Federal officers wearing camouflage fatigues sat in the dark, shoulder-to-shoulder, lining the marble lobby of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.
Where lawyers toting briefcases have typically crossed the gleaming floor, officers now waited with rifles and launchers slung across their shoulders, holding shields and outfitted in helmets and gas masks.
Above a constant whir of large floor fans, they talked munitions, tactics and casualties. Demonstrators outside could be heard chanting, “Go home feds!” as some repeatedly shook the embassy-style fence out front.
Teams of officers – from the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit – waited for their call-up.
“Line up and head out,” a supervising officer directed one Federal Protective Service team late Saturday night. The team proceeded through two front doors to a barrage of objects being thrown their way.
The view from inside the landmark federal courthouse in downtown Portland, named for a pacifist U.S. senator from Oregon, is nothing short of surreal. The mood of demonstrators shifted almost on cue from peaceful moms and veterans, chanting outside the fence, to vandals bent on bringing it down. The Oregonian/OregonLive was allowed into the courthouse to see the perspective from the lobby.
The scene inside was businesslike, grim, resigned. Federal agents said they are weary of the nightly protests focused on the courthouse since early July.
“We’re just not getting anywhere,” said a seven-year-deputy marshal. “If they just stayed off the fence and weren’t being aggressive towards us, we’d just be inside twiddling our thumbs. … I don’t think there’s an end in sight. They don’t want to stop but we can’t leave this building until they leave us alone. The ‘give’ has to ‘give’ on the outside of the fence.”
As the night wore on, every so often, loud booms rang out from commercial fireworks launched by protesters, the concussion thundering through the high-ceiling lobby.
The cavernous interior remained dark, except for bright green laser beams bouncing off the walls as protesters aimed them from the outside. When the federal officers opened the front doors, everything from small rubber bouncy balls to apples and ball bearings were chucked in.
Some officers huddled around a bank of security screens in the entry just behind the front doors to keep watch on what was going down in front, back and on the sides of the 16-story building.
Two flights up, a U.S. Marshals Service incident management team sat around a conference room table, each man focused on his small black laptop, handheld radios at the ready, large screens at either end, looking up frequently to check live footage streaming from not only the protest just outside their doors, but others in Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle. The team is largely a coordination unit, making sure officers are properly supplied. Deputies volunteer to be on the group, which has done security in the past for Federal Emergency Management shelters and responded to hurricanes.
Suddenly, their radios crackled: “Be advised, they have eyes on the gate … they’re preparing for something.”
“Good evening, Captain Obvious,” another deputy said to those gathered in the room, drawing chuckles. Another officer urged the others to cut some slack to the guy on the radio; he’s new to the drill, having just arrived from out of town.
Lights remained out in courthouse rooms, besides windows on the upper floors, to avoid drawing attention from people outside.
For hours stretching into Sunday morning, large crowds marched up Southwest Salmon Street to the courthouse, filling Third Avenue to about a block north beyond the courthouse, as well as Lownsdale Square across the street.
The federal officers estimated the crowd reached about 5,000 people, the largest “since we’ve been here,” a supervising officer said. The officers spoke on the condition they not be named for fear of harassment. Their uniforms indicate what federal agency they work for. Instead of names, they’re identified by three-letter patches.
Deputy marshals, accustomed to escorting defendants to and from lockup into courtrooms for hearings or trials, now are working long overnight shifts, largely focused on protecting the courthouse and responding to nightly damage to the building and violence directed at them.
For the first several weeks of Portland’s protests against police violence and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, the federal courthouse stayed “dark and boarded-up,” one deputy marshal said, describing it as “out of sight, out of mind.”
Protesters’ attention suddenly shifted there just before July 4, when some people tore down wooden boards covering the front of the building and the next night tried to barricade shut the glass doors, which had shattered.
Now, 114 federal officers from across the country are staging at the courthouse from about 6 p.m. to dawn. Deputy marshals with strong Boston accents are working beside other deputies with drawls from South Carolina.
Critics believe the federal officers have overstepped their legal boundaries, heading off the property on some nights to press protesters away from the courthouse for several blocks and firing tear gas and impact munitions, often without warning, into crowds, striking journalists and peaceful participants.
Officers shot a man in the head with an impact munition, sending him to the hospital with a fractured skull, and beat a Navy veteran with a baton. Captured on video, both appear to be unprovoked attacks. Other officers have whisked at least two people off city streets in unmarked vans. Their actions have sparked a handful of lawsuits and investigations by their departments’ inspector generals.
Some officers said they don’t relish their new roles. They’re frustrated and dejected by the destructiveness of the protesters who assail them and the courthouse.
“I never thought in my life in the U.S. this was something I would see,” said one deputy marshal. “To see our building destroyed, the office I come to everyday, it’s tough. It’s disheartening.”
Some of the officers are assigned to a fire response team, tasked with putting out fires often set in front of the courthouse by protesters.
A bookshelf on wheels sits by an interior door with a half-dozen fire extinguishers lined up on top. Nearby is a cylindrical bin that holds rakes, which also are used to stamp out flames, and brooms, to brush away the objects that land inside the lobby.
Some officers are on a Quick Response Team, moving in if someone is injured. There’s the prison transport team, a repair team, a sallyport team that focuses on the underground garage entry and exit and the Border Patrol tactical team.
When a squad of deputy marshals took a brief respite on the fourth floor of the courthouse, some coughing from residual tear gas fired after large fireworks kept getting lobbed at the front of the building, their supervisor reminded them: ‘If you used force, if you fired, you need to fill out a form, even if you just shot at the ground.”
About 1:10 a.m., officers watched as some demonstrators used a bolt cutter, a blow torch and an angle grinder to cut a hole in the fence out front. The hole was large enough for someone to fit through.
“We felt they were trying to bait us to come out,” a Marshals Service Special Operations Group officer said.
But the officers stayed inside and kept their eye on it for some time. Soon a few people tried to climb over the jersey barrier backing up the fence.
It was about 1:27 a.m. when the Federal Protective Service declared an unlawful assembly, ordering people to move north immediately. Around the same time, the Portland Police Bureau declared a riot, demanding the crowd head west, leading to confusion.
The Special Operations Group officer said he had no idea that the Police Bureau had declared a riot, adding “my unit has absolutely no contact with Portland,” a separation required by the Portland’s City Council. The mandate doesn’t make much sense to many of the federal officers, who voiced dismay and blamed Portland’s mayor for “not allowing police to take action,‘’ as one deputy marshal put it.
At least several officers fired impact munitions, including pepper balls and rubber bullets, from the portico outside the front doors.
The people in the front of the crowd hunkered down behind their own shields, some using umbrellas. At the north side of the fence, some people tied ropes or a chain around the fence and pulled on them, eventually bringing down more than half of what was once considered a reinforced, sturdy fence.
At that point, officers fired tear gas, then dozens of them pressed into the streets and around several blocks, pushing the crowds away.
“We respond to how they act,” one supervisor said.
After the crowd had been broken up, the sidewalk in front of the courthouse was littered with plastic bottles, chewed apples, splashed blue and orange paint, broken eggs, tear gas canisters, beer cans, ball bearings. Several cans of paint sat beside a jersey barrier.
At 2:37 a.m., about 100 people had returned outside, some dancing, some chanting “Black Lives Matter.” One played the cheer “Charge” on a trumpet.
The federal officers needed to wait them out. One deputy marshal joked that most people until now didn’t have a clue who they are or what they do and that when he says he works for the Marshals Service, people sometimes look at him and ask, “marshmallow?”
A 13-year deputy marshal who is based in Portland said he believes the message of the police reform and Black Lives Matter movement is getting lost with the attention on the vandalism and rioting downtown.
Weeks ago at the start of the demonstrations, as a part of a fugitive task force, he said he would help Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies locate and arrest people who had been identified as committing crimes during the late-night protests. Now, he’s assigned to help with investigations of those facing federal allegations from assault on a federal officer to attempted arson.
“It’s been a little overwhelming,” he said. “It might be 3, 4 in the morning, and you’re trying to identify who has what charges and who’s willing to talk.”
The officers keep a list of those arrested on a white board in the lobby. They bring people who are arrested inside the courthouse, search them in the lobby and then fingerprint them in the Marshals’ fourth-floor office. The people are photographed in a hallway and then taken to the Multnomah County jail in the neighboring Justice Center.
The 13-year deputy marshal said he’s ready for the madness to end.
“The protest, once it goes to (expletive), it’s dangerous for both sides,” he said. “You don’t know if someone is going to blind you with a laser, follow you home or cover you in paint. It’s nerve-wracking.”
When he’s not working, he said he doesn’t advertise his work.
“I have to be cautious – just for being associated with this building,” he said.
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8212
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