Last Monday, President Trump’s Department of Justice declared three major American cities, New York City, Portland and Seattle, as ‘Anarchist Jurisdictions,’ alleging that these three locations contribute to lawlessness, violence and destruction.
Although the label of ‘Anarchist Jurisdiction’ sparks strong sentiments by itself, some believe it fails to accurately represent the current state of these three cities.
“For a few weeks during the protests there was a group in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle that did create a self-governed zone, but that was a tactic to de-escalate conflicts with the police, not a claim of fundamental jurisdiction,” said Dr. Benjamin Peterson, professor of history and political science. “In other words, while the police might have stepped back a bit from the area to avoid confrontation, the people in the area did not gain any kind of immunity from city laws, let alone becoming some kind of anarchist mini-state.”
Because none of these three cities display true examples of anarchy jurisdiction, many suspect this label by the D.O.J. involves more to do with election-year politics than the actual state of the cities.
“If you look at the recent messages from the Trump campaign, they are all about Trump being the candidate of law and order,” said Peterson. “These kinds of law and order campaigns have a long and frankly racist history in the United States, but people run them because they are often effective. The concept of an anarchist jurisdiction existing, and the president’s opposition to it, obviously supports that underlying campaign message.”
Although these labels may represent nothing more than election-year politics, the D.O.J. could implement serious penalties against these three cities based on allegations of anarchy.
“This is another instance in the complicated dance that is federalism in the United States,” said Peterson. “The Trump administration means to assert that if a local government fails to respond to a protest in ways that they find suitable, the executive branch can punish them–in this case by withdrawing money. While a state government could clearly intervene in a city’s affairs, it is more striking for the federal government to do so.”
The loss of federal funding for these three cities would drastically change the way these cities operate, especially because cities all across the country are already under financial stress due to COVID-19.
“The funding of local governments comes from a dizzying array of local, state and federal grants, funds and sources,” said Peterson. “The D.O.J. has many programs which provide direct funding to the local police, often through a block-grant structure. Potentially the removal of that money will decrease police protection and readiness, defund drug treatment programs, and disrupt the operation of city governments.”
Although labeling cities as ‘Anarchy Jurisdictions’ is not a common occurrence, the federal government often places pressure on state and city legislators to operate according to the status quo.
“We might see this as the administration attempting to usurp elements of state sovereignty and essentially step between the state legislature and the city,” said Peterson. “While that may
sound shocking or highly aggressive, these sorts of conflicts are constant in our government as the practical lines of federal, state and local authority are always shifting.”
The year 2020 brought about many unprecedented events, but the transformation of New York City, Portland and Seattle into anarchy jurisdictions simply is not one of them.