OPINION: ‘Anarchist Jurisdictions?’ Legally, it’s Nonsense — but That Wasn’t the Point at All

by Geov Parrish 

Seattle made national news Monday in a way nobody could have anticipated: A formal memo from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, purporting to lay out a legal rationale for withholding federal money from cities whose Black Lives Matter protests have grabbed Donald Trump’s attention — meaning they’ve been covered, luridly, on FOX News. Barr’s memo was a response to a memo early this month from Trump, who first used the “anarchist jurisdiction” terminology then, probably unaware that the phrase itself is an oxymoron. By definition, anarchists don’t have government jurisdictions.

Barr is smart enough to know that, but he also knew that his “legal memo” would be, under the law, laughable. So why not mimic his client’s imprecise language? Barr is, by all accounts, a very smart lawyer. I’m no attorney, and even I can tell it’s a toothless threat. There are two pretty obvious reasons: First, because the Trump Administration tried this gambit already with sanctuary cities in 2018 (of which Seattle was one). Federal courts ruled emphatically that the Trump plan to withhold funding from cities that defied federal policies was patently unconstitutional. And that’s not even accounting for cities that have policies that are perfectly legal but are ones that Trump personally dislikes. Courts had a full buffet of legal reasons to justify their rejections, but went with an obvious one: Congress, not the President, controls federal spending. It’s such a legal non-starter that even with a friendly U.S. Supreme Court, Trump and Barr would not have a prayer of winning an appeal all the way to that body. Trump is not a dictator who can do with the federal government whatever he likes. (Not yet, at least. Ask me again in four months.)

Secondly, the phrase “anarchist jurisdiction” is never defined in Barr’s findings. What exactly distinguishes Seattle, Portland, and New York City from, say, Minneapolis, Kenosha, Louisville, San Francisco, Washington DC, Milwaukee, or any number of other cities that have had “violent” BLM protests? (And the cities I just named all have Democratic mayors and governors, too.) More importantly, Barr’s memo didn’t contain a single legal citation. It’s obvious that any such Department of Justice memo would instantly draw legal challenges; several have already been promised. Even Trump’s lawyers, who have tried to argue that the President of the United States can never legally be the subject of a criminal investigation, tried to contort legal precedents to fit into their argument. Barr didn’t bother, because he knows that this is a campaign document, not a legal one. And he thinks, probably correctly, that most Fox News viewers can’t tell the difference.

Why issue a laughable legal memo? For the same reason behind everything else the Trump Administration will do, and not do, for the next seven weeks (at least): to get Donald Trump re-elected.

What Was the Point?

Trump has very few compelling arguments, beyond party loyalty, for his re-election. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster of historic proportions — one that has now personally impacted even the most insulated Fox News viewer. It has also destroyed the U.S. economy, his previously planned selling point. What’s left is racism, cloaked in the same “law and order” dog whistles Richard Nixon successfully used to defeat an uninspiring Democrat (and former Vice President) in 1968.

Polls suggest the gambit is not working, for an obvious reason: Nixon wasn’t an incumbent. People appalled by the images of tear gas and munitions in U.S. cities may not understand that it has been confined to a few blocks, even in Portland and Seattle, but they do know that it has happened under Trump’s rule. If Trump can fix it, why hasn’t he done so already? Moreover, most people outside the conservative bubble broadly support the BLM cause and understand that most protests have been peaceful. But the point isn’t to convince anyone outside that bubble. It’s to motivate existing Trump supporters — who may be having doubts about quibbles like 200,000 dead — to turn out in such numbers that, along with voter suppression, massive disinformation, and foreign help, Trump can somehow plausibly claim victory. And nothing motivates voters like fear. Hence the rhetoric of lawless rioters (implied meaning: Black people) coming for you in your lily-white suburbs.

All this, of course, is deeply corrosive. Trump does not care. His abandonment of any serious effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic was also likely a re-election strategy; we learned this month that he understood clearly the potential impact of the pandemic in early February and chose not to respond with public health measures that would have saved lives for the sake of his economic argument for re-election. When that didn’t work, he pivoted to pretending the pandemic was over, sowing chaos in the hope that it would argue for his re-election with an authoritarian mandate.

From his first day in office, Trump has governed solely for the one-third of the country that supports him. Blue cities like Seattle have not had any serious attention from his administration, except for law enforcement and immigration; he’s simply not interested in anything that doesn’t benefit him personally. The cruelty is the point — it appeals to his base, which is suffused with institutional racism. This summer’s BLM protests are a direct challenge to that sensibility — they were launched in reaction to the egregious police murder of George Floyd. But what has sustained them is anger at generations of exactly the sort of institutional racism the Trump regime glorifies.

Anarchist Jurisdictions

The grim irony of Barr’s politically motivated memo this week, with a term meant to terrify comfortable white people, is that it is unwittingly correct. Anarchism argues that government is inherently coercive and unnecessary: people can support each other through mutual aid. It is an idealistic philosophy that has rarely succeeded anywhere except in small, specific settings. But in the face of institutional racism and government policies that reinforce it, people have been relying on each other, on their communities and extended families, and on mutual aid as a way to cope throughout this nation’s history. It’s a world largely invisible to those comfortable suburban dwellers. Racist law enforcement is an attempt to control all that through, essentially, terrorism. The anarchists aren’t the terrorists here; the state is. Hence, the simple assertion that Black Lives Matter.

The official federal designation of Seattle as an “anarchist jurisdiction” was largely met with ridicule locally, because as most people understand that the phrase is patently absurd. Life has gone on normally (save for the pandemic and wildfires) in most of our city through more than 100 consecutive days of protest. There are no consequences from it, either: no federal funding will be lost unless the chaos Trump is sowing escalates dramatically, and he achieves his dreams of Putin-like power. But underneath the phrase “anarchist jurisdiction” is white fear — fear of the latent power and cohesiveness of oppressed communities. Nobody should be laughing.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based writer and political strategist.

The featured image is attributed to Mike Maguire under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.