PORTLAND — Before midnight Sunday, several protesters tore down one section of a fence around the federal building, then another.
The hundreds of people gathered by the fence and in a nearby park greeted their action with a cheer, and some streamed inside the breach.
Then came the law enforcement response — first flash-bang devices, then tear gas that pushed the crowd west a few blocks into the downtown core.
This has been a familiar scenario in the late-night protests that have been ongoing here for more than 50 days.
But this time around, as on other recent days, the protesters targeted a fence around the U.S. District Courthouse where federal law enforcement officials were stationed — not the nearby Multnomah County Justice Center that houses the Portland police, who never ventured into this fray.
The protesters yelled “Black lives matter” and “all cops are bastards,” common refrains amid the continuing demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd. But a more frequent chant was “feds go home,” a sentiment also shared by city and state politicians in a singular note of unity in this fractious and tumultuous Oregon summer.
The evening didn’t end with a sudden quashing of the protest. Instead, it was a scenario familiar to many of the Portland police who took the night off — an hours long standoff that culminated with a dwindling band of protesters regrouping and marching back toward the federal building, where someone started a fire under the portico at around 1:34 a.m.
The Trump administration tactics on display in Portland, at least so far, appear to belie the president’s Monday morning claim at the White House that federal law enforcement has done “a fantastic job in a very short period of time.” Those tactics include the July 11 shooting of a protester with a rubber bullet that left a young man with severe head injuries; the July 18 baton beating of a Navy veteran who offered no resistance; and reports of protesters picked up off the streets in unmarked vans. All of this has helped give the protesters new momentum.
“He [Trump] has no clue what he’s talking about,” said a man dressed in black early Monday morning who said he had joined in more than 40 of the Portland protests, and that they appeared to be dying down before the expanded federal law enforcement presence. As he spoke, protesters — with no Portland police anywhere in sight and federal law enforcement a few blocks away — tore apart fencing around an office building and used it to create a barricade.
Federal pressure intensifies
Federal law enforcement actions in Portland — and Trump’s talk about sending federal reinforcements to other cities — also have raised alarms not just in Oregon, but in Seattle and other places. Trump on Monday told reporters, “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you,” and The New York Times reported plans are underway to deploy about 150 Homeland Security Investigations special agents to Chicago. Trump singled out several cities “run by very liberal Democrats” as places he might send federal agents.
“While U.S. Marshals have had jurisdiction inside federal courthouses for decades, it is unacceptable and chilling that this administration has formed and deployed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Rapid Deployment Unit and is sending federal authorities to conduct crowd control on city streets and detain individuals,” wrote Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and four other mayors in a Monday letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.
The Washington Post reported that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) teams already were deployed to Seattle before July 4 in anticipation of major disturbances but then were withdrawn.
Protests have continued in Seattle this month, and on Sunday included what police said was property damage to downtown businesses and injury to officers, as well as graffiti sprayed on the federal building. There were two arrests.
Both Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best said they have not been in contact with DHS regarding any actions against demonstrators, and will not coordinate with the department regarding protesters.
In Oregon, the shooting in the head of a protester on July 11 with a rubber bullet already has triggered a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney for western Oregon.
And Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has filed a legal challenge to what she alleges is the federal use of unmarked vehicles to drive around Portland and detain protesters without either arresting them or stating the basis for their arrest. Her lawsuit, filed July 17 in U.S. District Court, includes an affidavit from Mark Pettibone, a protester who alleges he was confronted by armed men dressed in camouflage and then detained in the federal courthouse without an explanation.
“Defendants are injuring the occupants of Portland by taking away citizens’ ability to determine whether they are being kidnapped by militia or other malfeasants dressed in paramilitary gear …. or are being arrested,” stated the complaint that seeks an injunction prohibiting such conduct by federal law enforcement.
In a statement issued last Friday about a video of another suspect, Customs and Border Protection said that agents had information that the suspect had assaulted federal authorities or damaged property, and moved him to a safe location for questioning.
“While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection respects every American’s right to protest peacefully, violence and civil unrest will not be tolerated,” said the statement, which noted the federal presence was in support of a June 26 Trump executive order ordering protection of public monuments, memorials and statues.
Federal court documents filed in pending cases against some protesters offer some insights into how the federal surveillance of protesters is unfolding in Portland. They indicate that, on July 11, a federal law enforcement official equipped with binoculars was stationed on the seventh floor of the federal courthouse in Portland. He was able to take a photograph of someone who was allegedly targeting a U.S. Border Patrol agent with a laser that could damage his eye, and forwarded the photo to a plainclothes agent who also watched the suspect.
That evening, the Portland Police Bureau cooperated in the investigation by bringing the suspect — Edward William Carubis — to the federal building. A criminal complaint charges Carubis, who has been released from federal custody, with an assault on a federal officer.
Another Portland protester faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly assaulting a federal officer with a hammer. The suspect, Jacob Gaines, is accused in a criminal complaint of using a hammer to damage a barricaded, wooded entrance at the federal courthouse. Law enforcement officers were inside, and as they left, Gaines allegedly struck an agent three times, although the blows were deflected to prevent injury, according to the complaint that cited camera footage received by the Federal Protective Service.
A federal magistrate approved Gaines’ release from custody but that ruling was successfully appealed to a federal judge, whose requests before reconsidering release included a psychological evaluation and a review of Gaines’ housing situation.
Gaines, 23, has never been convicted of a crime, and his previous employment included at a bakery in Bend, Oregon, and a ranch in Texas, according to a court document filed by his federal public defender, Bryan Francesconi, in an attempt to secure Gaines’ release.
In the court filing, Franseconi questioned the recounting of the events by federal agents.
Francesconi stated that “contrary to the depiction of events” summarized in the complaint, video shows a federal agent was immediately able to “grab for and obtain” partial possession over the hammer. Though Gaines eventually wrenched a hand free and made “one concerted swing downward,” the blow appeared to glance off the agent’s vest and Gaines was immediately dosed with mace and taken to the ground, the court filing stated.
Will protests against feds spread?
In the days ahead, the militants who have helped to promote some the Portland protests appear poised to capitalize on the momentum they have gained. On Monday, the Portland-based Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front was promoting on its website a July 25 national “Day of Action in Solidarity with Portland and Against The Federal Invasion.” Promoters hope these protests will unfold in Seattle, San Francisco and other U.S. cities.
In the meantime, the federal presence in Portland is bringing out new recruits to the protests.
On Sunday, 76-year-old Peter Parks a retired diesel mechanic, said he had concerns about attending protests in recent weeks due to his age and the risks of contracting the new coronavirus. But, he said he overcame those reservations after witnessing the Trump administration’s conduct in Portland, and he showed up for a North Portland protest promoted by the Northwest Liberation Front.
Downtown, in recent days, dozens of Portland women showed up linking arms on the front lines next to the federal courthouse to create a “wall of moms.”
One of them held a placard. It said:
“Dear Feds U R Not another brick in the wall. Leave our kids alone.”
On Monday night, the moms were back, along with a group of fathers in another unruly protest that lasted until the early morning hours.
Portland Police, in a statement, said that at about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday, people broke through plywood cover the west side of the federal courthouse, then pounded on windows with metal objects, breaking one.
At around 2:29 a.m., some sort of accelerant was poured on the plywood door over the courthouse and ignited. The fire was put out, and federal officers used “various munitions” to disperse the crowd.
Late in the morning, more fires were set in the downtown area on an awning and a sidewalk near a county courthouse, where Portland Police responded to provide security for firefighters.
Seattle Times reporters Asia Fields and Mike Carter, as well as news researcher Miyoko Wolf, contributed to this report.