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President Trumps' Operation Lady Justice: The Truth about Violence to Native Womxn, Girls, LGBTQIA+

Written by Sikowis (Christine Nobiss)

Summary: President Trump’s MMIWG executive order is problematic because it is contradicted by actions that do not match intent to serve Indigenous Peoples with integrity. While in office, Trump has supported misogynistic and racist legislation, acts and people, for example, with his appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court or having Steve Bannon (known white supremacist) serve in his White House as Chief Strategist. This administration continues to uplift a White supremacist, heteropatriarchal agenda by holding VAWA hostage, diminishing Native American Heritage Month, targeting Indigenous migrants, ignoring LGBTQIA+ and Two Spirit issues, betlittling the #MeToo movement, perpetuating harmful institutions like man-camps through the support of fossil fuel extraction, and continuously voting “no” on legislation that will benefit the Native American population.

On November 26, 2019, President Donald Trump released an executive order to establish “Operation Lady Justice – an interagency ta

sk force charged with developing an aggressive, government-wide strategy to address the crisis of missing and murdered women and girls in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.” This order was released just six months after Trump proclaimed May 5, 2019, as Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day. The task force is co-chaired by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Attorney General William Barr who are both white males. Besides Bernhardt and Barr, there are seven others on the task force with just two Indigenous members, Jean Hovland and Tara Sweeney.

The executive branch followed up with a more substantial action after making the May 5th proclamation but the sociopolitical climate surrounding these moves makes less sense. Though it seems like a step towards the right recognition of a long-ignored crisis, it is hard to find the sincerity since Trump has ridiculed the #MeToo movement and Indigenous womxn during the time of his presidency. His administration has also not been a true advocate of ending domestic violence nor been an ally to Indigenous Peoples as a whole with rollbacks to VAWA, reversing Obama era frameworks to uphold American treaty obligations to tribal nations and decreasing protections to Indigenous lands.

The fact that Trump named the operation “Lady Justice”, is also a testament to his ignorance of this country’s real history as Lady Justice is a personification of a colonially enforced judicial system. Furthermore, the order was made during the month of November, known as Native American Heritage Month (instituted by the Bush administration and ongoing since 1990) but last year the Trump administration decided to compete with this thirty-year-old tradition by simultaneously proclaiming November as National American History and Founders Month.

Needless to say, the proclamation of National American History and Founders Month has been divisive and considered, by many, an act of white supremacy as there is no mention of Indigenous Peoples who suffered genocide during the colonization process to “found” this country. Trump also affirmed to take action on issues of obvious importance to the White population of this country, “including protecting precious religious liberties, securing our Nation’s borders, and combating the opioid crisis…[and to] celebrate the vibrant American spirit that drives our Nation to remarkable heights.” Supporters of the Trump administration, the White, far-right, blue-collar, evangelical Christian community are also well known for supporting legislation to bring religion into schools and government, keeping Indigenous migrants out of the country, and ending the opioid epidemic (because opioid deaths are disproportionately high among Whites). It seems like Operation Lady Justice was a concessional political softball because, as president, Trump has a social “obligation” to make “gestures” to the non-white, non-elite populations of this country.

According to Congresswoman Deb Haaland, “The DOJ’s plan reflects a lack of consultation with Tribes, which is a pattern of this Administration on all Indian Country issues. This plan doesn’t include the adequate amount of funding that Tribes have continuously asked for or the coordination at the local and tribal level where they know the issue best.” True consultation with tribal nations and organizations would have raised concerns about the precarious state of the Violence Against Women Act that, in 2013, had provisions added for further protection of Native Americans, Immigrants, and the LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit community. Since the beginning of 2019, VAWA has been sitting in limbo, waiting to be reauthorized, while Republicans and conservative lobbying groups like the NRA, a domestic terrorist organization, attempt to reduce its provisions and even kill it altogether.

There is a longstanding media spotlight on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “legislative graveyard” where VAWA and many other Democratic-sponsored bills are languishing. As of November 2019, when Trump made the Lady Justice executive order, his administration had only passed 70 bills in almost three years compared to past administrations that have passed 300-400 in their first two years. Accordingly, “McConnell calls himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation he derides as socialist, but many of the bills that never see the Senate floor are bipartisan issues, like a universal background check bill, net neutrality, and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.”

In response to the obvious strongarming and partisan politics being played in favor of a White supremacist office, in April 2019, the Democratic-controlled House passed a reauthorization of VAWA, titled (H.R.1585), sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass, with some vital updates to increase its scope, one of which is to expand the definition of domestic violence used for tribal jurisdiction, which will provide tribes with more sovereign power to prosecute non-Indians. Not only will it keep intact VAWA 2013 provisions but adds “obstruction of justice, sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking, and assault of a law enforcement officer or corrections officer” to the list of crimes under tribal jurisdiction. Additionally, Senator Dianne Feinstein and 47 other senators introduced a Senate companion to H.R.1585, titled S.2843 but it’s also sitting in McConnell’s graveyard.

For Indigenous people, VAWA has provided much needed federal funding for countless programs across Indian Country, but, since 2013, it has become a historic piece of legislation because it recognizes criminal jurisdiction and sentencing authority by tribes over non-Indians due to the high percentage of Indigenous womxn being assaulted by non-Indian men. Though limited in scope, according to the National Congress of American Indians, “18 tribes have arrested non-Indians using the expanded authority provided by VAWA 2013. Those tribes arrested 128 different non-Indian perpetrators 143 times. Those arrests led to 74 convictions and 5 acquittals, with some cases still pending.”

Another important addition to H.R.1585 and S.2843 concerns closing the “boyfriend loophole”. Think Progress writes, “Currently, people convicted of domestic abuse are only prohibited from possessing guns if they live with the victim, have a child with them, are a parent or guardian, or they are, or were once, married to them. This leaves out many cases of intimate partner violence, and the VAWA reauthorization would expand this to include dating partners, stalkers, and former partners.” Findings written into H.R. 1585 state that “Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other high-income countries. Female intimate partners are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than all other means combined. The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent.” Closing this loophole is key for tribal nations as, on some reservations, the murder rate for womxn is ten times higher than the national average. Along with Non-Hispanic Black womxn, Indigenous womxn, Indigenous LGBTQIA+, and Two-Spirit folx currently experience the highest rates of homicide, with over half occurring from intimate partner violence. Trump did not mention this startling and horrific correlation in Operation Lady Justice.

H.R. 1585 and S.2843 increase tribal judicial sovereignty, restrictions on gun ownership for abusers, safeties for LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit communities and leaves the “battered immigrant” provisions from the 2013 version intact. Based upon the actions of the Trump administration and supporters, it’s not surprising that VAWA has not been reauthorized. In fact, Trump has been actively derailing VAWA since he took office by quietly slashing the definition of domestic violence from a very detailed description to a strictly criminal justice definition, which states, “The term 'domestic violence' includes felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim.” This is disturbing to many who receive funding from VAWA under the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) as it will restrict what work falls under this definition.

For over three years, Trump has not appointed a director for the OVW to be confirmed by the senate. For his entire presidency, an acting director has run OVW, which is a huge statement about his commitment to womxn’s rights and safeties. According to Susan Carbon (OVW Director under Obama), such an appointee “brings with it clout and credibility and speaks volumes — within and outside the administration — about the importance of the issue.” Though Trump funded VAWA in 2018, his actions have led many womxn’s rights advocates to believe that his long-term goal is to either end VAWA or severely gut it, which is what seems to be happening.

Accordingly, Republican Senator Joni Earnst has introduced a GOP version of VAWA, titled (S.2920), for reauthorization, and not surprisingly, it rolls back many provisions that have been built into it over the last twenty-five years. It also does not agree with any of the new provisions provided in H.R. 1585 and S.2843. It does not provide the key gun safety provisions to close the “boyfriend loophole” and actually weakens progress made in 2013 to increase tribal judicial sovereignty. According to the Portland Press Herald, "The bill allows [non-Indian] suspects to appeal to federal court without first exhausting tribal court remedies and removes tribal nations’ sovereign immunity, making them vulnerable to civil rights suits by those they are trying to prosecute. It also directs the U.S. attorney general to audit the tribal courts to ensure they are in compliance.” And though S.2920 provides increased funds to tribes, the question has to be asked if this is a predatory act to convince struggling tribal nations to accept a decrease in their judicial sovereignty for the sake of more funding.

Not only is S.2920 undermining jurisdictional headway made in Indian Country, but it rolls back the 2013 LGBTQ nondiscrimination provisions and does not recognize the increased provisions built-in into the H.R.1585 and S.2843 reauthorizations. Needless to say, this is problematic as the LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit population is highly affected by the missing and murdered Indingopus Peoples crisis and also something Trump did not mention in his order. The OWV website has been cut down to exclude a lot of important information but in an archived page, it states, “VAWA 2013 explicitly bars discrimination based on actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation - as well as race, color, religion, national origin, sex or disability. This groundbreaking provision will ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking are not denied, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, access to the critical services that OVW supports.”

Ernst did not slash the “battered immigrant” provisions made in 2013, however, she has been actively supporting Trump’s “policies primarily targeting immigrants from Mexico and Central America.” Immigrant women, particularly Indigenous migrants from south of the American border, suffer from high rates of “domestic violence, human trafficking, and exploitation in the workforce...due to the added vulnerability created by their immigration status in the United States.” For this reason, VAWA houses laws that allow victims of such crimes to apply for special visas and receive help from programming funded by VAWA. With all that is being done to dismantle VAWA, there may not be much left of it by the time it gets reauthorized.

Beyond President Trump’s problematic proclamation of National American History and Founders Month and the extensive issues surrounding VAWA, which is currently in jeopardy, the Trump administration has attacked the sovereignty, rights, and safeties of Indigenous Peoples in this country. In January 2017, one of Trump’s first executive actions revoked Obama’s order to deny a permit for the easement of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation, which Indigenous Peoples all over the world had spent years fighting. Since then, Trump has greenlit the KXL Pipeline, pushed for mining and deforestation of Bears Ears National Monument, and is opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. The list is extensive and Indigenous People have been busy in almost every part of this country protecting lands from colonial-capitalist extraction activities.

With large development projects like construction, mining, or fossil fuel extraction comes one of the most violent threats to Indigenous communities, which is the creation of man-camps in close proximity. As James Anaya, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has stated, “Indigenous women have reported that the influx of workers into Indigenous communities as a result of extractive projects also led to increased incidents of sexual harassment and violence, including rape and assault.” The relentless colonization of our territories has a direct correlation to an increased rate of violence against Indigenous Peoples--in particular womxn, children LGBTQIA+, and Two-Spirit folx. It is no longer a “word of mouth” issue as many organizations and academics, and even the Canadian government, have recently delved into researching man-camps in Indigenous territories and have reported disturbing stories and statistics.

Considering the seriousness of the stories and statistics coming out of Indian Country, the legitimacy of Operation Lady Justice is compromised by President Trump’s overtly racist and misogynistic tweets, executive orders, speeches, appointees, legislative support, and vetos. From one of his official POTUS accounts (@realDonaldTrump - the 45th President of the United States of America), he has again insulted Indigenous Peoples when he referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas on March 5th, 2020. For over a year, the President has made other racial slurs and inappropriate gestures towards Indigenous Peoples while using Warren as his focal point. He has used old racist and tokenizing tropes about Native American physical features, smoke signals, and the Trail of Tears to humiliate Senator Warren while tying it to #MeToo to simultaneously demean this historical movement.

This behavior was taken to a candidly racist level, when in November 2019, “President Trump...transformed a White House ceremony to honor Navajo veterans of World War II into a racially charged controversy, using the event as a platform to deride Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas.” (The New York Times) Additionally, the New York Times reported that while standing in front of one of his favorite past Presidents, Andrew Jackson, known as the Indian killer, Trump said to the elders, “‘You were here long before any of us were here...Although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.’” His remarks, while standing in front of Andrew Jackson conveys a White Supremacist sentiment that offended many Indigenous people around the nation as characterized through the words of Russell Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation, who “called the president’s mention of Pocahontas ‘derogatory’ and ‘disrespectful to Indian nations.’”

At a rally in Montana in July 2018, President Trump mocked Senator Warren by stating,

“‘I'm gonna get one of those little kits...And in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she's from Indian heritage, because her mother says she has high cheekbones..That's her only evidence, that her mother said she had high cheekbones...We will take that little kit and say — but we have to do it gently, because we're in the #MeToo generation, so we have to be very gentle...And we will very gently take that kit, and we will slowly toss it, hoping it doesn't hit her and injure her arm, even though it only weighs probably two ounces.’” (NBC News)

The alarming level of racism connected to rape innuendo in the President’s words does not portray a leader with intent to keep womxn safe, never mind Indigenous womxn through Operation Lady Justice, whom he is intent on degrading alongside the #MeToo movement. Acts like this have created an uneasy social landscape for many womxn, LGBTQIA+, Two-Spirit, Indigenous, Brown, and Black folx all over the country and do not provide many with faith that programs like Operation Lady Justice are sincere and lasting.

Audra Simpson (Kahnawake) has made the argument that even today, the condoned violence and death inflicted on Indigenous Peoples is ultimately about their erasure in order to legitimize the nation-state. Though it seems counterintuitive to believe this is the case here, Operation Lady Justice was created outside of Indian Country and by a White Supremacist regime that is increasingly creating conditions that exacerbate the MMIWGT2S crisis. The Trump administration is using Indigenous Peoples as a romanticized victim to prop up while they gut VAWA--cutting down Indigenous judicial sovereignty, ousting a thorough definition of domestic violence, gun control laws, and the whole LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit population. This administration wants to extinguish sovereign land trusts, extract every natural resource from this continent, Indigenous immigrants, imprison or assimilate the Brown and Black population, keep womxn in their place and ignore/condemn LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit folx. During his presidency, Trump has never been a friend to the Indigenous Peoples, so any goodwill gesture from him must be analyzed for a deeper meaning, which will most likely serve his political agenda to embolden his version of a nation-state led in his own image.

Trump’s MMIWG executive order is problematic because it is contradicted by actions that do not match the intent to serve Indigenous and LGBTQIA/2S populations with integrity. While in office, Trump has supported misogynistic and racist legislation, acts, and people, for example, with his appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court or having Steve Bannon (known white supremacist) serve in his White House as Chief Strategist. This administration continues to uplift a White supremacist, heteropatriarchal agenda by holding VAWA hostage, diminishing Native American Heritage Month, targeting Indigenous migrants, ignoring LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit issues, belittling the #MeToo movement, perpetuating harmful institutions like man-camps through the support of fossil fuel extraction, and continuously voting “no” on legislation that will benefit Womxn, Native American and Alaska Natives, LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit populations.

It seems that Trump is more focused on political harm reduction tactics and political finessing (in light of his recent impeachment hearing) than he is on making meaningful steps that will get to the root of the problem--the realization of a regenerative economy, an end to colonial-capitalism, and the abolishment of institutionalized White supremacy--which means recognizing the heteropatriarchy needs to end.


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