July 23, 2020
A violent crackdown on protesters in Portland, Oregon, continues to draw national alarm as unidentifiable federal agents reportedly descend on demonstrators and swoop them into unmarked vans. President Trump, who first deployed federal agents near the White House in June, vowed that he would send militarized police to protect U.S. “monuments, memorials, and statues” from the supposed threat of protesters. In Portland, he’s followed through on his pledge, though the feds aren’t protecting statues so much as terrorizing Americans in the streets. But rather than quell the protests as the president intended, the militarized federal response — which lawyers say is a violation of First and Fourth Amendment rights — has actually energized protesters and steeled their resolve as they push back against the federal presence in their city.
Spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Portland protesters have taken to the streets every night since May 25 to demand changes to the American system of policing. Federal agents were deployed last week to curb the demonstrations, and shortly thereafter reports emerged that agents were detaining people without probable cause and pushing them into non-government (and rented) vans.
Furthermore, when asked to identify themselves, agents on the ground have reportedly refused, drawing questions about who’s really making arrests in the city. News outlets have reported that the federal agents are from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, specifically from a number of internal agencies including Homeland Security Investigations, DHS’s investigative wing under Immigrations and Customs Enforcement; Federal Protective Services, DHS’s explicit security division; and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is generally tasked with law enforcement activities at the U.S. border. U.S. Marshals, federal law enforcement agents under the DOJ, are also reportedly present. (Mic reached out to the DOJ and DHS, but did not receive a response.)
Trump and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf have not been shy about why they sent federal troops to Portland: to protect property, not lives. While Trump has repeatedly touted his “law and order” mettle — often writing the phrase in random standalone tweets — he stated himself in his June 26 executive order that protecting federal buildings and structures was his main priority. Wolf has also called protesters who destroy federal property “criminals.”
The feds have met fierce resistance on the ground. In the past week, hundreds of moms (as it appears according to videos posted to Twitter) formed a wall to protect protesters; they were subsequently tear-gassed. Over the weekend, the group sang to federal agents, “hands up, please don’t shoot me,” in a lullaby-style version of the protest chant “hands up, don’t shoot!” Another unclothed protester, known only as “naked Athena,” approached federal agents in a vulnerable demonstration of resistance, yet agents still hit her with rubber bullets.
Trump and Wolf have framed the protests as violent and anti-American, and have likened the federal response to a wartime action. “The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob,” Wolf said in one press release. “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. This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day.” The DOJ meanwhile has cited “nightly criminal activity” as justification for bringing federal charges against protesters.
Throughout it all, Portland residents are sustaining the longest period of continued protest the city has ever seen, says Cameron Whitten, an organizer who first got involved with the Occupy Portland movement more than a decade ago. Whitten also formed the Black Resilience Fund, a community mutual aid fund that raised over $1 million in 28 days for Black Portlanders.
“Forcing people into silence [is] not gonna work,” Whitten tells Mic. “We’ve seen increased turnout of protesters coming out and really resisting this politically manipulated situation, and we’re gonna keep doing that in order to really ensure that our message gets across: Arrests are not gonna silence our protest.”
Tai Carpenter, the president of Don’t Shoot Portland, a local social justice non-profit, tells Mic that she first heard whisperings about federal agents from protesters on the ground in early July. Those rumors were confirmed for her when she saw reports that individuals were being “abducted” off of the streets.
“If anything, this has just made people more aware that we need to be standing up against this. In a way, it’s beautiful, and in another way it’s incredible that [they’re] continuously brutalizing more and more people,” Carpenter says. She notes that the tactics used by federal agents aren’t so different from what Portland police were doing during protests earlier this spring, with their seemingly indiscriminate use of tear gas.
In June, to counter the use of tear gas on protesters, Don’t Shoot Portland requested that the Portland-based law firm Albies & Stark file a lawsuit against the city, says Ashlee Albies, a partner with the firm and a member of the National Lawyers Guild. A judge granted a temporary restraining order against police use of tear gas in most instances — police would have to declare a “riot” in order to use it — but shortly thereafter the police and county sheriff’s officers pivoted to using other weapons, like rubber bullets, flash-bang devices, and pepper spray.
“The police keep escalating and escalating,” Albies tells Mic, “so more and more protesters show up.”
Local leaders have tried to combat the federal presence, but it’s unclear how much power they really have to deter the White House’s efforts — especially given that Portland police have apparently cooperated with federal agents thus far. “There’s definitely collaboration between the city of Portland police and the feds,” Albies claims, noting that Wolf met with federal agents, local officers, and the head of the local police union when he was in the city last week. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) tweeted that the “political theater” of the militarized response does not keep protesters safe, but there’s no indication yet that Brown will attempt to force the feds to leave her city.
According to Albies, protesters have described direct encounters with law enforcement where local police and federal agents were working together — “feds coming from one side and police coming from the other” to assert control over the crowd, she says. Oregon Live wrote last week that police were seen marching “shoulder-to-shoulder” to intimidate protesters in the downtown area.
Still, both Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) and the Portland Police Bureau have denied that local police officers are collaborating with federal agents. (Mic reached out to Wheeler’s office and to the Portland Police Bureau for comment but did not hear back at the time of publication.)
Historically, local officers have not been held accountable for their actions, which activists in Portland believe is encouraging the federal intervention. “If there’s no repercussion, there’s no incentive for following these rules,” Albies says, noting that police who are not adequately reprimanded for violating someone’s civil rights may feel that they can continue their behavior. She says Portland as a city — let alone the U.S. as a whole — needs to “address racism at its core” if it wants to make real progress. To her, that includes defunding the police, putting resources into community restoration projects, addressing mass incarceration, and overturning qualified immunity.
“Our work is about calling our community that does live and walk through the world with privilege, to take that privilege and pass it forward.”
Portlanders see the presence of anonymous federal agents roaming the streets as a continuation of their city’s history of institutionalized white supremacy. “Our community is trying to have a much-needed conversation around the disparities in our community,” Whitten says, emphasizing that policing is just one aspect of the violence Black and brown Portlanders face. He cites the rapid gentrification in many neighborhoods, and subsequent displacement of Black and brown communities, as another example of an ongoing injustice against non-white Portlanders.
The forced community disruption, Whitten says, has made it difficult for Black Portlanders to build the sociopolitical power that’s needed to be able to push back against political and economic disenfranchisement. Remedying past wrongs and building Black political power in the city will also require that white people transfer and give up their power. “Our work is about calling our community that does live and walk through the world with privilege, to take that privilege and pass it forward,” Whitten says.
Portland is a majority-white city in a majority-white state with a history of anti-Black racism, and this underlying vitriol is beginning to rise to the surface as protests continue. Carpenter tells Mic that the federal militarized response is making people more “emboldened with their racism.” She explains: “I’m starting to notice a lot more outwardly aggressive behavior, not just from the federal officers, but from citizens of Portland because we do have a lot of white supremacy here.” Carpenter says that a local Black business owner recently received a death threat that specifically referenced the federal agents in the city.
While “Trump is really exploiting this moment,” as Whitten says, he also argues that things are changing for the better — or at least, changing in a way that indicates Black Portlanders might eventually see the justice they deserve. “Portland feels like it’s in the middle of a paradigm shift,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”