We’re now over two months into the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement globally. By and large the media has stopped reporting on the marches and protests across North America with the same frequency and urgency as they were two months ago, but they’re still happening and they still matter. And while the spotlight on the demonstrations may have dimmed as of late, one city *does* keep popping up in the news: Portland.
The city in Oregon has been making headlines over the past two months for ongoing protests against police brutality; some of the details of which are pretty scary. Over the past few weeks, reports of and videos taken from the frontlines of demonstrations have shown activists in violent clashes with federal officers (over 100 of whom were deployed by the Trump administration to respond to these uprisings), leading to war veterans being pepper sprayed by law enforcement, journalists maced and shot at with rubber bullets, and several reports that unmarked police officers are “kidnapping” protesters off the streets. (The latter seems to be supported by video evidence). And, frankly, it’s pretty scary to see. But beyond the questions of how the government and police are even able to get away with this, there’s some general confusion about what exactly is actually going on. Here, we have all your answers about the ongoing situation in Portland.
Why are people protesting in Portland, Oregon?
To recap, alongside numerous other cities across the United States and Canada, protests in Portland have been ongoing for two months, in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd—a Minneapolis, Minnesota man who was murdered by several police officers after allegedly using a fake bill at a store.
Floyd’s murder follows an ongoing and horrifying trend of Black and Indigenous people being harmed and killed at the hands of police across North America.
What is so unique about these protests?
While protests against police brutality and murder have snaked their way through other cities and dissipated, per Global News: “As some protests simmered, Portland’s have only just come to a boil.” This is due to several factors. The city has been extremely socially and politically engaged, holding protests every evening since Floyd’s May 25 death. Because of this engagement, on June 26 Trump issued an executive order which, according to reporting by Oregon Public Broadcasting, deployed officers from the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and Customs and Border Protection’s BORTAC to Portland to protect federal property during the protests. Specifically, to deter and detain protesters who were surrounding and encroaching on a federal courthouse in the downtown area, where some had spray-painted anti-police messages. In addition, per Global News, some protesters reportedly broke windows and threw fireworks at armoured police, with additional reports of fires being set in buildings in the city.
In a letter released on July 16, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said, “Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city. A federal courthouse is a symbol of justice.” Wolf continued, “To attack it is to attack America.”
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And during a July 28 appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General William Barr made clear how he considered the demonstrators—not individuals standing up for Black Lives Matter and defending themselves, but enemies of the government—stating: “What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest. It is, by any objective measure, an assault on the government of the United States.”
What has the response been since the agents were deployed?
Regardless of how these politicians feel about protesters, one thing remains undoubtedly true: Deployment of these federal agents has led to increased activism on the part of demonstrators—and increased violence in the city. While the protests and increased surveillance have given rise to moments of solidarity among protesters—like the “Wall of Moms,” a group of women wearing bike helmets and goggles, who have begun linking arms and acting as a shield between law enforcement and BLM protestors, chanting phrases like “Hands up, don’t shoot”—it’s also led to several instances of unnecessary violence on the part of law enforcement.
Moms “hands up, don’t shoot” pic.twitter.com/qvJKgJkz5m
— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) July 21, 2020
Protesters have faced tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, pepper balls and flash-bang grenades. And on July 18, a navy veteran was pepper sprayed after trying to peacefully speak with federal agents.
— Andrew Kimmel (@andrewkimmel) July 26, 2020
Yet, on July 22, President Trump announced further measures. In a White House brief, the president launched Operation Legend—named after a four-year-old boy, LeGend Taliferro, who was shot dead while sleeping in his family home in Kansas City in June—stating that agents from the FBI, Marshals Service and other federal agencies would be deployed to work with local law enforcement to crack down on what he saw as violent crime in the wake of Floyd’s murder and protests. “This rampage of violence shocks the conscience of our nation,” Trump said, before accusing Democrats of being weak on crime. “In recent weeks there has been a radical movement to defend, dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” Trump continued, blaming this for “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.”
At the direction of the President of the United States, unidentified federal agents have been deployed to America’s cities, like Washington, D.C., Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, to interrupt local protests and impose “law and order” for political purposes. pic.twitter.com/aTOWv90RXT
— Mayor Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) July 27, 2020
Are police officers actually “kidnapping” protesters?
Since additional federal agents were deployed, one of the alarming allegations circling is that federal agents have moved from the federal buildings they were originally sent to “protect,” with reports that unidentified armed federal agents have been patrolling the streets, yanking protesters into unmarked cars, arresting and detaining them without first identifying themselves as law enforcement. Many online, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have likened this course of action to kidnapping.
I’m not sure I have the right words to explain how important and dangerous the situation in Portland is.
There are unidentified federal agents using full military equipment and weapons against unarmed civilians, including but not limited to extrajudicial kidnapping & beatings.
— Sam White (@samwhiteout) July 19, 2020
According to Snopes—a fact-checking website—claims that officers were picking up citizens unannounced first stemmed from an account by 29-year-old Mark Pettibone, who recounted to outlets like the New York Times his experience being chased by armed people wearing camouflage on the streets of Portland. According to Pettibone, these individuals—who were later identified as a team of federal law enforcement agents—tossed him into a van and took him to a federal courthouse. There, Pettibone alleges he was held in a cell for 90 minutes without explanation as to the crimes he was suspected of. Pettibone also said the individuals never identified themselves as law enforcement personnel.
While there was no video evidence of Pettibone’s encounter with agents, since reports first began emerging of these tactics in Portland several people on social media have shared videos and reports of similar actions in New York City.
I had a dream this happened to me in broad daylight so dirty computer the short film was born . This is insane .
— Janelle Monáe, Cindi Mayweather👽🚆🤖🚀🪐 (@JanelleMonae) July 29, 2020
As of publication, Pettibone is the only person who has come forward with a first-hand experience of being detained in this manner, but in a federal lawsuit filed on July 17 and obtained by Snopes, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said the state had reason to believe Pettibone was not the only person detained by or released from “anonymous agents” without any explanation during the protests. In her complaint, Rosenblum described the alleged tactics used by officers as “kidnapping,”stating: “Ordinarily, a person … who is confronted by anonymous men in military-type fatigues and ordered into an unmarked van can reasonably assume that he is being kidnapped and is the victim of a crime.” Rosenblum also said the actions were a violation of several civil liberties.
But, the issue is complicated. While Pettibone and bystanders state that federal agents failed to identify themselves and were patrolling around in unmarked cars, in a statement released on July 17, the CBP disputed claims that its officers were operating as unidentified agents, claiming that the person in question (Pettibone, who they didn’t name) was suspected of assaulting federal officers or causing property damage. The CBP also claims officers identified themselves to the person in question, but not the crowd, and were wearing patches that identified them as CBP. Per the CBP, the names of the officers were removed from uniforms to protect their privacy. So while protesters—who are saying they’re being pulled into unmarked vehicles by unidentified armed people—would probably classify these incidents as kidnapping, officials most likely claim that anyone detained is detained lawfully as a suspect.
As for the allegations that protesters were being picked up by unmarked cars, this appears to be true. On July 18, Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told NPR that officers *were* using unmarked vehicles to pick people up, something he said helps maintain agents’ safety and get out of locations undetected.
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Regardless of whether agents have been identifying themselves to the people they detain, the idea of them neglecting to do so, or detaining people unlawfully, wouldn’t be so out of the ordinary. As many people online pointed out, this sort of action isn’t *that* unbelievable because it’s been happening to Black and Brown bodies for years.
During grad school I was literally picked up off the street in Harlem by plain clothed police officers who didn’t show me a badge, put me in the back of unmarked van, parked in a single spot for like an hour as I sat in van. Thought I had been kid napped. They been doing this.
— Matthew D. Morrison (@DrMaDMo) July 29, 2020
(And not just in the United States. In Canada, Black Canadians are carded at a disproportionately higher rate than other Canadians).
black & brown people have been calling the cops “the jump-out boys” for years because they jump out of unmarked & marked cars, snatch people, and drive off. a decades-old nickname. reject the idea that this is new and bizarre behavior
— no (@miskeencore) July 29, 2020
And what’s this about conditional releases?
In addition to detaining protesters for questionable reasons, according to several reports officials have been employing another tactic in order to curtail protesting in the city. According to a July 28 article by ProPublica, protesters who’d been arrested on minor offences such as “failing to obey” an order (such as failing to get off a sidewalk), were reportedly being told by federal authorities that they were no longer able to protest as a condition of their release from jail. Several protesters interviewed by ProPublica said they felt no other option but to accept the condition in order to get out of jail.
This is “broken windows” policing on steroids, mixed with a violation of the First Amendment. Federal authorities are arresting Portland protesters for minor offenses, then telling them they can’t protest anymore as a condition for their release from jail. https://t.co/kP8WhzjJMC
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) July 29, 2020
According to legal experts, this move by federal authorities is a violation of the constitutional right to free assembly.
How are city officials responding?
Despite the fact that federal agents were deployed to Portland under the order of President Trump, not all those in political office support what’s going on in the city right now. Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler is one of the loudest protesters against the presence of these additional federal forces, decrying them for being unconstitutional.
Commissioner @JoAnnPDX and I are calling for an immediate meeting with Department of Homeland Security leadership on the ground in Portland and with Acting Secretary @DHS_Wolf to discuss a cease-fire and the removal of heightened federal forces from Portland.
— Mayor Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) July 28, 2020
And on July 17, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued multiple federal agencies for allegedly violating the civil rights of Oregon residents via unlawful tactics, according to USA Today.
And the push back has worked—to some extent, at least. On July 29, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw federal agents from the city. The downside? The announcement came just after another announcement that agents would be similarly deployed to Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. So the cycle continues.
How is all of that legal?
Probably the question on everyone’s minds: Is this all legal? The answer is: We’re not really sure. As Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes wrote in a July 21 article for The Atlantic: “There will be time to sort out the legalities of the federal government’s actions.” With Rosenblum suing federal agencies and The American Civil Liberties Union suing the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service, “between these varied proceedings, the Trump administration will have to answer legal questions like whether it’s really okay for unidentified federal officers and agents to patrol streets, and whether an agency whose mission is to patrol the border is properly used without training for crowd control. The administration will also have to justify the propriety of the individual arrests both in any prosecutions of those detained and in any civil suits filed.”
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But, as the journalists note, whether or not the Trump administration “has the technical legal authority to deploy this show of force in this particular matter does not answer the question of whether it should do so.” What is crystal clear is that regardless of legalities, the government has severely overstepped its boundaries and those of a democratic society.
“The issue is federal overreach,” says Laura Huey, Professor of Sociology at Western University who specializes in policing, mental health and countering violent extremism. “My concern about this is that you’ve got a powder keg situation, because people are upset with what’s going on locally. Then you bring the feds into it. And then basically any attempt by the local police to try to mediate or reduce tensions around the situation goes right out the window; and I can’t help but wonder whether or not the federal government’s actually trying to provoke an incident.”
The issue, Huey says, lies with politicizing policing. “You’ve got a federal government that has decided that it wants to politicize the situation and use police strategies and tactics to deal with it,” she says. “That’s going to have huge negative repercussions on local and state level policing in the United States for probably years to come.” Huey points to already existing paranoia and resistance to data-driven approaches to reducing crime. “People [already] think predictive analytics is this big sort of Matrix thing with mass surveillance and spying, when a lot of times data-driven approaches are basically just computerized forms of crime mapping,” she says. And these recent actions by federal agents are doing nothing to quell that fear. “If you’ve got a federal government that’s deploying agents into a situation where they are obviously engaged in surveillance and literally kidnapping people off the street, try going to city council three years from now and saying that you want to do a data-driven crime mapping approach to dealing with local issues.” The implication being that it won’t happen. Turning to community policing, Huey says: “It’s really hard to be officer friendly at the local school when there’s this perception that it’s a police state and [asking] ‘Why are the cops in the school? Are they there there as part of a school-to-prison pipeline?’ The political consequences are huge.”
The big issue lies in inadvertently conflating the two areas of policing: federal and more localized, with the former (which is more politicized) in effect overreaching their boundaries and using tactics and tools given to them post-911 to deal with terrorism for issues at a local level.
Why should we care?
And, FYI, everyone should be caring about what’s going on in Portland right now. Not only because we’ve seen similar tactics used before (Huey points to the treatment of Vietnam War protesters and incidents like at Kent State University in the 1960s and ’70s, “huge government overreactions and abuses of power”), but also because not paying attention and not addressing it lets the government get away with it.
“What’s happening right now is this unchecked power,” Huey says. “And once you get a taste of it and there’s nothing stopping it and saying, ‘hey we need to look into this,’ basically it continues and it will continue unchecked until the election happens and god knows what’s going to happen then. But basically what we’ve done is we’ve said it’s acceptable to do this because we’re letting it happen right now.”
Although an unpopular opinion, Huey says that other than government checks and balances, “one of the best solutions for this is to have independent police services that aren’t so politically tied to the federal government, provincial government or municipal government.”
“That independence creates a situation that allows police chief to say no,” she continues. “[Because] if [a leader] doesn’t like the decision of a police chief, guess what? They’re usually on a two to five year contract, then you can get them out.” Looking to the United States, where Huey says Trump has essentially removed anybody in power that *could* say no to him, she notes that this situation has largely stemmed from the inability of those in charge to say no against the president. “So it puts [Trump] in charge; and agents and police can’t really say no.”
“The FBI is not Trump’s police force, The Department of Homeland Services is not his police force. Removing that independence is terrible and that’s something that we need to deal with.”