A lot of ridiculous things are said in an election season, but it would be difficult to top Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that restrictions on public gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are the greatest violation of civil liberties since slavery.
Speaking on Constitution Day Sept. 16, Barr compared stay-at-home orders to slavery. He said, “You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”
Barr’s Justice Department also sent a memo Sept. 17 to all U.S. attorneys encouraging them to crack down on protestors involved in violence in the wake of the George Floyd and other police killings, and even consider applying the charge of sedition, the Associated Press reported. And Barr told prosecutors, according to the Wall Street Journal, to explore whether local officials in Portland, Oregon, could be charged with criminal or civil rights violations.
I led the American Civil Liberties Union from 1970 to 1978 and worked there for seven years before that, so I have some experience dealing with the government’s abuse of power. Perhaps, most famously, President Richard Nixon’s secret creation of a body solely controlled by him, “the plumbers,” to spy on his political opponents and his use of government agencies, such as the IRS, against them, were gross abuses of power.
That and plentiful other examples offer evidence that Barr’s memory is woefully short. The list of violations of civil rights and liberties since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery, are very long and include severe violations of the rights of many millions of Americans. The U.S. government has repeatedly gone after African Americans as well as many others it has perceived as a threat to its power.
Among the most notable violations: The thousands of lynchings that took place primarily but not exclusively in the South, from the latter part of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century and were never punished. Other violations include the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the era after Reconstruction; legally required segregation of the races from the Jim Crow era from the late 1800s until the 1950s and 1960s; and the widespread de facto segregation up to the present.
Other minorities suffered severe violations of their rights as well. Many indigenous Americans did not have the simple right to travel off reservations until 1924, when they were finally granted citizenship. Until the 1970s, their children were required by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to attend boarding schools intended to strip them of any element of their cultural identity. Another 1924 law barred immigrants from Asia from entering the United States. And during World War II, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned on the basis of their race, including many thousands who were American citizens.
In addition, certain public benefits were denied to persons of Mexican descent, among them many citizens, including access to clean drinking water for those living in so-called “colonias” in Texas. The law allowed water district boards to draw their own boundaries, and they drew them to exclude “colonias.” These policies were enforced until the 1970s.
The list of gross deprivations of civil liberties that were not specifically targeted on the basis of race is a long one, too. They included the prison sentences of 5, 10, and even 20 years served by many hundreds of people during World War I for speaking out peacefully against U.S. entry into the war or against the draft.
Consider also the summary imprisonment and deportation of many hundreds of aliens during the post-World War I “Palmer” raids, in which then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s Justice Department targeted anarchists and leftists.
And then there was the systematic political surveillance of leftists, Black activists (such as the Rev. Martin Luther King), and opponents of the Vietnam War, by a large range of federal government agencies during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt through that of Richard Nixon. Even the U.S. Army, for a period, took up surveilling anti-war activists during the Vietnam era.
Police abuse, too, has been widespread long before the videotape of George Floyd’s killing began to shift the American conversation. The sordid record includes the extensive use of coerced confessions—often producing false confessions—and illegal searches, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s. Subsequently, to get around those rulings, police adopted the extensive use of stop-and-frisk and no-knock search warrants like the one that lead to the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
Suggesting that rational public-health measures limiting gatherings and requiring people to wear face masks are in the same category as these abuses or that they are greater than all the abuses of the past 150 years would be laughable if someone other than the Attorney General of the United States were making the argument.
But, coming from the current Attorney General, it illustrates the perverse and distorted understanding of constitutional values prevails at the highest levels of the Trump administration.