William Barr
Credit: The United States Department of Justice

In the days following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, this is what our attorney general was doing.

Ifill goes on to give us a bit of a history lesson, including this powerful moment.

So what is our current attorney general doing in the midst of this national crisis? He certainly hasn’t travelled to Minneapolis and, as far as I know, hasn’t spoken to the family of George Floyd.

What Barr has done is blame all of the violence associated with the protests on left-wing extremists, which is a lie. But then, he helped stage what Martin called “the most shameful stunt of Trump’s presidency.”

Attorney General William P. Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials on the ground to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square in Washington to push back protesters just before President Trump spoke Monday, a Justice Department official said.

No one should be surprised that Barr is one of the biggest proponents of the warrior mentality in this country. After all, he is the one who warned that communities that don’t show enough respect for law enforcement would find themselves without police protection. In an in-depth expose about the attorney general, Mattathias Schwartz provides this summary of Barr’s world view.

As far as what Barr is hoping to do with his canvas, Gerson says he is committed to the “hierarchical” and “authoritarian” premise that “a top-down ordering of society will produce a more moral society.” That isn’t too far away from what Barr himself articulated in a 2019 speech at the University of Notre Dame. In Barr’s view, piety lay at the heart of the founders’ model of self-government, which depended on religious values to restrain human passions. “The founding generation were Christians,” Barr said. Goodness flows from “a transcendent Supreme Being” through “individual morality” to form “the social order.” Reason and experience merely serve to confirm the infallible divine law. That law, he said, is under threat from “militant secularists,” including “so-called progressives,” who call on the state “to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.”

The attorney general’s disgust with anyone who challenges this “top-down ordering of society” goes all the way back to his days as a student at Columbia University.

He joined the Majority Coalition, which organized against student occupiers who had taken over the campus to protest the Vietnam War…

On the morning of April 24, 1968, student demonstrators, many of them affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society, stormed Low Memorial Library and took over the offices of Columbia’s president. The protesters were angry that Columbia was building a gymnasium nearby that would have two separate entrances — one for the school community and one for neighborhood residents — and also about the university’s connection with a think tank that did research for the Pentagon.

Barr was on the other side, standing shoulder to shoulder with conservatives and athletes to form a blockade around the library. “We interposed ourselves around them,” he told me. “There was a group of S.D.S. students and younger people from Harlem that assembled and tried to break through. And so there was a huge fistfight. Over a dozen people went to the hospital, between the two groups, when they tried to rush through.” He smiled to himself. “They didn’t get through.”

It’s not hard to imagine Barr’s sneer as he shares that account of how he and his buddies won that one against the protesters—demonstrating the pleasure he takes in authoritarian victories. It is also pretty clear that the attorney general has never grappled with the fact that, when it came to the protests against the Vietnam War, he chose the wrong side of history.

Nevertheless, after directing the attacks on a group of peaceful protesters in order to clear the way for Trump’s photo op in front of a church (uninvited) wielding a Bible, the attorney general was right by his side.

Vanita Gupta, former acting Director of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, has written a piece about what a just Justice Department would do in response to George Floyd’s death. She basically outlined the same processes I discussed about the division’s ability to investigate systemic racism and develop consent decrees. But ultimately, right now we don’t have a just Justice Department.

The Trump administration long ago ceded any moral authority and openly stirs racial hostility and division. Under attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr, the department has effectively abandoned the use of pattern and practice investigations. Instead, it has focused on dismantling police reform efforts, gutting existing consent decrees and halting new investigations.

What this tells us is that, as we continue to work our way through this crisis, the attorney general will not only fail to be part of the solution—he is a major part of the problem.

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