After more than 50 consecutive days on the streets, protesters in Portland, Ore., are facing an increasingly challenging and dangerous situation.
Systemic racism, racial inequality and police brutality are at the centre of Portland’s latest wave of protests. The death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis this May, was the ignition.
The Floyd protests snaked through major American cities for weeks. But as some protests simmered, Portland’s have only just come to a boil.
Federal agents deployed
In camouflage and unmarked vehicles, federal agents have clashed with protesters for several nights — at times, violently.
Many have been seen sporting military-style fatigues with the word “police” on them, but no badge numbers or identifying information.
The deployment of federal law enforcement agents at the president’s request has brought increased violence and arrests to the city, leading its governor to suggest the move was one of a “dictatorship.”
The agents have been accused of excessive force by protesters, including aggressive tactics to disperse crowds and unlawful detainment.
The agents were first spotted in the city on June 27, according to the Oregonian. Before then, there were no visible federal officers at the nightly demonstrations, even as protesters rallied outside the federal courthouse.
It followed scrutiny from U.S. President Donald Trump on June 18, according to the newspaper, when protesters removed a statue of George Washington. Trump responded during his June 21 rally in Tulsa, blaming “leftist radicals” in Portland for dismantling the statue.
Tensions also heightened on July 3, when U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf announced he was deploying a special force to Portland for the July long weekend.
Since then, DHS officers, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers and the U.S. Marshals Service have all been involved.
The Portland Police Bureau has denied any role in the decision to deploy the agents, but its police chief confirmed the two forces share real-time plans with one another during the nightly demonstrations.
Exactly how the two agencies are co-ordinated is unclear. That has raised concerns from Portland’s Independent Police Review, which told the Oregonian that federal officers are “operating from a different playbook,” with fewer regulations and accountability.
Despite a national outcry, DHS officials said they would not back down.
“We will maintain our presence,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary for the DHS, told CNN this week.
Protesters vs. police
The protests have been documented in detail by media and protesters on social media.
In one video, tweeted by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat representing Oregon, two masked agents detain a person and place them in an unmarked van before driving away. It’s unclear what happened before or after the video was recorded, but the CPB, which admitted to being one of the agencies involved in arresting protesters, said the individual was suspected of “assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.”
The White House has contested that the officers did not identify themselves.
Other videos and local media reports highlight the scope and extremes from both sides.
The rallies have attracted thousands. While they’ve been largely peaceful, smaller groups have clashed more violently with local police and agents.
Some protesters spray-painted anti-police messages on the federal courthouse and police headquarters. Some have broken windows and thrown fireworks at armoured police. There have been reports of fires being set in buildings, as well, including one inside the Multnomah County Justice Center, where the headquarters is located.
A DHS official tweeted that, at one point, federal agents were barricaded in Portland’s courthouse and had lasers pointed at their eyes in an attempt to damage their eyesight.
Typically made up of young people, the protests have also attracted a range of demographics.
On July 19, a group of women formed a human shield at the front of a protest outside the federal courthouse. It was dubbed the “wall of moms” and attracted a crowd estimated at more than 500 people. Social media videos show the group chanting things like, “Moms are here, feds stay clear” and “Leave our kids alone.”
Police, meanwhile, have used tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, pepper balls and flash-bang grenades against protesters. They’ve also been accused of unlawfully detaining protesters and whisking them away in unmarked vehicles.
Portland police were handed a court order banning them from using tear gas without declaring a riot. The concern now is that federal agents are doing so instead.
In one case, a navy veteran was beaten and sprayed by pepper gas on July 18 when he stood his ground and tried to talk to the federal officers. The violent response was caught in a now-viral video.
The outcry over the heavily armoured response intensified on July 11, when a protester suffered critical injuries after a U.S. Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a non-lethal round. The man, Donavan La Bella, is seen in video posted on social media standing across the street from authorities holding a speaker over his head with both hands when he was struck.
The president has criticized protesters since they first made waves in Minnesota, and Portland is no different.
He’s called the protesters “anarchists” and “agitators,” and defended the agents, saying they’ve done a “fantastic job.”
The White House has reiterated that the situation in Portland is “not a peaceful scene” and that the agents are part of a federal directive to restore order and protect public property.
On July 20, Trump said he would send more law enforcement into Portland as well as other large, Democrat-led U.S. cities. He mentioned New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, Calif., as possible places that could see federal forces move in.
“They’re Democrat-run cities, they are liberally run. They are stupidly run,” he told Fox News Sunday.
While the White House discounted the suggestion of formal plans, sources told The Associated Press on June 21 that the DHS is slated to send about 150 Homeland Security Investigations agents to Chicago to help law enforcement deal with a spike in crime.
This isn’t the first time Trump has wielded federal law enforcement since the Floyd protests began. The Republican president threatened in June to send U.S. military troops to quell protests in Minneapolis and other cities.
The Trump administration’s tactics have come under fierce opposition from state and local leaders in Oregon, as well as members of Congress. All have called on Trump to remove the federal law enforcement officers from the city and for federal inspectors general to investigate.
State and local lawmakers, who did not request federal help, are now part of a federal civil lawsuit against the agencies involved for their tactics on protesters. In the court papers, State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum claimed masked officers have arrested people on the street — away from the epicentre of the courthouse — with no probable cause and taken them away in unmarked cars.
In a statement, she called the Trump administration’s tactics “entirely unnecessary.”
Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, called the use of federal force on the streets “abhorrent” in an interview with CNN. He said the demonstrations were calming before federal officers arrived and characterized the officers as the president’s “personal army.”
“Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top politicians have also accused Trump of employing a personal police force. Pelosi went as far as calling them “unidentified stormtroopers,” which the White House described as “unhelpful rhetoric” that “gives the violence we’ve seen a pass.”
The ACLU of Oregon has also sued in federal court over the agents’ presence in Portland. The organization’s Chicago branch said it would similarly oppose a federal presence, should the Trump administration move forward.
Law experts believe a constitutional crisis could be looming.
Since the federal officers moved in without state or local consent, experts and advocates worry the so-called abuse of power is a test to see how far Trump can stretch.
“I think Portland is a test case,” Zakir Khan, a spokesperson for the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Washington Post.
“They want to see what they can get away with before launching into other parts of the country.”
— with files from the Associated Press and Reuters