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Federal Presence in Portland Gives Protests New Momentum

A Black Lives Matter protester carries an American flag as teargas fills the air outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, July 21, 2020.

Mardy Widman has watched protests against racial injustice unfold in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, for more than seven weeks but stayed away because, at age 79, she feared contracting the coronavirus.

But that calculus changed for Widman when President Donald Trump sent federal law enforcement agents to the liberal city to quell violent demonstrations that he said were fueled by "anarchists and agitators." On Monday, a masked Widman was in the street with more than 1,000 other Portlanders — a far larger crowd than the city had seen in recent days, as it entered its eighth week of nightly protests.

"It's like a dictatorship," Widman, a grandmother of five, said, holding up a sign that read: "Grammy says: Please feds, leave Portland."

"I mean, that he can pick on our city mostly because of the way we vote and make an example of it for his base is very frightening," she said.

Far from tamping down the unrest, the presence of federal agents on the streets of Portland — and particularly allegations they have whisked people away in unmarked cars without probable cause — has given new momentum and a renewed, laser-sharp focus to protests that had begun to devolve into smaller, chaotic crowds. The use of federal agents against the will of local officials has also set up the potential for a constitutional crisis — and one that could escalate as Trump says he plans to send federal agents to other cities.

Federal agents disperse Black Lives Matter protesters near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, July 20, 2020.
Federal agents disperse Black Lives Matter protesters near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, July 20, 2020.

Federal forces were deployed to Portland in early July, and tensions have grown since then: first, on July 11, when a protester was hospitalized with critical injuries after a U.S. Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a round of what's known as less-lethal ammunition. Then, anger flared again over the weekend after video surfaced of a federal agent hitting a U.S. Navy veteran repeatedly with a baton while another agent sprays him in the face with pepper spray.

Crowds had recently numbered fewer than 100 people but swelled to more than 1,000 over the weekend — and they are once again attracting a broader base in a city that's increasingly unified and outraged.

Federal agents again used force to scatter protesters early Tuesday and deployed smoke bombs and rubber bullets as some in the crowd banged on the doors of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse and attempted to pull plywood off the shuttered entryway.

"It is time for the Trump troops to go home and focus their attention on other activities," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said on MSNBC.

Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the federal agents were necessary because local forces have "refused to restore order to the city or cooperate with federal law enforcement attempting to protect federal property, personnel, and regain control."

"At the end of the day, we all have the same mission: to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution and the American people," he said in a statement. "State and local officials are failing at that mission."

But constitutional law experts said federal officers' actions are "unprecedented" and a "red flag" in what could become a test case of states' rights as the Trump administration expands federal policing.

Elsewhere, the Department of Homeland Security said Monday it plans to deploy about 150 of its agents to Chicago to help local law enforcement deal with a spike in crime, according to an official with direct knowledge of the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The Trump administration also sent more than 100 federal law enforcement officers to Kansas City to help quell a rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there.

"We're going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you," Trump said Monday. "In Portland, they've done a fantastic job."

Mardy Widman, a 79-year-old grandmother of five, protests the presence of federal agents outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, July 20, 2020.
Mardy Widman, a 79-year-old grandmother of five, protests the presence of federal agents outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, July 20, 2020.

For days after the death of George Floyd — a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck — protests against police brutality and racial injustice in Portland attracted thousands and were largely peaceful. But smaller groups of up to several hundred people have vandalized federal property and local law enforcement buildings, at times setting fires to police precincts and smashing windows. They have also clashed violently with local police.

A constant focus of protesters has been the federal courthouse, which sits in the heart of downtown and is now covered with graffiti and completely boarded up, with only thin slits cut into the plywood for federal agents to use as peepholes.

Portland police used tear gas on multiple occasions until a federal court order banned its officers from doing so without declaring a riot. Now, anger is building as federal officers deploy tear gas.

State and local authorities, who didn't ask for federal help, are awaiting a decision in a lawsuit that seeks to restrain the federal agents' actions. State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in court papers that masked federal agents have arrested people on the street, far from the courthouse, with no probable cause and whisked them away in unmarked cars.

Court documents filed in cases against protesters show that federal officers have posted lookouts on the upper stories of the courthouse and have plainclothes officers circulating in the crowd.

The federal government faces also another lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court. In it, The Western States Center, two state representatives and others argue federal agents violated protesters' 10th Amendment rights because they engaged in police activities that are designated to local and state governments. The Western States Center, based in Portland, helps organize and promote the rights of minority and low-income communities.

Homeland Security has not responded to repeated requests to comment on these allegations against them, though the department has said the city is "is rife with violent anarchists assaulting federal officers and federal buildings."

Officials in Illinois and Chicago have also pushed back on the planned deployment there. On Tuesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called it a "wrongheaded move."

Pritzker, a Democrat who has also been among the harshest critics of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, said he had contacted Homeland Security for information about the plan with no immediate response.

As crowds have swelled again in Portland, most prominent among them now are the Wall of Moms and PDX Dad Pod, self-described parents who have shown up each night since the weekend by the hundreds, wearing yellow T-shirts and bicycle helmets and ski goggles for protection and carrying sunflowers.

Some wielded leaf blowers Monday night to help disperse tear gas as they marched down a major downtown street and joined up with several hundred Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the federal courthouse.

"It's appalling to me, and it's a unifying thing. Nobody wants them here," said Eryn Hoerster, a mother of two children, ages 4 and 8, who was attending her first nighttime protest. "It's bringing a lot of people downtown."