In the wake of the initial Black Lives Matter protests, President Donald Trump declared that he is our “law and order president” as federal law enforcement officers used tear gas and brutal violence to clear protesters from Lafayette Park and what has now been rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza just steps away from the White House — steps that the president would soon be walking to cross the street for a now-infamous photo op.
Since then, we have seen the deployment of federal officers to Portland, Ore., and other cities in the U.S. Many have been justifiably troubled by this escalation of violence against protesters, especially in light of the fact that the protests themselves are against police brutality against Black people. Think globally, act locally.
Just like racism, though, it’s easy to decry the obvious lawlessness of the current administration. Even more troubling are the occasions when the government’s actions are quietly, but even more egregiously, flouting the law.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could not be ended by the administration in the manner it had, and must reactivate the program. The Department of Homeland Security has instead announced that it will seek to end the program again and as a result will not resume the program.
In another high-profile Supreme Court case, the administration was barred from including a question about citizenship on the U.S. Census. It has now revealed the true intent of including that question — not to enforce the Voting Rights Act as stated in court, but to seek to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment of congressional districts.
The juxtaposition of law enforcement and our government acting contrary and even in opposition to the law was prominently on display at a Tsuru for Solidarity protest at the Berks Family Detention Center near Reading, Pa., recently.
Five Haitian families with a child less than a year old are being held there in defiance of the Flores Settlement because the government refuses to release the parents along with their children.
The court had ordered the children released but rescinded that order when another judge declined to order the release of the parents in response to COVID spread through the detention centers.
As a group of 100 or so of us gathered outside the detention center, singing and chanting in support of the incarcerees who had come outside for their scheduled time in the yard, a line of local police and sheriffs approached us to push us back across the street, threatening arrest to anyone who didn’t comply.
And yet, in reality, the actual crimes were the violations of law that were happening behind their backs. In addition to the violation of the federal Flores Settlement, the Berks facility operates without a license, which was revoked years ago. Pennsylvania law prohibits the incarceration of children without trial, and children are not to be incarcerated alongside adults in the state.
I share these examples to demonstrate the uneven applicability of our laws, and more specifically, protections. We so often deplore, and rightfully so, the actions of the current administration. Yet, at the same time, we see in our own backyards, our small towns, the use of power structures such as the local police and institutional programs such as a detention center to continue to oppress and discriminate against communities, especially those of people of color.
As we fully understand and expose these systemic injustices, we can chip away at the larger problems in our society. There is attention at the national level with our partners such as the ACLU and ADL leading lawsuits against the government to block or require activity in accordance with the law, or the courts.
We don’t always have the same attention at the local level to enforce the same vigilance over both the local and the federal governments’ action or inaction. And as in the case of Berks, this confluence of corrupted power structures often intertwine and reinforce one another, regardless of political party as Pennsylvania is led by a Democratic governor.
We rely upon our chapters to carry on the work of JACL at the local level and keep all of our elected and appointed officials in line with their oaths to uphold the law.
I remember one of the bumper stickers my parents put on our car — it was the slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” These times were made for that slogan.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.