Federal law enforcement officers have used unmarked vehicles to detain protesters in Portland, according to news reports and at least one protester who spoke to USA TODAY.
Videos shared online show officers driving up to people, detaining them without explanation, then driving off, Oregon Public Broadcasting first reported. The ACLU filed a lawsuit Friday evening to try and end what it called "lawlessness" on the streets of Portland.
The lawsuit – the first of several that the ACLU said is to be filed against the Trump administration in Portland – seeks to block the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies from attacking journalists and legal observers at protests.
"Federal agents are terrorizing the community, threatening lives, and relentlessly attacking protesters demonstrating against police brutality," the ACLU said in a tweet. "This is not law and order. This is lawlessness – and it must be stopped."
BREAKING: The @ACLU_OR is taking federal authorities in Portland, Oregon, to court.
This is a fight to save our democracy. These federal agents must be stopped and removed from the city.
— ACLU (@ACLU) July 17, 2020
Conner O’Shea, 30, a Portland resident who’s been attending protests for almost two months, told USA Today that early Thursday morning, around 2 a.m. he and a friend had left protests downtown and were walking back to their car when they were suddenly pursued by men who they believed to be federal agents.
O’Shea said after being warned by other protesters that federal agents were driving around in unmarked vans "snatching people," a van pulled over to the side walk and “four of five dudes in camo jump out and start charging at us.”
Both O'Shea and his friend ran in opposite directions. O’Shea did not see any sort of identifying markers on the men — badges or numbers or words on their camouflage uniforms. O’Shea managed to get away, and was later picked up by another friend and driven back home. But his friend Mark Pettibone, 29, has told media he was arrested and booked by federal agents, a story O’Shea confirmed.
“Nothing so far has been as scary as this,” O’Shea said. “Even with cars speeding around protesters (during marches), nothing has come close to how terrified I was the other night.
Pettibone told the Washington Post that officers placed him in a holding cell in a federal courthouse, where he was read his Miranda rights. After Pettibone, who did not respond to calls from USA TODAY, declined to answer questions, he was released, he told the Post.
In a statement Friday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed that it detained a protester but disputed accounts that it did so without reason. The agency, which did not name Pettibone, said agents had information about a person suspected of assaulting federal agents or destroying federal property.
"Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone's safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning," the department said, adding that agents identified themselves and were wearing the agency's insignia.
The statement did not address the use of unmarked vans.
Protests in Oregon's largest city following the police killing of George Floyd have continued for 47 days. The Trump administration has sent federal officers from multiple agencies to the city, and tensions escalated after an officer with the U.S. Marshals Service fired a less-lethal round at a protester’s head on July 11, critically injuring him.
The heavy federal presence has drawn criticisms from Democratic lawmakers, local leaders and civil rights groups. House speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted that "Trump & his stormtroopers must be stopped."
Unidentified stormtroopers. Unmarked cars. Kidnapping protesters and causing severe injuries in response to graffiti.
These are not the actions of a democratic republic.@DHSgov’s actions in Portland undermine its mission.
Trump & his stormtroopers must be stopped.
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) July 18, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., compared the unidentified federal officers to a "secret police force." Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called the incident involving Pettibone "chilling," and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., described it as "authoritarian."
Merkley and other lawmakers from Oregon are asking the inspectors general of the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate, decrying the “unrequested presence and violent actions” of federal officers in Portland.
“The jarring reports of federal law enforcement officers grabbing peaceful protesters off the street should alarm every single American. This is not the way a government operates in a functioning democracy,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in a statement.
What legal authorities require officers to share their identities, and are there any consequences for failing to do so?
Here’s Rachel Brown and Coleman Saunders from last month here on Lawfare:https://t.co/ISZijFhXpd
— Lawfare (@lawfareblog) July 17, 2020
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Border Patrol agents have been deployed to Portland to protect federal property amid ongoing protests.
"While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) respects every American’s right to protest peacefully, violence and civil unrest will not be tolerated. Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as injure federal officers and agents. These criminal actions will not be tolerated," the agency said.
However, officers appeared to detain people who weren’t near federal property, and it isn't clear that all of those being arrested had committed a crime, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
O’Shea called the situation an “insane escalation” in a city that’s seen more than 50 consecutive nights of Black Lives Matter protests.
“The feds have been ramping up their brutality, but I didn’t think this was gonna happen,” O’Shea said. “After the other night it was like, ‘OK, this is a testing ground for federal occupation of cities.’ This is just furthering the weird authoritarian fantasy (President Donald) Trump is living in.
State officials in Oregon are keeping an eye on the situation.
"If media reports of their actions are accurate, federal officers arresting Oregonians without probable cause is extraordinarily concerning and a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights," said Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
On Thursday night, federal officers fired rounds and deployed tear gas to break up a crowd of a few hundred people gathered near the federal courthouse, according to The Oregonian. Some protesters remained in the area early Friday and were detained, but it was unclear how many arrests were made by either Portland police or federal officers, the newspaper reported.
Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas School of Law, said the most important takeaway from the Portland situation is that “we should not be allergic to the idea that federal officers are allowed to enforce federal laws in our cities. What we should be allergic to is federal officers abusing their authority by arresting protesters who have broken no laws, and doing so in a manner in which it’s not clear what they were arrested for or by what authority.
“The critical question we should all be asking is, which one of those two scenarios are we talking about in Portland?”
Vladeck wrote extensively about the situation Friday. Many more details are needed, he said, to fully understand what happened and the legal implications of it.
President Donald Trump declared victory at a news conference on Monday, praising efforts by federal officers to address violence in the city, which he said was "totally out of control."
"We’ve done a great job in Portland," Trump said. "I guess, we have many people right now in jail, and we very much quelled it. And if it starts again, we’ll quell it again very easily. It’s not hard to do if you know what you’re doing."
Brown, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other local leaders have said they didn’t ask for help from federal law enforcement and have asked them to leave.
"We’re aware that they’re here," Wheeler said on Twitter. "We wish they weren’t."
Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf also drew criticism from local leaders when he visited the city Thursday hours after calling the protesters “violent anarchists."
"I told Acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets. His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes," Brown said in a tweet. "He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way."
In tweets over the past weeks, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said Border Patrol agents were assaulted by protesters who threw rocks and used baseball bats to break down the doors of the federal courthouse in Portland. Morgan said the agents “deployed less than lethal force.”
“Criminals, armed with weapons, continue to organize attacks on Federal property in Portland,” Morgan tweeted Thursday, echoing the president’s language. The Trump administration “is committed to supporting law enforcement officers, maintaining law & order, and protecting Americans.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Reports: Federal officers detain Portland protesters in unmarked vans