PORTLAND, Ore. — The protest outside Portland’s federal courthouse had died down by 3:40 a.m. on July 29, when a green laser shined down from a seventh-floor balcony used as a lookout by federal agents.
The laser landed on John Hacker, an activist and citizen-journalist standing in a park about 170 feet away. It skittered across Hacker’s feet, head and torso for more than 45 seconds. Suddenly, an unmarked van pulled in front of him. Doors slid open. Heavily armed men in camouflage tactical gear surrounded Hacker and took him into custody.
Hacker, 36, is among nearly two dozen people arrested but not charged during the Trump administration’s five-week response, from July through early August, to the demonstrations against police brutality in Portland. Before letting Hacker go, federal agents collected a DNA swab, photographed him and confiscated a phone that has not been returned, he said.
The Washington Post conducted an in-depth examination of four instances when unsuspecting people were scooped up from the city’s streets by federal agents in the middle of the night, based on information that turned out to be inaccurate or insufficient to charge them with a crime. The cases bring to light the tactics employed by border agents and immigration officers deployed to Portland for an operation President Donald Trump has touted as a success.
Operation Diligent Valor has become a prominent issue in the presidential campaign. Trump has said his law-and-order approach is necessary to stop vandalism and property damage during protests in Portland and elsewhere. Activists and some Democrats have portrayed it as an unnecessary escalation.
The shooting death of a man after confrontations on Aug. 29 in Portland between Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter protesters intensified the divide. The next day, Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the administration was open to sending federal officers back into Portland, over the opposition of local officials.
From detention to release, the four people whose cases were examined by The Post described experiences they found harrowing and unnerving. Three are speaking for the first time.
One was picked up and interrogated in an unmarked van, she said, and then dropped off in another location in the city. Two others, including Hacker, said they were held in jail cells before being let go without explanation or charges. Another, a U.S. citizen like the other three, was mistakenly identified as a foreigner and arrested on charges that were later dropped.
Previously unpublished security camera footage and other videos obtained by The Post confirmed elements of each person’s account. The examination also drew on videos from bystanders, interviews with witnesses and court records.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Oregon said 23 of 98 arrests by federal agents during the operation did not result in charges.
The office would not name the 23 people, making it impossible to judge how complete the tally is. Kevin Sonoff, a spokesman, said the office considered someone arrested if they “were detained for any amount of time” and “weren’t free to go for whatever reason.” Under that definition, all the cases examined by The Post would qualify as arrests.
Sonoff said that as part of their routine process, federal prosecutors reviewed evidence in each case to determine whether charges were warranted.
“Our office works closely with law enforcement to review the facts surrounding each arrest,” he wrote in an email. “Based upon that discussion and an assessment of potential federal charges, prosecutors accept or decline cases using their best professional judgment as to whether a case should proceed to court.”
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman, Harry Fones, said in a statement to The Post that “when federal law enforcement has probable cause that someone has committed a federal crime they are able to detain and investigate.”
In Hacker’s case, the DHS spokesman acknowledged that Customs and Border Protection agents detained Hacker because they believed he matched the description of someone suspected of aiding a protester who threw a firecracker at a federal officer. “Upon further investigation and coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s office, a decision was made not to pursue charges against Mr. Hacker,” the spokesman said.
Hacker, whose live-stream videos earlier in the night show him documenting the protests but not participating, denied the allegation and called the explanation “laughable.”
The U.S. attorney’s office and DHS declined to comment on the other three cases.
The other three people who shared their accounts with The Post also denied doing anything illegal.
Chased by a dark gray minivan
The death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck in late May led to scattered protests across Portland, a city with a history of demonstrations for liberal causes. But the arrival of DHS agents in early July re-energized the protests, channeling ire toward federal authorities and turning the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse into the epicenter of unrest.
Each night, even as most of the city fell silent, longtime activists and new protesters gathered around the one-block building in a show of force. Federal agents emerged regularly to fire tear gas and clashed with people suspected of throwing projectiles, shining lasers at officers or shooting fireworks at the building.
Evelyn Bassi, 30, a lifelong Portland resident, began attending nightly protests in early June. A bartender and chef who hasn’t been able to work during the pandemic, Bassi said she came to the courthouse in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On July 15, around 1:55 a.m., she and a friend, Ryan Ottomano, were standing at an empty intersection behind the courthouse, video shows. They were watching protesters chalk messages on the pavement, she said, and were preparing to go home.
A dark gray Dodge Grand Caravan with tinted windows pulled up next to them, according to security camera footage of the intersection obtained by The Post from Multnomah County, which owns a nearby building.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, no. They’re here for us,’ ” said Ottomano, 29.
The van’s front and side doors on the passenger side opened as it rolled to a stop, Bassi said.
“I noticed that there were people in camo,” she said. “I threw my hands up and said, ‘We’re leaving, we’re leaving,’ like, ‘We’re not causing any trouble.'”
Fearful and unsure who the men were, Bassi and Ottomano said, they ran. The van followed them for half a block before making a U-turn to pursue Bassi, who had turned to run back toward the courthouse, video shows.
After the van caught up, two officers in camouflage tactical gear with “POLICE” patches across their chests approached Bassi. She turned to face them with her hands up. “I haven’t done anything at all,” she repeated, according to video by a witness.
The agents held Bassi’s arms behind her back and escorted her to the van. She was ordered to sit cross-legged on the floor of the vehicle — its middle seats removed — with her hands on her helmet and her eyes down, she said. They began to drive through downtown.
A pair of agents in the front and two more in the back were quiet, Bassi recalled.
“They never said who they were,” Bassi said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be seen again. I didn’t know what was going on. But I could tell that I was being arrested or detained or something.”
An officer asked whether Bassi, whose helmet covered her hair, was blond, she recalled.
“No,” she said.
The van made frequent turns for five to 10 minutes, until the agents stopped at a quiet intersection seven blocks from where Bassi had been picked up, she said.
Following officers’ orders, she climbed out and put her hands on the van’s roof, she said. An agent frisked her and asked her whether she had a laser pointer, she said. She told him she did not.
“You’re being detained because you match the description of somebody who committed a federal crime against an officer,” the agent said, according to Bassi, who is transgender.
As they removed her helmet and a cap underneath it, her brunette hair fell down.
“That’s not him,” an officer said, according to Bassi.
Another held up a grainy cellphone photo of the man they sought, Bassi recalled. It showed a person wearing a face covering and a gray bicycle helmet that bore little resemblance to her black helmet, she said.
An agent told Bassi she was free to go but left her with a warning, she said: “You know, bro, we have cameras everywhere.”
Followed by a van, ‘I feared for my life’
Blocks away and 30 minutes after Bassi’s detention, Mark Pettibone was leaving the protest with a friend.
Pettibone, a 30-year-old Arizona native who completed a master’s degree at Portland’s Reed College in 2018, had made a point to attend the protests two to three nights a week while juggling a full-time job at a grocery store, he said.
That night, Pettibone had listened to Black Lives Matter speakers in the park across from the courthouse and tossed a Frisbee with friends, he said. But as Pettibone and his friend left, walking two blocks northwest of the courthouse on Southwest Main Street, a group of protesters warned that they had seen “unmarked vans kind of patrolling the perimeter,” Pettibone said.
At 2:33 a.m., security camera footage obtained by The Post shows Pettibone, wearing a beanie, glasses and a backpack, walking on Southwest Main Street toward Southwest Fifth Avenue with his friend, Conner O’Shea.
Soon after, a van pulled up, and “four or five military-fatigues-clad people jumped out,” Pettibone said.
“This is an unmarked van,” he said. “No one knows who these people are. … And I feared for my life.”
Security camera footage shows Pettibone running around the corner at Southwest Main and Southwest Broadway around 2:35 a.m., with the van following seconds later. He said he was detained shortly after. He knelt on the sidewalk, his hands above his head, and repeatedly asked the officers, “Why?” he said. There was no answer, he said.
Pettibone has previously shared his account with media outlets and members of Congress. But the security camera footage obtained by The Post is the first visual evidence showing the unmarked van pursuing him. It was provided by Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which owns a theater across the street from where Pettibone was taken into custody.
Like Bassi, Pettibone said he was told to sit on the van floor as he held his hands on his head. An agent pulled his beanie cap down over his eyes, he said. Video from Multnomah County shows a van similar to the one that pursued Pettibone arriving near the courthouse at 2:37 a.m., about four blocks from where Pettibone was detained.
In the courthouse garage, Pettibone said, officers stood him against a wall and took photos from different angles. They escorted him to a holding area on an upper floor, he said, where an officer dumped out the contents of his bag without his consent.
“This is a whole lot of nothing,” Pettibone recalled the officer saying, as hand sanitizer and an inhaler spilled out.
Pettibone said officers put him in a cell and asked whether he would waive his right to remain silent; he said no. He was given no explanation for his detention, he said. He remained there for two hours, he said, until an officer told him he could leave.
Pettibone said the experience was “surreal.”
Outrage over arrests
Word of federal agents’ actions quickly spread, sparking outrage.
The video of Bassi’s detention circulated on social media, gaining nearly 13 million views, although she has not disclosed her identity until now.
In response to the video at the time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a statement acknowledging its officers had taken an unnamed person into custody because they “had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.”
Bassi said she did not assault an agent and did nothing illegal.
In Washington, Trump praised the federal response.
“Portland was very rough, and they called us in, and we did a good job, to put it mildly,” he said on July 15 at the White House, the day that Bassi and Pettibone had been taken into custody in the early morning. “Many people in jail right now.”
Officials in Oregon did not see it that way. The state’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, sued the Department of Homeland Security on July 17. “We are today asking the federal court to stop the federal police from secretly stopping and forcibly grabbing Oregonians off our streets,” Rosenblum said at the time.
The suit accused federal officers of violating protesters’ rights and Oregon’s sovereignty. It also sought an order restraining federal agents from making arrests without warrants and requiring them to identify themselves and the reason for any detention. A federal judge denied the request, ruling that the state didn’t have a strong enough interest to sue on behalf of protesters.
Tawasi: Arrested at gunpoint as he drove home
Federal agents were waiting for Tawasi as he drove home early on the morning of July 24 after a night of attending the protests at the courthouse. Tawasi, a Portland resident whose name is Native American, does not have a surname.
As Tawasi’s car approached the building where he lives at 2:33 a.m., an SUV carrying federal agents idled at a nearby loading dock, according to a phone recording of security video from a business that owns the property. The SUV pulled in front of Tawasi’s car, as other vehicles pulled in behind, lights flashing, video shows. Agents in plainclothes with guns drawn converged on Tawasi’s car and removed him, he said.
“We got you, Mr. Hickey,” said an agent who identified himself as part of Homeland Security Investigations, according to Tawasi.
“You definitely got me. But I am not Mr. Hickey. I have no idea who that is,” Tawasi, 44, said he responded.
Tawasi, a delivery driver who also works as a far-left video blogger, was at a loss. He had been attending protests two to three times a week, but he told The Post he is a pacifist.
During Tawasi’s arrest, agents informed him he was facing charges under a statute that prohibits releasing federal agents’ personal information, such as a Social Security number or home address, in order to threaten, intimidate or incite violence against them, he said.
Tawasi later learned the charge stemmed from his social media posts. He had published a photo on Twitter on July 12 of what he believed were two federal agents outside a Portland hotel. In subsequent posts, Tawasi called on protesters to make noise outside the hotel so that the “federal goons,” as he called the agents, could not sleep, and he urged hotel workers to deny the agents service.
“I wasn’t encouraging people to throw grenades or shoot tear gas or bullets or hit with batons,” Tawasi said in an interview. “I was encouraging people to, like, use air horns or sirens or just noise-making devices to, you know, just to disrupt the normal course of business.”
The protest Tawasi called for never materialized, but his posts prompted federal agents to monitor his social media accounts and eventually to surveil him at the protest on the night of his arrest, court records show.
For unexplained reasons, investigators initially believed Tawasi was a Canadian national with a name of Hickey, court records show. A then-sealed warrant secured on the day of his arrest identified him as Tawasi, “a/k/a Ronald Bernard Hickey,” according to court records.
Tawasi, a U.S. citizen, told The Post he has never been to Canada and didn’t know anyone with that name.
Records show Tawasi has been registered to vote under his name in several states where he has lived over the past two decades. His Oregon driver’s license lists his name as Tawasi, court records show. And his social media accounts all carry that name.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Oregon and DHS declined to comment on the case or why they identified him as Hickey.
After his arrest, Tawasi was held in the courthouse jail for more than 12 hours, until his first court appearance the following afternoon. During that hearing, the judge said prosecutors intended to charge Tawasi with illegally entering the United States, in addition to the charge based on his tweets, according to a transcript.
“Mr. Tawasi is alleged to be a citizen of Canada. He is also alleged to be here without permission, and he is also alleged to have a different name other than Tawasi; specifically, by the last name of Hickey,” said Magistrate Judge John Acosta.
A news release issued by the Department of Justice two days later also referred to Tawasi as a Canadian national with the alias.
The federal government soon began to backpedal. The illegal-reentry charge did not materialize, court records show. The Justice Department’s news release was corrected to say that Tawasi had been “incorrectly identified” as Hickey. And less than two weeks later, the charges of releasing agents’ personal information were dropped at federal prosecutors’ request “in the interest of justice,” court filings state.
Federal agents never returned Tawasi’s phone, though, he said.
He provided The Post with images of Google tracking data that he had enabled on his Samsung Galaxy S6 showing the phone’s movements during the 32 hours after his arrest. Tawasi accessed the data by logging on to his Google account from a computer. It showed the phone was transported to several buildings in downtown Portland, including the federal courthouse and an Internal Revenue Service office before it was taken to a residential neighborhood in Lake Oswego, 10 miles south of Portland, the data shows.
Then the tracking data stopped, indicating the phone was no longer on or its tracking function was disabled.
Court records in Tawasi’s criminal case do not show a search warrant.
Spokesmen for DHS and the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the phone’s movement or to elaborate on whether investigators had obtained a warrant for it.
John Hacker targeted by laser, then arrested
Hacker’s arrest on July 29 capped a month of unrest outside the courthouse.
Hacker, who completed a master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Portland State University this past spring, attended the protests most nights.
A self-described citizen-journalist, he records videos of protests and rallies to expose what he views as excessive police force and information “that contradicts police statements,” he said. He considers himself an anti-fascist but said he is not part of any group affiliated with antifa, the loosely knit far-left movement.
Hacker is well-known among activists along the political spectrum in Portland.
While recording a far-right rally in Portland in 2017, he was charged by a DHS officer with not obeying a lawful order to leave. Videos played at trial contradicted parts of an officer’s testimony, according to media reports. A federal judge later acquitted Hacker, court records show.
The conservative activist and journalist Andy Ngo sued Hacker and several other people earlier this year, alleging they harassed him over his unfavorable coverage of antifa. In the lawsuit, Ngo alleged Hacker grabbed his phone out of his hands during a confrontation at a gym last year. Hacker, who has not formally responded to the allegations in court, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
In the hours before his arrest on July 29, Hacker streamed 77 minutes of video showing the protests and police response. He calmly narrated the night’s events, describing the actions of protesters and federal agents, according to a review of the footage.
Hacker was standing beside Jake Johnson, another citizen-journalist, in Lownsdale Square. The park was mostly quiet and empty, when both noticed the green laser coming from the balcony, they said. Hacker initially thought it was a prank intimidation tactic, he said. But Johnson quickly grew alarmed, video shows.
“Is this a joke?” Johnson shouted on a video as the laser targeted Hacker at 3:41 a.m. “This is, uh . . . not great.”
Two unmarked vans arrived seconds later, videos show.
“You have the wrong target,” Johnson yelled. “You have the wrong target.”
A Border Patrol agent in fatigues stepped out of a white, unmarked van and took Hacker into custody, video shows.
Hacker said he asked why he was being arrested, but the agent was silent.
In a video from a bystander, the agent can be seen taking Hacker’s phone and putting it atop the white van, as agents prepare to transport Hacker to the courthouse.
Inside the building, Hacker said, officers took cellphone photos of him. An agent placed a sticker on his right back shoulder, before taking a photo from behind, Hacker said. Hacker said he could not see the sticker.
Hacker was placed in a cell. He said agents asked to take his fingerprints, but he told them his fingers had been partially amputated, an injury suffered during a traffic accident years ago. Agents then asked to take a DNA swab from his cheek, and he allowed that, he said.
Hacker asked two more times why he was under arrest, he said.
“We’re working on it,” he said he was told.
More than an hour passed before an agent opened the cell and escorted Hacker toward a building exit. “We’ve done an investigation, determined you’ve committed no crime,” he said the agent told him.
Security camera footage shows Hacker emerging from the courthouse at 5:09 a.m.
Only after he was on the street, he said, did he realize his Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus cellphone — on which he had no tracking apps enabled — was missing.
He said his cellphone still has not been returned.
After: anxiety, paranoia, fear
All four people said their experiences linger with them, causing anxiety, paranoia and fear.
“I can’t be alone,” Bassi said.
Pettibone, who sued Trump and DHS officials late last month, has stopped going to the protests as frequently. “It makes you more paranoid,” he said.
“Now, when I’m driving somewhere, I don’t just take it for granted that I’m going to be able to get home,” Tawasi said.
Hacker continues to document protests but has become more skittish. “There’s that constant fear around keeping, you know, extra distance from what’s going on,” he said.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.