader, author of “Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing” and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, analyzes the long and intertwined history between policing in the U.S. and abroad. Schrader also discusses the context of U.S. military deployment on American soil and the long tradition of militarized police forces.

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 133 of Intercepted. 

Donald Trump: That is why I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America. I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting; to end the destruction and arson; and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.

JS: We are, at this moment, in the midst of a brutal campaign of state-sanctioned terror and violence that is being unleashed against protesters who have risen up to demand an end to the police murder of black people in this country. There are powerful and prominent figures in the United States right now who are trying to distract and deflect from the real crisis: the actions that sparked these rebellions. And that is the rampant murder of black lives that is encouraged and immunized from accountability by the federal, state, and local governments of this country. 

DJT: As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property.

JS: On Monday, Donald Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military to crush these uprisings. He is telling governors that they have been too soft in confronting the protesters and he said that they need to be violently dominated. And he makes these statements as police forces across this country are, at this very moment, operating as violent, racist posses with badges hunting and beating people, macing people, using chemical agents to attack people — in some cases killing protesters. Police and their civilian allies are increasingly using vehicles to attack demonstrators.

[Protest ambiance.]

JS: The response from the state has made clear that violently crushing these protests is more important than stopping the murder of Black people in this country by the very people who they claim are there to keep the peace. The state is sending a message that the stores of WalMart and McDonald’s and Chase bank are more important than the lives of black people.

The horrifying murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis was a modern day lynching. The officer murdered Floyd by handcuffing him and then strangling Floyd with his knee to the neck for more than eight minutes. 

George Floyd: …knee on my neck. I can’t breathe, Sir.

Bystander: Well get up, get in the car, man!

GF: I will!

B: Get up, get in the car!

GF: I can’t move!

B: I’ve been watching the whole time…

GF: Ah!

B: Get up, get in the car!

GF: Mama!

JS: And it was the failure of the state to swiftly arrest and charge this officer that sparked this rebellion. Three of the officers involved have still not been charged. And while the police operate with near total impunity, more than 4,400 protesters have been arrested. Thousands more have been beaten and brutalized by police forces. But the roots of this crisis are much deeper than the events of the past weeks. It is the product of a white supr emacist system that has told Black people over and over that their lives do not matter and that their deaths will almost never find justice.

We cannot ignore the history that precedes the murder of George Floyd. We cannot ignore the long history of rebellions sparked by racist murders in this country. We cannot ignore the unending legacy of militarized police that have terrorized Black communities. We cannot ignore the tropes and lies and propaganda used throughout history to try to discredit the righteous anger that manifests in the streets. We must study all of this and use this history to inform our anger and our resistance and our solidarity.

All of this is happening in the midst of a deadly pandemic. And the overwhelmingly young people who are at the forefront of these black-led rebellions are sending a message that this racist system poses a greater threat to their lives than a shockingly deadly pandemic. Juxtapose that reality with the white, heavily armed mobs that descended on state houses to demand a reopening of their hair salons or their stores. The people that Trump cheered on from the White House. 

DJT: I’m viewing our great citizens of this country, to a certain extent and to a large extent, as warriors. They’re warriors. We can’t keep our country closed. We have to open our country.

JS: We are at a crossroads right now in this situation, with the president acting as an authoritarian dictator threatening to unleash the most lethal killing force the world has ever known onto the streets of the U.S. cities to hunt down their own citizens. The presidential election is five months away and what the people leading these rebellions and taking to the streets are saying is that we don’t have five months to wait. The impunity must end now. The state murder of black lives must end now.

Now, some commentators are reaching for examples from far off countries and their despots or dictators to explain this moment. But the history is right here, in our own nation. Trump is not some foreign anomaly. He is firmly rooted in the racist history of this nation. He is a product of it. So today, we are going to look at that history, the history that brought us to this day and this moment. Later in the program, I’ll be joined by Stuart Schrader — a scholar on race, policing, and counterinsurgency — to discuss the history of militarized police forces and the current weapons and tactics that they are using in an effort to kill these uprisings.

But we begin with Dr. Keisha Blain. She is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and President of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is also a 2019-2020 W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. Dr. Blain is the author of the multi-prize-winning book,? “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.” She recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Violence in Minneapolis is rooted in the history of racist policing in America.” 

Historian Keisha Blain on the History of Black Rebellion Against Police Violence

Dr. Keisha Blain, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.

Keisha Blain: Thank you for having me.

JS: What happened now that sparked this broad rebellion across this country?

KB: I think there are several factors. The first that I would emphasize is coronavirus. This pandemic is completely devastating black communities in particular, and my sense is that, when people saw the video of George Floyd in particular, it certainly reignited a frustration that we’ve long felt. I think people thought, well, we’re currently going through a global pandemic. Certainly if there’s a moment where we would not expect this kind of unrest, certainly there’s a moment where we would somehow get a break from the kind of pattern and cycle of police violence and brutality, maybe it will be this moment. Of course that was wishful thinking. What we learned very quickly is that even in the context of a virus, once again, black people are being targeted, arrested, pulled off of buses for not wearing masks — at the same time not even having access to some of these resources. And I would also add, too, that it’s an election year, and I think people really felt the need to push to the surface these issues and to say whoever is going to take the highest office of the land need to address these issues. And clearly we have someone in the White House who’s not committed to doing any of that. But at the very least, in pushing the agenda, we can ensure that at least the Democratic nominee can be particularly mindful of the need to come up with strategies for dealing with police brutality and violence, and I should specify police killings, which is exactly what we see taking place right now.

JS: As a historian, what comes to mind as you watch the response of the state right now?

KB: I think a lot about the civil rights movement and the Black Power era. It’s somewhat ironic that today people will refer back to Martin Luther King, Jr.. They’ll refer back to Rosa Parks. Because what we see is this general sense that, well, the civil rights movement was a time where people came together. They challenged white supremacy. They pushed for black political rights. And somehow we think this is truly a triumphant story. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t triumphant, because we certainly can point to very specific gains of the civil rights movement. At the same time, what a lot of people don’t think about is that the civil rights movement encountered the same kinds of resistance that we see taking place in this moment with the protests and the uprising. Everytime activists would come together — whether it was in Mississippi, for example, for Freedom Summer, whether activists came together to try to organize black people to register these individuals to vote — all of a sudden the narrative in the media would be: Well here you have it. These outside agitators, folks are coming from the North. They’re coming to Mississippi and they’re coming and they’re bringing all of these perspectives that are so foreign to this space. And they are corrupting our entire community.

Ross Barnett, Former Gov. Miss. (1964): Any youngsters whose parents do not insist that they stay away from other states, trying to tell the people of other states how to conduct their affairs, because they do not know what it’s all about. And it’s pitiful that parents haven’t trained their children in the way that they should have. They ought to stay at home and work. They ought to stay at home and tend to their own 

KB: Once again we see protests erupting. We see uprisings. People are trying to call attention to police violence and brutality and to make a demand that would bring an end to it. And at the statewide level and certainly at the federal level the response is very much trying to often frame the narrative that it’s, “Well, this isn’t really a local issue or even a problem for us. It’s these other people coming from some other place imposing upon our communities.” And so the civil rights movement, I think, is a very good parallel when you think about how a movement that we now regard as successful, at the time, was completely despised by the people living in that moment. And similarly I think there’s a lot of frustration and people are very critical of current uprisings, but I suspect looking forward in another 20, 30 years, we might look back and be telling a similar kind of narrative. Assuming, and I’m hopeful, that we are successful at overturning these systems of oppression.

JS: I also want to ask you about the way that particularly white people in this country, including people within the Trump administration, his own press secretary, are attempting to weaponize their own white-washed, sanitized, reduced version of who Dr. Martin Luther King was, what he stood for, what his positions were on the very types of rebellions that we’re seeing today.

Kayleigh McEnany: Police protecting protesters and protesters embracing police. And it’s been beautiful to watch, though those images have not been played all that often. And I just want to leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that, “We must learn together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.” Thank you.

JS: Talk about this attempt to weaponize the legacy of Martin Luther King to discredit certain types of protesters right now.

KB: This is something that we see happening time and time again. And today we talk about King as someone well-loved and revered and respected, and that is certainly true today. But in the context in which he was working, at the time that he was leading and organizing, he was not well-loved and respected. Certainly the mainstream media criticized him in a similar way that we see critiques taking place today about current social movements. So it is interesting that now in 2020, people look back and they imagine that King was someone so well-loved and somehow his commitment to non-violent activism was so well embraced and received that this is in fact everything we should aspire to be. But the reality is that he, too, faced resistance. And the reality is too that he had a far more expansive political vision than many people will acknowledge. And that includes, among other things, and this is something I recently wrote about, the fact that he was also critical about police violence and brutality. So, even as people try to use King to say “Look, Martin Luther King provided the model. Let’s not get in the streets. Let’s not push too hard. Let’s tow the line quietly and let’s not call out these issues.” King himself did not tow the line. King himself did not shy away from addressing the issues that we are trying still to address today.

JS: You know, I want to also ask you about the way, in our society, that we discuss the destruction of property during rebellion or protests, or the smashing of businesses or the burning down of businesses. We see a lot of pearl clutching about this and it’s ahistorical. And I’m wondering if you could provide some broader historical context going back to the 60s, but also through the uprising in L.A. in the 90s following the verdict in the Rodney King case, and sort of how we talk about rebellion and the destruction of property. Because a lot of the media focus is on that right now. But I’m wondering if you can give some historical context to why we see those types of actions in response to state violence or state murder or the assassination of black leaders.

KB: I think it’s important to understand that in the fight for freedom, people have to use whatever tools are at their disposal. And so what do I mean? In the fight for freedom there are so many different avenues one can take. There are different strategies one can take. Some individuals may choose to focus on transforming the law. We see that historically through groups like the NAACP. Other groups may focus less on changing laws but they may be more interested in going into communities and organizing at the grassroots level to mobilize people to vote. We see that for example with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Narrator: The Director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration project in Mississippi, Robert Moses.

Robert Moses: The young people working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC as we call it, are characterized by restless energy, radical change in race relations in the United States. Their world is upset and they feel that if they are ever going to get it straight, they must upset it more.

KB: And then there are activists who take a far more radical approach and that’s what we see expressed through groups like the Black Panther Party, that pushed for armed self-defense; that recognized that it was important to protect black communities; that ultimately took the First and the Second Amendment and decided that it was important for black people to be protected under those as well.

Bobby Seale: When Huey says, “Every black man, put a shotgun in your home.” And once we let the man know, say, “Look, we armed from block to block, and we going to patrol you from our windows. And we not going to have you brutalizing none of our people in the streets.” Do you realize what kind of power black people have then? Cause you begin to neutralize that police force, because them cops going to start riding shaky and scared. In fact, we in a position then to demand that they withdraw from our community, because they occupy our community just like a foreign troop occupies territory. Very important to understand. We hate cops beating black people over their heads and murdering them. That’s what we hate.

KB: The question always comes up: What is successful, or what actually works? My answer would be that it’s not one thing that necessarily works. It’s actually everything combined that works. So how do you chip away at a system? How do you dismantle systems of oppression? Well, you do it a hundred different ways. Yes, people are always going to criticize the destruction of property. Yes, people are always going to criticize looting. All of these things certainly make people uncomfortable. But my response would be: Are you more uncomfortable with the destruction of property than you are with the killing of black people in this country? Are you more concerned about stores being looted than you are about seeking justice for those who are losing their lives over and over again? So my worry is often that we get so caught up in one particular approach or one strategy and we lose sight of the larger picture. How do we seek justice? How do we change the systems that oppress black and brown people in this country, rather than focusing squarely on the fact that a building might have been destroyed? Because one can rebuild. One can restore physical things. But can we ever bring back George Floyd? No. Can we rebuild a store in a community that might have been torched? Yes, we can. Will it require resources and funds to do so? Yes, but at least it’s possible. And I don’t think we should be at a place where we’re comparing, necessarily, lives to property. 

The fact that we do have so many uprisings, the fact that people are constantly seemingly in the same struggle over and over again for full rights and freedom underscores the ways that we are still, as black people in this country, regarded as lesser-than, regarded as second class citizens. Yes, we can cast a ballot. Yes, we can participate in public life in ways that our ancestors could not. But that doesn’t amount to, I think, full citizenship rights, especially when we are here making the case: Please don’t kill us. We shouldn’t have to be saying, “black lives matter.” The fact that we have to say it, and the fact that there’s still resistance to saying it, reveals how much work there needs to be done in this country.

JS: As you watch Donald Trump threaten to unleash the active U.S. military on protesters and rebellions across this country, and you watch him have a peaceful demonstration brutalized so that he can do a photo-op to walk, bible in hand, to a church, what historical context can you offer for what Donald Trump represents at this exact moment in history?

KB: He is very much committed to supporting and upholding his base.

DJT: I am your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters.

KB: To hear him go on and on about needing to clear the streets, about the need to institute “law and order,” all the while overlooking the very issue that people have been talking about, the very issue that led people to the streets in the first place. One being police violence, police killings, but also all this happening in the context of the coronavirus, of which he has completely mishandled. And so here you have a public figure, a leader, rather than stepping up in the moment to offer some kind of statement that would move us closer to not just peace — because I think we often talk about peace as if that’s the only thing we should strive for — but peace and justice. That last part is key. 

To simply overlook all of that and to turn this conversation around completely and to make it about himself, as he likes to do, I think that was a difficult moment. And it played back in my mind just the ways that black people in this country have constantly been ignored, been pushed aside. And Trump is absolutely not new when you think about the kinds of ideas that he espouses and the way that he has disregarded black and brown people in particular. It’s probably, more than anything, a turning point. And I hope it’s the kind of turning point that gets people to wake up and realize what is happening in this country and to not be silent, but also to not be complacent and to, hopefully, show up in November and to be part of this effort to insure that this will be his last term.

JS: You wrote a very powerful and important op-ed piece for the Washington Post recently with the headline “Violence in Minneapolis is rooted in the history of racist policing in America.” And among the historical episodes that you write about, there’s one that I really want to drill down to and that is the Red Summer of 1919 and the racial uprisings that erupted in more that a dozen cities across the United States. Share with us the story of what happened in 1919.

KB: This is at the end of World War I and it’s important to emphasize that because so many black people served in the U.S. military and have been doing so for centuries. But World War I in particular is a moment where people were willing to fight on behalf of the United States even though they did not, as black people, have full citizenship rights. Black soldiers return from serving overseas and when they come back home it’s very clear that, despite the sacrifices that they have made, it doesn’t amount to improvement in their lives. That despite the sacrifices that they have made to protect all Americans, regardless of race, that they would still be kept in a position as second class citizens.

What happens in the summer of 1919 is that all of these tensions unfold within black and white communities. And it really amounts to, is the way that the historian Cal Anderson describes it as white rage, I think that’s probably the best phrase to think about what happens that summer. In the case of Chicago, which I write about, an African-American teenager dares to take a swim in a whites-only section of Lake Michigan. And that seemingly small act is not so small, because what he does is he ultimately crosses this invisible, or unofficial, line. And this African-American teenager is attacked by a group of white teenagers in Chicago. They beat him up and he ultimately dies. In this particular case, the police officers refused to arrest anyone because, in this moment, they are being complicit and they’re also not necessarily in disagreement with what has happened because this young man’s death is ultimately a result of him challenging segregation policies and practices. And that leads to several days of unrest in the city. White people are attacking black communities. They go into neighborhoods and begin to confront people, attack people. Black people then have to come up with ways to defend themselves against the violence.

It results in the death of 15 white people, 23 black people, and hundreds of people are injured. Thousands of people lose their homes. We see this occurring in more than a dozen cities across the nation. Every city has its own sort of unique story as to the spark that leads to the unrest, but what is clear is that the summer of 1919 is a moment where white people are making it clear to black Americans that we could care less whether you served in the military, we could care less what you’ve done for the betterment of our nation. You will not, you will never be treated as equal. You will not be seen as equal and white supremacy will rule the day. All that aggression comes out in the summer of 1919.

JS: We have in Donald Trump a president who has openly encouraged, emboldened, giving support to very militant white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis. He cheered on the armed state of siege at government buildings in Democratic states like Michigan, where you had overwhelmingly white mobs of armed individuals not wearing any mask in the era of the pandemic shouting in the faces of the police.

Protesters: Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!

JS: And nothing happens to them. They’re not arrested. They’re cheered on by the president. And I fear that the next step in this that we’re going to see is those people who are emboldened by Trump showing up and opening fire on people to join the police in the attacks, but to escalate it even further. Is that something that you’re concerned about as you watch these developments?

KB: I am. All of these acts of violence have been taking place on the local level already. We have seen, just in the last few years, so many instances of black people being attacked, just going about, just doing casual things. I think about the era of lynching and the reasons why we saw, in the late 19th century, even in the early 20th century, so many lynchings taking place across the country and one of the — You know, people would ask at the time, as we’re asking now about police violence, why are so many black people being lynched? And one of the answers to that question is that so many black people were being lynched because white racists were emboldened. They were emboldened by the state. They were emboldened by the support of local police. They recognized that they could do it and they could get away with it. And so the fears in this moment — What will people do? What will white supremacists do when they recognize that their actions will not lead to any negative consequences? I do worry. And already there was one video that caught my attention of a group of white men, some carrying bats and just walking through the streets, emboldened and encouraged to go into the communities and squash the protests, you know, because they feel like Trump just gave them the green light.

Unidentified man: A cop can’t defend himself, so we’re here. Anyone who wants to throw shit at a cop or pick on a cop, pick one of us the fuck out and we’ll go around the corner and fight, one on one.

KB: Today it’s bats and tomorrow it’s guns and so I worry. I certainly don’t want to see another iteration of Red Summer. But I think it’s possible, it may even be likely, if nothing changes.

JS: Black Americans are dying at the hands of police at a rate that is nearly equal to the number of documented — of course there were many, many more — but documented lynchings during the 20th century. As a historian, what is your analysis of those facts placed next to each other?

KB: We’re at a moment where we often like to talk about what we’ve accomplished as a nation and we like to celebrate. Even just thinking about the election of Barack Obama and the way that people lifted up that moment as just representative of, somehow, everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish. And I’m always careful and I’m always warning my students to be careful with these kinds of triumphant narratives. As much as I’m a person who tries to be hopeful — and I don’t think we should lose hope, I think we need hope to be able to keep fighting for another day — the danger is that, if we’re not careful, we celebrate, and as we celebrate we grow more and more complacent and we begin to look away from the problems that are right in front of us because we imagine the problems are no longer with us. 

So here’s where lynching comes in. People will talk about lynching as a thing of the past. I get that, as a historian. But is it truly a thing of the past? Now, we may not use the word lynching to the extent that we used the word lynching in the early 20th century, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we would accept that for all of the efforts of civil rights activists, despite the remarkable work of Ida B. Wells, for example, despite all the work done by the NAACP, we would have to be honest and accept that lynchings have not ended in this country. Perhaps they have taken some other form that, if we place these patterns over and over again of police violence and brutality, police killings, if we place them at the same level as we place acts of lynchings that took place in the 20th century, it would get us to stop for a moment and say: “Wow, we still have a lot of things to overcome.”  Yes, the civil rights movement led to changes in policies, led to the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, all of these are things we can celebrate. But if we’re seeing that black people are still dying at the same levels, we’re seeing that black people are still dying from, today, police violence and police killings, compared to black people dying from lynchings in the early 20th century, that should absolutely cause us to pause and it should get us, really, I think, riled up and committed to changing this and committed to ensuring that all of the work that Ida B. Wells did was not in vain.

JS: Ida B. Wells was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her journalism this year but, as a journalist, I don’t believe that we have ever rightly placed Ida B. Wells in the historical context of the importance of the work that she did and how it blazed a trail for so many journalists. And I’m hoping you can just share some of your thoughts on her life and share with people her importance to the history that we’re also seeing unfold right now.

KB: She was just so courageous. And oftentimes we talk about courage — perhaps even imagine that those who are courageous don’t experience fear. And I think when we look at Ida B. Wells’s life, it’s clear there were moments when she was fearful. And in fact, you know, Ida B. Wells, for the beginning of her career started writing these articles about lynching, talking about racial violence and very direct in denouncing what was taking place across the U.S. South in particular. And she did all of these things anonymously, initially. She wrote under a pen name because she recognized the danger of writing about these things. She recognized that she could be killed for addressing these problems publicly. And once it became clear, her identity, once people figured out who was writing under her pen name, then it meant that she was constantly a target. She had to quickly get out of Memphis because white mobs were planning to lynch her. So she becomes a target of the very thing that she’s critiquing and denouncing. 

And on top of that, one of the other things that I would emphasize, which I think is often deemphasized is the fact that her efforts were not simply national, that they were transnational efforts. In the late 19th century, she traveled to the U.K. And so for her it was about bringing attention to a problem, not just within the U.S. context, but to get people outside of the United States to be aware of what was taking place in the United States and to forge the kinds of collaborations and solidarities that would be necessary to bring an end to these practices. And I’m encouraged by some of the kinds of solidarities and networks I see being formed today, even within the context of the current uprisings and seeing activists come together in Berlin, seeing activists marching in Tokyo, seeing activists in just different cities across the globe standing with the protesters in this country.

French protesters: Tout le monde déteste la police. Tout le monde déteste la police. [Everyone hates the police.]

KB: And so I think you’re right. Ida B. Well is someone who we have not given her due. But, you know, I would emphasize, since we’ve been talking about all of these different historical figures, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and countless other individuals, you know, she wasn’t well-received and fully embraced. You know, the Pulitzer citation is lovely, but it happens, well, it happens now. Some of these things that we’re celebrating today about her life simply didn’t happen while she was doing the work. And so I hope that maybe even that fact is encouraging to those who are listening that, you know, we can toil and we can toil and we can fight and we can fight. We may never have anyone pat us on the back or say, “Congratulations, this is wonderful work you’re doing.” Actually we may get the complete opposite response, complete despise and anger and frustration directed towards us. But who knows what the story will be in another 20 or 30 years.

JS: Dr. Keisha Blain, I want to thank you for, not just for being with us, but for teaching all of us. And thanks so much for joining us here today on Intercepted.

KB: Thanks for having me.

JS: Dr. Keisha Blain is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also a 2019-2020 W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. Dr. Blain is also the author of the multi-prize-winning book,?”Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.”

[Music interlude.]

Wolf Blitzer: Clearly they don’t want these protesters to be there, even though they were peaceful. They were just screaming a little bit, but they were not endangering anyone and all of a sudden tear gas and these protesters now they’re going to presumably run away and try to regroup elsewhere but this is clearly a very, very dangerous situation and it’s unfolding as we await the President of the United States to make a statement.  

JS: On Monday, as President Trump addressed the nation from the Rose Garden, military personnel fired tear gas at demonstrators without warning. The National Guard was ordered to clear the streets so that Trump could walk from the White House to St. John’s Church across the street for a photo-op with a bible in his hand. 


Journalist: Mr. President, your thoughts right now?

Trump: We have a great country. That’s my thought. Greatest country in the world.


JS: Trump didn’t just use that violent, bloody stunt for a photo-op. He used it to create what amounted to a disgraceful political ad for himself that he distributed through official White House channels.

[White House video’s music.]

The president is acting like an authoritarian. During his Rose Garden speech as the American carnage he referred to on his inauguration was unfolding around him, Trump threatened to unleash the military on cities across this country and he characterized protests as “acts of domestic terror.”  

Trump: These are not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror. 

JS: Republican Senator Tom Cotton called for deploying some of the most lethal units of the U.S. military. 

Tom Cotton: Let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st airborne is on the other side of the street.

JS: Meanwhile, police forces across this country are acting as lawless, violent militias armed with military gear. They have used drones. They’re using military and intelligence grade surveillance systems and they are operating like a violent counterinsurgency force. And they are already doing so with the more than 17,000 National Guard troops ready to support them. According to CNN, that’s about the same number of active duty military troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Defense Secretary Mark Esper encouraged mobilizing the National Guard to “dominate the battle space.” 

Mark Esper: And so at my urging I agree we need to dominate the battle space. You have deep resources in the Guard…

JS: As Donald Trump threatens to ratchet up the violence even further against protesters with the might of the military, he would have to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807. An act “authorizing the employment of the land and naval forces of the United States, in cases of insurrections.” The Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act actually prohibits federal troops from performing domestic law enforcement. But in extreme cases, the federal government can invoke that Insurrection Act, allowing for the use of National Guard troops for law enforcement. President George H.W. Bush was the last president to invoke the Act. Guess what it was for? The 1992 LA uprisings against the acquittal of four white police officers who brutally beat Rodney King, an unarmed black man. 

ABC 7 Archive: And you can see some of the National Guard troops that are standing around that armored vehicle at this time.

Archive: So the long awaited deployment of the National Guard in southern California is now coming into place.

JS: And who was George H.W. Bush’s attorney general? William Barr. 

Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer (1992): Mr. Barr, thank you for coming. How close are you to deciding whether or not you are going to bring federal charges or at least seek federal charges against the officers who were acquitted by the state jury?

William Barr: Well, Bob, as you know we have a pending grand jury investigation of that case and under the law, I’m limited as to what I can say about it. Obviously anything I could say could jeopardize and undercut any potential future action we take.

JS: Now we should note a disturbing number of Democrats have joined Republicans in actually trying to extend William Barr’s surveillance capabilities with Donald Trump in the White House. 

Joining me now to discuss the long and intertwined history between policing in the U.S. and abroad, is Stuart Schrader. He is Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University, where he is also a Lecturer. He is the author of “Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing.” Stuart Schrader, thanks so much for being with us on Intercepted.  

Stuart Schrader on Police, Surveillance of Protesters, and Active Military on U.S. Soil

Stuart Schrader: Thanks for having me.

JS: Let’s begin just with the very, very big picture of what we’ve witnessed over these past days. Just give us your basic overview of the police response that we’re seeing right now and the tactics that they’re using.

SS: From my perspective, based on my research, I think we’re in a pretty different moment from the 1960s. The last time that there was such widespread unrest across the country in so many cities simultaneously —

Newcaster: In 1967, 126 cities were hit by racial violence, with 75 incidents classified as major riots.

Unidentified speaker: This police brutality has got to go. It’s not right. There is no reason for any policeman to handcuff a man and whup this man.

Amiri Baraka: What is responsible for this violence, for this rebellion, is the inability of the city government to feel, as human beings, the plights of the majority of the people in this city.

SS: In the 1960s, one major difference was that the federal leadership came to the conclusion quite quickly that trying to lessen the intensity of the response by police to protest, to uprising, was a good idea.

Lyndon B. Johnson: We need to know the answer, I think, to three basic questions about these riots: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

SS: The Lyndon Johnson administration started as early as 1964 to try to figure out how to lessen the violence of police across the country in response to uprisings. It didn’t really take hold during Johnson’s administration, but Johnson himself was terribly anxious about how he was perceived, how the unrest made his administration look. And those kinds of concerns with legitimacy, just really have no analog today with the Trump administration. Donald Trump has egged on police violence since day one and seems to be continuing to do it right now. I mean, American carnage —

DJT: This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

SS: You got it, buddy.

JS: I want to drill down a little bit more on the way that Trump, as the president of the United States, has responded to this. On the one hand he says we’re going to get, you know, justice for George Floyd. On the other hand, he’s saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” “law and order.” He is chiding governors for not using more force. In leaked audio we understand that he told all these governors essentially:

DJT: What’s going on in New York is terrible. It’s terrible. Of all the places, what went on last night in Los Angeles with the stores and the storefronts is terrible. No domination. You have to dominate.

JS: He has started the process of designating the very vague label of antifa,  (anti-fascist,) as a terrorist organization and is threatening to deploy the U.S. military. Put Donald Trump’s role in this in a broader historical context.

SS: During the 1960s and even earlier, it was quite common to hear, you know, these claims of outside agitators, subversives from outside the neighborhoods are the ones responsible for the rebellions. In the 1960s, the FBI itself — which was of course responsible for disseminating many of these ideas — but when it did its research, it came to the conclusion, you know, in 1964, there were not Moscow directed or paid subversives causing the unrest in Harlem.

Martin Luther King Jr.: These acts of violence were spontaneous rather than acts initiated by any communist group — spontaneous development precipitated by the murder of a 15 year-old Negro boy by a policeman.

SS: The Kerner Commission, in its research after 1967, came to the same conclusion about Newark and Detroit. They just could not find evidence of that. Now there were fanatical, anti-communists in Congress who were able to find witnesses who they could bring to testify before the House Un-american Activities Committee who would say that subversives were behind the unrest, that it wasn’t organic to the anger of people about police brutality, about inadequate schools, about inadequate employment opportunities, about inadequate housing and so on and so on. Instead it was a false anger, you know, ginned up by subversives. You see weird echoes of this today almost across the political spectrum, not only from Donald Trump and his followers.

William Barr: In many places it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far left extremist groups, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state.

SS: But also from people who are insisting that Russia is behind this or various other forms of other outside agitators.

NBC News: Tonight, growing questions about who may be under those masks sparking the violent wave of protest in Minneapolis and across the country.

Susan Rice: I would bet, based on my experience — I’m not reading the intelligence today, or these days — but based on my experience this is right out of the Russian playbook as well.

SS: Seems like just a way of avoiding dealing with the profound anger that people have and the feelings of despondence and lack of opportunity to channel their hopes and their anger into a viable political program.

JS: In addition to the armored vehicles, the tear gas, the bean bag rounds, a predator surveillance drone that we understand was operated by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol flew over Minneapolis during the protests and rebellions. In the words of the authorities to “provide situational awareness.” Talk about how police are using surveillance technology that was originally developed for the U.S. military or U.S. intelligence agencies overseas to now target protesters or surveil them.

SS: CBP, Customs and Border Protection, flew this drone over Minneapolis seemingly outside its jurisdiction. It already has massive jurisdiction. We know the FBI has surveillance planes. We don’t really know a great deal of info about how they operate. And there are other surveillance technologies being used on an everyday basis that, again, like you suggest, are examples of technologies developed for the overseas theater of war boomeranging home. In Baltimore city, there is a plane flying over the city constantly, on a daily basis now, it’s been doing so for a few weeks.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison: I’m here today to announce a pilot program for the aerial surveillance in Baltimore. As you probably know, I firmly believe in focusing on evidence-based and data-driven strategies when it comes to implementing new programs.

SS: And this surveillance plane is run by a private corporation and it’s funded by out of town billionaires who see themselves as philanthropists. The airplane flies in circles over the city for hours at a time. It records a continuous image of the city. The idea is, after the fact, investigators can look at this image and if there is an incident that they want to investigate, they can rewind the image and figure out, say, where the person in the incident started out. Where did they park their car? Where was their house? The company that operates this airplane calls it Google Earth with TiVo.

JS: So what you’re saying is that a private consortium of wealthy people who believe that what they’re doing is philanthropy are financing paramilitary style surveillance operations over the city of Baltimore?

SS: That’s exactly right.

JS: What is the name of the company?

SS: It’s Persistent Surveillance Systems. It’s based in Ohio. The billionaire philanthropists are the Arnolds, who dedicate a lot of money to liberal causes. And I think that the idea behind operating this surveillance plane over this majority black city with a high homicide rate is that this is a perfect type of laboratory for them to advance the technology so that it becomes more accurate and more capable of providing the type of information that law enforcement agencies might need. A lot of us who are critical of U.S. empire, I think, tend to imagine that the overseas setting is the kind of ultimate location where the most advanced technology will be used. Now it seems like the domestic setting is where this most advanced technology is being used. So surveillance technologies invented for the military not only are boomeranging back home, but they’re being advanced and developed and perfected back home.

JS: Donald Trump has been talking about deploying the U.S. military —

DJT: If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.

JS: We have already seen throughout our history that National Guard forces also can become killers of protesters, but specifically on this issue of deploying the United States military and then reconciling that with the Posse Comitatus statute that prohibits the U.S. military from engaging in domestic law enforcement capacities, what should we be aware of here as Donald Trump contemplates a role for the U.S. military in crushing these rebellions.

SS: From 1964 to 1968, police and National Guard and army soldiers killed a lot of protesters and killed a lot of bystanders by firing their guns at them when there were these incidents of urban unrest and protest. And the decision that came through at the federal level, in part based on the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, was to introduce so-called non-lethal weapons, primarily the chemical called CS, which has been used to a great degree over the past week across the country. CS, typically it’s called tear gas, at the time in the 1960s it was called super tear gas or something similar because it had such intense effects. The reason that the United States made the decision to introduce CS was that it had gained a great deal of experience using it overseas, particularly in South Vietnam. The experience of using CS in South Vietnam was justified by the Johnson administration by saying, “Look, this chemical weapon is really no different from what police use in the United States.” But that wasn’t really true because CS was not really available to police in the United States before 1968. But when police did start to use it, and Army and National Guard started to use it after 1968, they drew on the experiments with it that had been undertaken in Vietnam. New forms of delivery technology were invented for South Vietnam. And some of these you saw in places like the University of California at Berkeley, where famously a helicopter flew over a crowd in a plaza and dropped CS in a giant cloud out of the helicopter.

UC Berkeley archival: We are requesting you all to leave the plaza. Chemical reagents are going to be dropped in the next five minutes. 

[Crowd, helicopter ambient.]

SS: This was a technology that came directly from using it in South Vietnam. Now the idea of using these types of chemical weapons was to avoid having police shoot protesters. Instead they would be able to disperse the crowd through this extremely unpleasant chemical. But, as was the case in Vietnam, I think we see a trend today, which is that these chemicals are being used in a more offensive way. They’re not being used to de-escalate, to disperse the crowd. They’re being used almost to instantaneously punish the crowd. People are having rubber bullets fired directly at them. People are being engulfed in tear gas. It’s really dangerous. It’s extremely painful for the people who experience it. This is not a defensive, de-escalating trend. It’s, if anything, the opposite.

JS: What I really fear, in the midst of all of this horrifying state violence against protesters, is that you have these two worlds collide in an utter bloodbath where you have white supremacist, neo-Nazi supporters of the president, who have been encouraged, empowered, emboldened by him, that we could potentially see large mobs of non-badged white supremacists who are MAGA people or neo-Nazis coming out with their semi-automatic weapons and powerful weapons to “take matters into their own hands.” I am deeply concerned that could be the next chapter of this. It’s not just going to be the police beating, macing, potentially killing, arresting protesters, but actual mobs, militias coming out into the streets and taking it into their own hands.

SS: I think you’re right to fear this and it’s a real threat that the president, the White House, a whole range of voices on the side of the president who are backing him are promoting. It raises profound questions about how anybody can expect law enforcement to respond to these incidents like the killing of George Floyd. The reason that people are so angry that people are mobilizing in so many cities is this profound lack of trust in police to be made accountable. One of the reasons that there is such a lack of trust is a widespread perception of exactly what you’re saying — that many of the people in law enforcement are on the side of the far right. It will take a lot of difficult work to provide tangible evidence that this is not true. And I don’t think that contemporary law enforcement is up to the task because, in fact, they’re doing the opposite.

JS: There’s been renewed attention, and I think more people, it’s now on their radar, the police abolition movement. People who say it is completely inappropriate and unjust to have police forces like we have in this country — the whole system, not just, you know, oh, occasionally police do these bad things. But that the entire structure of our police forces in this country is in and of itself anti-democratic and against the notion of preserving the peace for the public. What is the philosophy behind policing in the United States and where did it come from?

SS: If we go back and look at the long history of police in the United States going to the beginning of the 20th century, it’s very hard to find a time when police themselves didn’t understand there to be a deep connection between what they were doing on the streets of cities within the country and what the military was doing overseas. Research that was just recently published in the American Journal of Sociology shows that a large number of police chiefs in cities across the United States who rose to prominence in the field were themselves veterans of wars in the Philippines and other places around the globe at the turn of the 20th century. They brought back home from the Philippines, parts of the Caribbean, a lot of the techniques that they had used to try to track down guerillas or insurgents. And those methods of patrol, those methods of communication, the methods of training and drilling and rehearsing the skills needed to shoot a target accurately, all of those types of practices that we would think of as totally normal policing practices nowadays have their roots in the experience of these veterans of the Spanish American war and the counterinsurgency efforts in the early part of the 20th century. And this history then gets repeated again in the period after World War II, which is what I focus on my book “Badges Without Borders,” where, once again, the counterinsurgency efforts that the United States engages in across the globe — the idea of trying to prevent subversives from fomenting a revolution in Third World countries — the United States deals with this by bolstering the police capabilities of countries around the globe. The United States assists 52 countries across the globe to improve their policing capabilities. In many cases they also deliver what we would consider military style weapons and gear to these police around the globe. 

My point is that the idea that we can look for a moment in the past when policing was pure, it wasn’t contaminated by military models, it wasn’t contaminated by the idea that policing is supposed to be directed against subversives or outside agitators or something like that, that is a myth. There is never a period that we can look to when policing is not oriented in this way against minoritized populations who are seen as politically suspect and potentially criminally inclined. Each period in time that we look at from the 20th century to the present, we see a new kind of configuration of these relationships, but they never go away.

JS: Police very rarely are held to any meaningful form of accountability, first of all when they murder people, but also when they brutalize people at protests. Why is it so incredibly difficult to have police held accountable for their crimes against civilians?

SS: Police are very good at protecting their own. This kind of disciplinary code and ethos that prevents officers from turning on their fellow officers, one of the reasons that this emerged can be traced all the way back to the 19th century where the fear — when police were putting down labor unrest, labor strikes — the fear was that police might see something in common with the workers, with the laborers, who oftentimes were drawn from the same populations as the police officers. So commanders realized that it was very important to harshly discipline and make an example of any police who were seen to show some type of sympathy for the, you know, striking workers. Fast forward to 2020 and obviously a lot has changed in the interim, but I think we still see the residue of that — this idea that cohesion within the force and fraternal connection among officers trumps everything else. And you add onto that the formal protections that are afforded by union contracts and various other forms of resistance to accountability that are within the police bureaucracies and you’re in a position where it becomes, as you say, exceedingly difficult to imagine how police can be held accountable for these outrageous behaviors.

JS: You wrote, “to dismantle the carceral state, the national security state will also have to be dismantled.” What would that look like?

SS: I think we underappreciate the degree to which the institutions that we might associate with foreign policy are intertwined with the institutions that we understand as domestic law enforcement: prisons, police, and so forth. Not only is there, kind of, constant traffic between these professional identities of kind of overseas soldier or other type of national security operation and domestic law enforcement, but many of the institutions are constantly developing technologies for use in both settings. When we talk about the carceral state, what we’re talking about is, in part, the gross inflation of the amount of resources dedicated to punishment, policing, and disciplining populations. We can see an analog in the national security state, which of course itself also has a massive budget that far outstrips the budget for almost anything else in the United States. The logic behind both of these, I think, is very similar. The idea is security first, above all else. 

So, in order to dismantle some of the institutions, we have to think about dismantling the logic. And when we see that they have a shared logic or a shared set of rationales, I think it becomes imperative to start talking about them in the same conversation. The only way we’re going to be able to limit the use of, say, surveillance technologies developed using the Pentagon budget for domestic law enforcement is if we start to talk about these as deeply intertwined, as relying on one another, as sharing ideas, sharing personnel, sharing an institutional foundation. We need to learn more about this shared foundation and we need to start talking about ways to dismantle the foundation itself.

JS: Stuart Schrader, I want to thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted and thanks also for such a great, important book. I hope people pick it up. It really, I think, will give context to some of the incredibly violent state responses to these rebellions, so thank you very much for being with us.

SS: Thanks for having me.

JS: Stuart Schrader is Associate Director of the Program on Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He’s also a Lecturer there. He’s the author of “Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing.” His writing has appeared in Artforum, The Baffler, Boston Review, Jacobin, and other publications. 

And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @Interceptedpodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Update: June 4, 2020
In this episode, Jeremy Scahill states that the three Minneapolis police officers on the scene of George Floyd’s killing had not been charged. After this episode aired, they were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Correction: June 4, 2020
In a previous version of this episode, Keisha Blain misstated Breonna Taylor’s last name. The reference has been removed.

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