Federal Forces Have Gone Into U.S. Cities Before. Why This Time Is Different.

This moment is notably different from 1968, when local officials requested federal troops to restore order in Washington, Chicago and Baltimore because they believed they could not do it themselves. It’s different from Oxford, Miss., in 1962, or Little Rock in 1957, when local officials were openly defying federal court orders to desegregate.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere near the same kind of consensus at the federal level that federal authority is actually being subverted” today, said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “What’s new and troubling here is we have a very, very contested factual predicate. And it’s not remotely clear to me what federal laws are going unenforced.”

If the federal presence in Portland were meant to restore order, it would have made more sense to send in National Guard officers, who have served and trained for such a role, not Customs and Border Protection agents, Mr. Vladeck said. Confrontations there have escalated since the arrival of federal forces, with a line of protesting mothers facing tear gas, and then, Wednesday night, Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland experiencing the same.

“This is the very thing that scared the heck of the framers of the Constitution,” said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University. “There’s been an over-tendency to cry wolf,” he said of the president’s critics over the past four years. “Well, this is wolf. This is it.”

The fact that the Trump campaign has at the same time begun running numerous ads portraying American cities as overrun by violent left-wing mobs suggests that the president is motivated more by the optics of the federal response than its potential effectiveness, Mr. Vladeck said.

Further muddying matters, the president also announced Wednesday plans for a “surge” of law enforcement officers into American cities to work with local police combating violent crime. Attorney General Bill Barr suggested that a rise in violent crime in some cities over the past month had been “a direct result” of calls to defund and weaken local police forces amid Black Lives Matter protests.

He made a point of distinguishing the plans announced Wednesday from the administration’s campaign to counter “riots and mob violence” in places like Portland.

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