Tom Clyde: Those conspiracy theorists we’ve all dismissed? Turns out they were right.
This week I’m looking at a little different audience than usual. They probably aren’t regular readers of this piece, which is fine, but suddenly there is a need to communicate with them. You know who they are. Every family or neighborhood has one. It’s your brother-in-law, a niece’s husband, a next-door neighbor. I’m reaching out to a cousin from Idaho who looks like the Unabomber, and whose annual Christmas letter reads like some kind of manifesto.
We all know a guy with crazy ideas about black helicopters and instructions written on the back sides of highway signs. He’s got a pile of guns and enough ammunition stacked up in the basement to overthrow a couple of South American dictatorships. He’s always there with the jumper cables when the car won’t start, but the price of that help is a harangue about some wingnut conspiracy theory.
For years we have all tried to avoid getting into political discussions with him. Nobody wants to sit next to him at Thanksgiving dinner. We don’t want to hear about the militia drill in the desert, the latest night-vision scope or the need to fortify our homes against the jack-booted thugs from the over-reaching federal government who will one day kick down the front door and haul us off in unmarked cars. “Well, not my front door,” he says. “Nobody’s coming in my house.” There probably won’t even be football to talk about this Thanksgiving as a diversion.
But there he is, immersed in all that ammunition, all that camo and tactical gear, waiting for the black helicopters to arrive, then it’s “go time,” and much as he claims to like you, you have failed to prepare and are going to be on your own. And you dismiss him as crazy, and hopefully harmless.
There are no unmarked black helicopters, and the backs of the highway signs are still blank. I assumed all of that was the ranting of a madman with delusions about stuff that was never going to happen. Well, it’s happening. Suddenly my crazy cousin appears to be right.
There aren’t black helicopters in Portland. But there are unmarked mini-vans instead. The streets are suddenly occupied with unidentified federal officers of some kind, sent there by El Presidente to take federal control of Portland. People are getting snatched off the streets, without meeting the standard of legal probable cause for arrest, hauled off to federal buildings and detained for a while, then let go. The federal officers are wearing combat camouflage, but other than a label that says “police” on the shirts (which anybody can buy on Amazon), they are without identification as to what agency they are with, who they are or even if they are even real cops with any legal authority. The streets of Portland have become a banana republic. And El Presidente is promising to send the same secret army to Chicago and New York.
It’s hard to know what is really happening in Portland. There has been a continuous protest since the death of George Floyd back in May. Depending on the report, it is either a rioting mob destroying property, or a bunch of suburban white kids in dreadlocks doing nude yoga in the streets. It’s somewhere between complete societal collapse and a normal Tuesday night in Portland. There is now the “Wall of Moms” standing between the federal forces and their protesting kids. I think it’s safe to say that the discussion about racial inequality has reached a point where throwing a trashcan through the window of Walgreens is no longer contributing anything meaningful. It’s time to go home.
Local and state officials in Oregon have said that the presence of the federal forces has made things significantly worse, escalating a situation that was winding down on its own. They have sued to get the federal forces removed, or at least restricted to their normal function of securing federal buildings. Since the founding of the nation, the security of American cities has been the responsibility of local police departments, and if they need help, as they sometimes do, there are state-controlled National Guard resources. Those are brought in at the request of the local authorities, not over their objections. A fully federalized police force in the streets of American cities is something we just don’t have. This isn’t normal.
So while the jack-booted forces cousin Billy Bob has been fearing all his life struck in a direction he had not anticipated, snatching beanie-wearing Portlanders off the streets in those unmarked Dodge mini-vans (actually kind of disappointing compared to the helicopter scenario, but budgets are tight), the net effect is the same. This is not American federalism as we have known it. This is wrong.
Now’s your moment, cousin Billy Bob, sound the bugle.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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Columnist Amy Roberts asks whether we are so far removed from reality and the natural world that filing a police report seems like an acceptable course of action after spotting a moose in the mountains.