PORTLAND, Ore. — Federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear have taken to the streets of Portland, unleashing tear gas, bloodying protesters and pulling some people into unmarked vans in what Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has called “a blatant abuse of power.”
The extraordinary use of federal force in recent days, billed as an attempt to tamp down persistent unrest and protect government property, has infuriated local leaders, who say the agents have stoked tensions.
“This is an attack on our democracy,” Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland said.
The strife in Portland, which has had 50 consecutive days of protests reflects the growing fault lines in law enforcement as President Donald Trump threatens an assertive federal role in how cities manage a wave of national unrest after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.One Portland demonstrator, Mark Pettibone, 29, said he had been part of the protests before four people in camouflage jumped out of an unmarked van around 2 a.m. Wednesday. They had no obvious markings or identification, he said, and he had no idea who they were.
“One of the officers said, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’ and just grabbed me and threw me into the van,” Pettibone said. “Another officer pulled my beanie down so I couldn’t see.”
Pettibone said that he was terrified — protesters in the city have in the past clashed with far-right militia groups also wearing camouflage and tactical gear — and that at no point was he told why he was arrested or detained or what agency the officers were with. He said he was held for about two hours before being released.
“It felt like I was being hunted for no reason,” Pettibone said. “It feels like fascism.”
In a statement issued Friday, Customs and Border Protection said agents who made the arrest had information that indicated a suspect had assaulted federal authorities or damaged property and that they moved him to a safer location for questioning. The statement said that the agents identified themselves but that their names were not displayed because of “recent doxxing incidents against law enforcement personnel.”
The agents in Portland are part of “rapid deployment teams” put together by the Department of Homeland Security after Trump directed federal agencies to deploy additional personnel to protect statues, monuments and federal property during the continuing unrest.
The teams — which include 2,000 officials from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard — are supporting the Federal Protective Service, an agency that already provides security at federal properties.
Agents have been dispatched to Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C., to guard statues, monuments and federal property, such as the federal courthouse in Portland, according to homeland security officials.
But the response by the homeland security agents in Portland has prompted backlash over whether the federal officers are exceeding their arrest authority and violating the rights of protesters by detaining demonstrators in the area around the federal courthouse.
The agents have the authority to make arrests if they believe that a federal crime has been committed. Homeland security has pointed to dozens of possible crimes in Portland, such as the damaging of the federal courthouse, the spray-painting of graffiti on federal property, and the throwing of rocks and bottles at officers.
Law enforcement officials say it is rare for local police departments to request help from federal authorities — or for the federal government to deploy in a city without that consent — because of the risk of escalating an already volatile environment.
“The last people you really want are any of these federal officials,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and the former chief of the Seattle Police Department.
Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, said in a statement Friday that he was asking the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general to investigate reports of officers detaining protesters.
Brown said in an interview that she asked the acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, to remove federal officials from the streets and that he refused. She said the Trump administration appeared to instead be using the situation for photo ops to rally his supporters.
“They are provoking confrontation for political purposes,” Brown said.In early June, the administration deployed an array of federal agents to cities like San Diego; Buffalo, New York; and Las Vegas.
In Washington, D.C., tensions were heightened when the Park Police and Secret Service used chemical agents to disperse a crowd of protesters in Lafayette Park for a photo opportunity by Trump. Federal agents without any insignia also sparked fear and confusion in the demonstrations, and military helicopters flying below rooftop level sent protesters scurrying for cover.
Customs and Border Protection also recently sent drones, helicopters and planes to conduct surveillance of the protests in 15 cities.
Wolf, who arrived in Portland on Thursday, called the protesters a “violent mob” of anarchists emboldened by a lack of local enforcement.
Federal officers on the ground in Portland have deployed a range of forceful tactics: They appeared to fire less-lethal munitions from slits in the facade of the federal courthouse, one officer walked the street while swinging a burning ball emitting tear gas, and camouflaged personnel drove in unmarked vans.
Homeland security officers have been dispatched to help local law enforcement in the past, but typically if a request was made by local government or if there was a “national special security event” taking place that could be especially vulnerable to terrorism, such as the U.N. General Assembly or the Super Bowl.
Harry Fones, a homeland security spokesman, did not answer questions seeking additional details about the tactics of the officers in Portland, instead referring to a Customs and Border Protection statement that said the federal officers did display insignia.
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said in a series of tweets Friday that the agents from BORTAC, the equivalent of the agency’s SWAT team, would “continue to arrest the violent criminals that are destroying federal property & injuring our agents/officers in Portland.”
The demonstrations began in the aftermath of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, drawing thousands of people to the streets to denounce police violence and racial injustice. On some nights, protesters would blanket the Burnside Bridge, each lying face down on the pavement for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of Floyd.
Those mass demonstrations have waned, but hundreds have continued on, clashing with police almost nightly. They have set off fireworks, lit fires and attempted to create an autonomous zone similar to one that existed up Interstate 5 in Seattle. Police officers have responded with tear gas, although a federal judge has since limited the use of that tactic, and dozens have been arrested.
The persistent unrest has frustrated city leaders, including Wheeler, who has often been a target of protesters. Some Black leaders in the community have also expressed disappointment, suggesting that the predominantly white protest crowd was seizing an opportunity and detracting from the vital efforts needed to reform policing.
City leaders have tried a variety of tactics to calm the tensions. Wheeler has pleaded for calm. The city’s police chief resigned. City commissioners have moved to cut some $16 million from the police budget.
But the protests have continued.Trump has vowed to “dominate” protesters and said last week that he had sent homeland security personnel to Portland because “the locals couldn’t handle it.”
“It’s a pretty wild group, but you have it in very good control,” he told Wolf.
One recent video appeared to show a protester, Donavan La Bella, being struck in the head by an impact munition while he was holding a sign across the street from the federal courthouse, leading to a bloody scene. His mother has told local media that he suffered skull fractures and needed surgery.
Members of Congress from Oregon have called for an investigation, and Williams said the encounter had been referred to the Justice Department’s inspector general for further investigation.
Kelly Simon, the interim legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the alarming federal tactics, such as the unmarked vans, have been used at times to intimidate immigrant communities, and she worried that the use of the tactics was growing.
“What we’re seeing in Portland should concern everybody in this country,” Simon said.