As federal law enforcement agents descend onto cities in what the Trump administration describes as an effort to quell gun violence, Seattle's Democratic Mayor, Jenny Durkan, says it "looks like a dry run for martial law" that has the potential to suppress voting rights in the country.
"It is unprecedented for federal authorities to take this level of approach for local jurisdictions and cities and surge federal resources in them to take over public safety duties like arresting people and policing protesters," Durkan said in an interview on Wednesday.
The deployments are part of Operation Legend, a program named after LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy killed last month in Kansas City. It is intended to quell gun violence and help solve murders in cities across the country. Federal agents have been deployed to multiple cities under the program, including Chicago, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Seattle.
Durkan said that if agents were placed in cities where there are already heightened threats to voting rights, then she is "very concerned about what it could do to suppress the vote in America."
"The places that they are sending these federal agents are primarily in places where there are significant protests against police violence and for racial equity," Durkan said. "And it doesn't take much of a leap to also use those agents to say you're protecting the polls, but have federal agents in and around polling places to fight against fraud when really it's suppression."
Durkan said she told the Department of Homeland Security she did not want federal agents sent into her city, but despite that, forces were deployed and put on standby. She said they've since left, but she and other mayors feel the federal deployments could be part of a darker political goal.
"We have seen, and I've talked to mayors across the country, the same thing when the president actually tweets, and it's not my words saying he's targeting cities run by Democrats, he's openly admitted it and tweeted about it," Durkan said. "And I think that that is really a chilling prospect that a president of the United States would use federal resources for political purposes."
Some mayors have indicated some support for the move: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the deployment of federal agents is "a welcome contribution," as long as agents don't meddle with the largely-peaceful protests in his city.
But many mayors, including Durkan, have come out forcefully against the operation. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the operation "tyranny" and insisted "we are not having it in Chicago." Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he is "extremely concerned that President Trump is looking for opportunities to create more political division in cities across the nation," adding that "federal agents are not welcome here for that purpose."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, so Portland is not the only city seeing these kinds of tensions. In Seattle, clashes between protesters and police turned violent last weekend, but Seattle's Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan told the Department of Homeland Security she did not want federal agents sent into her city. She later discovered a force was deployed and put on standby. Now they have left.
Mayor Durkan spoke with our co-host Rachel Martin about why she and other mayors feel these federal deployments are part of a bigger, darker political goal.
JENNY DURKAN: We have - like any other city, we have public safety challenges. But our public safety challenges have been made significantly worse by this president's actions and his words, the manner and level of criminal activity that (unintelligible) deteriorated after the president started tweeting about it and it was a subject of Fox News coverage every night. So we've seen - and I've talked to mayors across the country - the same thing when the president actually tweets. And it's not my words saying he's targeting cities run by Democrats. He's openly admitted it and tweeted about it. And I think that that is really a chilling prospect that a president of the United States would use federal resources for political purposes.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The Department of Justice has said that there's an expansion happening - right? - that all of this, the deployment of federal agents to a variety of cities - now we're seeing Chicago, Albuquerque, Kansas City, now Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland - that this is all part of so-called Operation Legend, that this has to do with gun violence - quelling gun violence in these cities, helping solve murders. This is the DOJ's own characteristic of what this operation is about. I guess I'm hoping you can clarify for me. Is this Operation Legend something that's happening adjacent, separate from the agents that had been deployed to Portland and, for a couple of days at least, the standby force to Seattle?
DURKAN: I actually think they're using it as camouflage. There are ongoing task force in major cities that deal with gun violence and with gang violence and other violent crime. We had them in Seattle, and I worked on them as U.S. attorney. I know - I've spoken with the mayor of Chicago and Albuquerque, and they have a strong collaborative approach with federal law enforcement. But it is very rare, if at all, that federal law enforcement will surge agents to a city to deal with public safety threats that are normally handled by city or state officials without talking to or working with local officials.
MARTIN: You have described what President Trump is doing as being a political ploy to play to his own base ahead of the election into some kind of law and order message. As a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, is anything he is doing, or the federal government at his behest, illegal?
DURKAN: I think it could be unconstitutional under the 11th Amendment. Remember, public safety is generally reserved to the states and to their cities as subdivision of the states by our Constitution. There's also restrictions on the powers that federal law enforcement have and what they can enforce. They generally cannot roam the streets of a city and enforce city or state law.
But the other thing I will say, though - it is unprecedented for federal authorities to take this level of approach for local jurisdictions and cities and surge federal resources in them to take over public safety duties like arresting people and policing protesters. And I've said it before. I know some people think it sounds overdramatic. But to me, it looks like a dry run for martial law. And if we see these kinds of federal agents put into places where there's voting right concerns, I'm very concerned about what it could do to suppress the vote in America.
MARTIN: Say more about that. You're worried that in places where there might be concerns about whether or not people get access to the polls?
DURKAN: Right. I mean, if you look at it now, the places that they are sending these federal agents are primarily in places where there are significant protests against police violence and for racial equity. And it doesn't take much of a leap to also use those agents to say you're protecting the polls but have federal agents in and around polling places to fight against fraud when, really, it's suppression. I think we need a very clear commitment in advance of the election that federal law enforcement are not going to be used as some kind of super police in key battleground states in or around polling places.
MARTIN: You've been talking with different mayors around the country, your counterparts in different states. Is that the kind of thing that has come up in conversation with them?
DURKAN: It has come up. I will tell you we're focused day to day on dealing with the crisis in our city. But this kind of action, when we see it happening in so many cities across our country, it gives all of us a grave concern as to where we're headed as a country.
MARTIN: Jenny Durkan is the mayor of Seattle. We appreciate your time.
DURKAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.