Social media has been flooded in recent days with photos and videos of agents without identifying insignia in unmarked vans, pulling people off the streets of Portland, Oregon, during protests against racial inequality.
Eventually, it became clear these agents were part of a rapid deployment force from the US Department of Homeland Security.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced the expansion of a program to send federal agents to several US cities to crack down on violent crime in an escalation of his "law and order" theme heading into the final months before the presidential election.
"Today, I'm announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime," he said Wednesday, joined at a White House event by Attorney General William Barr. "We'll work every single day to restore public safety, protect our nation's children and bring violent perpetrators to justice."
The program, called Operation Legend, is named for LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he slept early on June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri. The World's host Marco Werman spoke to Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, about the arrival of some 200 agents in his city this month.
Marco Werman: Mayor Lucas, why are these federal agents, armed, descending on your city?
Quinton Lucas: Well, I think a big part of it is relating to violent crime investigations — at least, that's what the claim is, that this is to solve unsolved murders. The program nationally is named after a 4-year-old who was slain in Kansas City. And what I've said before is we will take investigative help for things like that. What we don't want are federal troops taking over policing in the streets. We don't want a lot of the community conflict you've seen in places like Portland. And we certainly don't want something that drives even further divisions in our city and our country.
What do you make of Trump's use of the word "surge" of federal law enforcement, a word that's been used to describe, overwhelmingly, the likes of the Taliban or ISIS?
I do think that it starts to militarize our communities. It creates conflict that's unnecessary. If one is looking at the last several months in America, the protests aren't about tearing apart America. It's about making sure people have more recognition, more voice. And so that's why we want to make sure that that isn't what this operation, or these types of operations, become.
It's incredibly frustrating to see the pain of our communities, and there is real pain in murders. And lots of victims' families see that pain being exploited for political purposes.
Operation Legend is named after LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old in your city killed by a stray bullet last month while asleep in bed. His mother, Charron Powell, supports Trump's operation. On one hand, people are in the streets protesting police brutality on people of color. On the other hand, Charron Powell, a Black mother, is supporting the federal agents on your streets. How do you reconcile that?
Oh, I think I can reconcile it very well. She wants justice for her son. We all want justice for her son. We have 225 agents coming to Kansas City. Right now, we have 60 unsolved homicides this year. If instead of having them do arrest warrants and all types of other things, you just assigned one agent each homicide, that might be a program that people say, "OK, we understand and we get it." And frankly, I would support that, too. I think certainly LeGend's mother would.
The challenge is you get stuck in this world of either-ors because I agree and want justice for her son. But I also — and I think we all — want to make sure that it's responsible, that this isn't just a dragnet, and that this does not become the type of federal forces that we see that, I think, are escalating the situation in Portland.
Mayor Lucas, one of the reasons we wanted to speak with you is that you lived in South Africa as an exchange student, and you've follow the news there ever since. There are similarities between the struggles Blacks have faced there and here. What occurs to you about how both governments police their citizens?
I think it's the fact that the uniforms change sometimes, the race of the officers change. But we continue to use some of the same tools and tactics, and unfortunately, you see a lot of the same results. There was a massacre in South Africa a few years ago at a mine, the Marikana massacre. And it was fascinating looking at the video because you didn't know it was recorded in the 2010s or 1984. I mean, it's shocking how there was still just dozens of people massacred.
I think when you look at our American policing experiment, you continue to see similar results. Homicides were very high in Kansas City when I was a boy 25 years ago. So why do we still have the exact same answers, right? Enforcement, these surges. I mean, actually, Attorney General Bill Barr is using this, because it's what he did when he was attorney general the last time in the first Bush administration. And I don't know why we don't actually think, "A-ha. Well, if it was a problem then, and it didn't really actually solve it that quickly, then why is it that we're doing the same thing now?" Perhaps there's something more substantive, culturally, that's the real challenge and concern.
South Africa is so interesting because I actually think the story of South Africa is largely the story of a lot of American cities where you have the high Black population — they are supermajority Black population. But even though there is purported change, whether you're in Johannesburg, South Africa, or Detroit, Michigan, your wealthiest people aren't coming from the community of the majority, right? Your cultural challenges that continue to perpetuate inequality are there and in many ways unchallenged. And we kind of shake our heads and wonder why there are so many problems. Well, I think it's very obvious to us why.
So you see parallels also in the hits democracy in both places are taking because of these policing strategies?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that the challenge right now and what I think a lot of people are talking about — and I say this is somebody who understands the need for policing and I'm not an abolish police person — but you do have to make sure, like any other vessel of government, that people feel like they can actually hold police accountable, right? People actually having the chance to have a voice. People actually being able to hold their government accountable thus their police as well. That's vital. And I don't know why in America, it takes so much to get us to a point where we can actually ask such questions.
Mayor Lucas, tomorrow will be two months since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. What do you make of the protests that have spread to your city and across the country since then — and where do you think they're headed?
I don't know where they're headed, but I've said a few times and I get some negative attacks for it. I say, "The revolution will not be televised."
Right. Right. And the reason being, we saw a lot of passion in the streets. But the change is going to now continue at city council meetings, at commission meetings with police departments, fundamentally changing laws. Those are the sorts of things that I think are going to be vital for us as we try to make change. And I think it's essential for America's future that we get it right.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed reporting.