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Oregon governor denounces 'blatant abuse of power' by federal police sweeping protesters off Portland streets

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Tension rose in Portland, Ore., this week as state and local officials called for an end to patrols by federal law enforcement agents who, according to a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting, have been driving through the city in unmarked vehicles and abducting protesters off the streets.

The officers, typically dressed in quasi-military uniforms but without identification, are believed to be from branches of the Justice Department or Department of Homeland Security. Their nominal mission is to protect federal property from vandals, but civilians have reported being caught up in sweeps while doing nothing more than peacefully protesting or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least July 14,” read a story by Oregon Public Broadcasting published Thursday. “Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show the officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation of why they are being arrested, and driving off.”

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Officers are “detaining people on Portland streets who aren’t near federal property, nor is it clear that all of the people being arrested have engaged in criminal activity,” the OPB report said. Protesters have been marching in the city for weeks to oppose police violence against Black Americans in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was in Portland on Thursday, but Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese declined to meet with him.

“As Sheriff, I value the positive relationship we have with our local law enforcement partners, to include Federal Protective Services, U.S. Marshals Office and the FBI,” said Reese in a statement. “However, the actions by out-of-state federal agents last weekend failed to display good decision making and sound tactical judgment. The use of force did not appear proportional to the actions of the demonstrators. I look forward to a thorough investigation into the matter. These actions caused a significant setback in our local efforts to end the nightly violence around the Justice Center and in Portland.”

On Thursday night, in the wake of Wolf’s visit, a few hundred protesters confronted federal law enforcement officers. According to local reports, about 250 people chanted “Quit your job” at officers as songs by Beyoncé and Ice Cube played, before officers dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Earlier, Ice Cube had tweeted the OPB story with the comment “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

“I offered DHS support to help locally address the situation that’s going on in Portland, and their only response was: Please pack up and go home,” Wolf said on Fox News Thursday night. “That’s just not going to happen on my watch.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, both Democrats, also criticized the law enforcement presence.

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaks during a television interview outside the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. (Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary, outside the White House in June. (Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety,” Brown tweeted. “The President is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government. ... This, coming from the same President who used tear gas to clear out peaceful protesters in Washington, DC to engineer a photo opportunity. Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”

“We do not need or want their help. The best thing they can do is stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether. Our goal is to end these violent demonstrations quickly and safely,” Wheeler tweeted, adding, “I told the Acting Secretary that my biggest immediate concern is the violence federal officers brought to our streets in recent days, and the life-threatening tactics his agents use.”

Portland resident Mark Pettibone was one of the men picked up and told OPB that he was taken to a building he later realized was the federal courthouse. No one told him why he was being detained, and about 90 minutes after he declined to waive his rights to an attorney and answer questions, he was released with no paperwork or record of his arrest.

“I just happened to be wearing black on a sidewalk in downtown Portland at the time,” Pettibone told OPB. “And that apparently is grounds for detaining me.”

“All United States Marshals Service arrestees have public records of arrest documenting their charges,” the Marshals Service said in a statement. “Our agency did not arrest or detain Mark James Pettibone.”

“I was terrified,” Pettibone told the Washington Post. “It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon.”

Local leaders were angered over the weekend after a protester holding a speaker over his head was shot with so-called “less lethal” munitions by federal officers and suffered skull fractures. A Washington Post report this week found that police partially blinded a dozen people across the country on May 30 alone.

A waste receptacle's contents are in flames as protesters gather in downtown Portland, Ore. on July 10, 2020. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)
A waste receptacle's contents are in flames as protesters gather in Portland, Ore., on July 10. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)

The state’s two Democratic senators issued statements condemning the attack and Wolf’s actions.

“Federal forces shot an unarmed protester in the face,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley. “These shadowy forces have been escalating, not preventing, violence. If Secretary Wolf is coming here to inflame the situation so the president can look like a tough guy, he should turn around and leave our city now.”

“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Sen. Ron Wyden tweeted. “Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media.”

On Thursday, Wolf released a statement condemning the “rampant long-lasting violence in Portland,” which included repeated targeting of a federal courthouse.

“A federal courthouse is a symbol of justice — to attack it is to attack America. Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community,” wrote Wolf. “This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day.”

Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said Friday morning on Fox News that the federal government has a responsibility to protect buildings such as the courthouse.

In this July 2, 2020 photo released by the U.S. Attorney Office in Oregon and taken from security cameras, officers with the Federal Protective Service can be seen, top right, holding their shields up and guarding the doorway of the Hatfield Federal Courthouse after the glass door shattered. Federal authorities arrested seven people on federal charges ranging from damaging federal property to assaulting a federal officer after protesters targeted the courthouse during demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality. All seven protesters were released after a brief hearing Monday, July 6. (U.S. Attorney's Office District of Oregon via AP)
A July 2 photo, taken from security cameras, shows officers with the Federal Protective Service guarding the federal courthouse after the glass door shattered. (U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Oregon via AP)

“What we’ve seen around the country is where responsible policing is advanced, violence recedes,” Cuccinelli said. “And Portland hasn’t gotten that memo. Nor have a lot of other cities. And the president is determined to do what we can, within our jurisdiction, to help restore peace to these beleaguered cities.”

Wolf included dozens of allegations against “violent anarchists,” including shooting fireworks into the courthouse and assaulting officers. The document also noted graffiti (20 separate instances), damaged fencing (eight separate instances) and lasers directed at law enforcement personnel and aircraft (eight separate instances). At least 13 people have been charged with crimes related to the protests.

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The presence of unmarked federal agents caused concern in Washington, D.C., this year, where Attorney General William Barr deployed members of the FBI; the DHS; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Bureau of Prisons. Many of the officers were wearing generic riot gear with no agency markings and refused to identify themselves when asked by demonstrators.

“The practice of officers operating with full anonymity undermines accountability, ignites government distrust and suspicion, and is counter to the principle of procedural justice and legitimacy during this precarious moment in our nation’s history,” wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter asking for details.

Cover thumbnail photo via OPB.org

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