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Portland mayor attempts ‘listening session’ with protesters as federal agents remain

Click to play video 'Portland protesters form ‘Wall of Moms’ vs. police' Portland protesters form ‘Wall of Moms’ vs. police
Clad in yellow and holding signs that read 'you need a time out,' mothers and fathers faced down federal law enforcement officers in the streets of Portland, Oregon on Tuesday night – Jul 22, 2020

Portland’s mayor faced a hostile crowd of protesters Wednesday night, who screamed at and sharply questioned him as he tried to rally demonstrators after they clashed repeatedly with federal agents sent in by President Donald Trump to quell ongoing unrest in the city.

“I want to thank the thousands of you who have come out to oppose the Trump administration’s occupation of this city,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told hundreds of people gathered downtown near the federal courthouse. “The reason this is important is it is not just happening in Portland … we’re on the front line here in Portland.”

Read more: Trump to deploy federal agents to Chicago, Albuquerque under ‘law-and-order’ push

The Democratic mayor has opposed federal agents’ presence in Oregon’s largest city, but he has faced harsh criticism from many sides and his presence wasn’t welcomed by most, who yelled and swore at him.

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Wheeler struggled Wednesday night to be heard over a crushing crowd that gave him just a few feet on a street corner and surrounded him as he walked there to speak.

Holding just a microphone attached to a speaker with a cord, Wheeler called it a “listening session” and opened up for questions after a few minutes — but it was unclear if anyone could hear over the angry crowd. About 20 feet (6.1 meters) away, Black Lives Matter speakers rallied a crowd of several thousand.

Click to play video 'Trump orders federal forces to crackdown on Portland protests' Trump orders federal forces to crackdown on Portland protests
Trump orders federal forces to crackdown on Portland protests – Jul 21, 2020

Some Portland residents, including City Council members, have accused Wheeler of not reining in local police, who have used tear gas multiple times before federal agents arrived early this month in response to nearly two months of nightly protests since George Floyd was killed. Others, including business leaders, have condemned Wheeler for not bringing the situation under control before the agents showed up.

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While taking questions Wednesday night Wheeler was criticized for the actions of his own police department, not defunding the local police and not having Portland police protect people from federal agents. The mayor said he wants to use the energy of the protests to make changes.

Read more: Paramilitary officers sent to Portland to join crackdown on protests: U.S. Homeland Security 

Wheeler then addressed the much larger crowd from a raised balcony, saying “I am here tonight to stand with you.” Some speakers praised the mayor for standing with them and there were cheers along with boos and obscenities as Wheeler and many in the crowd chanted “Black lives matter!”

Earlier Wednesday, the City Council banned police from cooperating with federal agents or arresting reporters or legal observers.

Wheeler’s tense nighttime appearance downtown came hours after attorneys for Oregon urged a judge to issue a restraining order against agents deployed to quell the protests.

Click to play video 'Portland protests: White House says federal agents justified in acting well away from federal property' Portland protests: White House says federal agents justified in acting well away from federal property
Portland protests: White House says federal agents justified in acting well away from federal property – Jul 21, 2020

The arguments from the state and the U.S. government came in a lawsuit filed by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who accuses federal agents of arresting protesters without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars and using excessive force. Federal authorities have disputed those allegations.

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The lawsuit is part of the growing pushback to Trump sending federal agents to Portland and announcing they would be going to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to fight rising crime, a move that’s deepening the country’s political divide and potentially setting up a constitutional crisis months ahead of the presidential election. Democratic mayors of 15 cities condemned the use of federal officers in a letter to the U.S. attorney general.

Read more: Portland protesters say federal agents’ presence has only strengthened movement

The court hearing focused on the actions of more than 100 federal agents responding to protests outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, which has been a target for the demonstrations.

The motion for a temporary restraining order asks U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman to command agents from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, Federal Protective Service and U.S. Marshals Service to immediately stop detaining protesters without probable cause, identify themselves and their agency before arresting anyone, and explain why an arrest is taking place.

The state acknowledged that federal agents have the right to defend the courthouse but argued that they had overstepped.

Click to play video 'Portland protests: Federal agents fire tear gas as hundreds protest outside US courthouse' Portland protests: Federal agents fire tear gas as hundreds protest outside US courthouse
Portland protests: Federal agents fire tear gas as hundreds protest outside US courthouse – Jul 21, 2020

Rosenblum, the state attorney general, said she wanted the court to “declare it not acceptable for federal officers to use unconstitutional, police-state-type acts to detain citizens of Oregon without cause.”

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David Morrell, an attorney for the U.S. government, called the motion “extraordinary” and said it was based solely on “a few threadbare declarations” from witnesses and a Twitter video.

“The Hatfield courthouse did not damage itself,” he said, calling the protests “dangerous and volatile.”

Read more: Portland protests: What to know as federal agents clash with protesters

The lawsuit is one of several filed over authorities’ response to the Portland protests. On Thursday, a judge will hear arguments in a legal challenge that the American Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of journalists and legal observers who say they were targeted and attacked by Portland police while documenting demonstrations.

A freelance photographer covering the protests for The Associated Press submitted an affidavit that he was beaten with batons, chemical irritants and hit with rubber bullets.

A U.S. judge previously ruled that journalists and legal observers are exempt from police orders requiring protesters to disperse once an unlawful assembly has been declared. Federal lawyers say that journalists should have to leave when ordered.

Click to play video 'US Navy veteran reported injured after repeated baton strikes at Portland rally' US Navy veteran reported injured after repeated baton strikes at Portland rally
US Navy veteran reported injured after repeated baton strikes at Portland rally – Jul 21, 2020

The ACLU filed another lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of volunteer medics who have been attending to injured protesters. It alleges that federal agents have used rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, batons and stun grenades against medics in violation of federal protections for freedom of speech and freedom of movement.

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Police say protesters have tried repeatedly to break into the federal courthouse and set fires around it and that the federal agents drive them back with tear gas and stun grenades.

Federal authorities have defended their response, saying officials in Oregon had been unwilling to work with them to stop the vandalism against the the U.S. courthouse and violence against federal officers.

Associated Press writers Sara Cline in Salem, Oregon, Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Washington, and Colleen Long and Ben Fox in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.