Outrage over reports of unmarked US federal agents arresting Portland protesters

Mayor of Oregon City demands Trump withdraw militarized personnel after they grab people on city streets, reportedly detain them without explanation

Police stand as protesters gather during a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, July 16, 2020. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)
Police stand as protesters gather during a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, July 16, 2020. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

Rights activists and lawmakers in the US expressed outrage on Friday over reports that federal agents circulating in unmarked cars in Oregon were grabbing and detaining people off the streets.

The militarized federal agents are operating in Portland despite protestations from local leaders, including the city’s mayor, Oregon’s governor and both its senators.

“What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States,” said Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon. “Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street, we call it kidnapping.”

“The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered,” he added.

According to interviews conducted by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), federal law enforcement officers have been driving around downtown Portland and detaining suspected protesters with no explanation since at least July 14.

Mark Pettibone, a 29-year-old demonstrator, recalled being terrified when an unmarked minivan pulled up next to him around 2 a.m. on Wednesday and men with green military fatigues jumped out and detained him.

Pettibone said four or five people got out of the vehicle “looking like they were deployed to a Middle Eastern war.”

Pettibone told The Associated Press he got to his knees as the group approached.

They dragged him into the van without identifying themselves or responding to his questions and pulled his beanie over his eyes so he couldn’t see, he said.

“I figured I was just going to disappear for an indefinite amount of time,” he said.

Pettibone said he was put into a cell at and officers dumped out the contents of his backpack, with one remarking: “Oh, this is a bunch of nothing.”

Pettibone said he was taken to the federal courthouse and later released without being told why he had been detained, or whether he had been charged with a crime.

One video showed two people in helmets and green camouflage with “police” patches grabbing a person on the sidewalk, handcuffing them and taking them into an unmarked vehicle.

“Who are you?” someone asks the pair, who do not respond. At least some of the federal officers belong to the Department of Homeland Security.

On Thursday night, federal officers deployed tear gas and fired non-lethal rounds into a crowd of protesters.

In a statement on Friday, US Customs and Border Protection said its agents were behind the arrest carried out as they “had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.”

“Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location,” the agency said in a statement sent to AFP. “For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.

“The CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the encounter,” the statement added. “The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.”

Federal officers have charged at least 13 people with crimes related to the protests so far, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported Thursday. Some have been detained by the federal courthouse, which has been the scene of protests. But others were grabbed blocks away.

Federal officers have been deployed in Portland as part of US President Donald Trump’s plan to crush nightly protests outside the city’s federal courthouse and another court building.

The protests against racism and police brutality were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and have taken place across the country for more than six weeks.

Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, demanded Friday that Trump withdraw the agents.

“Keep your troops in your own buildings, or have them leave our city,” Wheeler said at a news conference.

“This is part of the core media strategy out of Trump’s White House: to use federal troops to bolster his sagging polling data,” Wheeler said. “And it is an absolute abuse of federal law enforcement officials.”

Protesters in Portland, Oregon, July 16, 2020. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

Democratic Governor Kate Brown said Trump is looking for a confrontation in the hopes of winning political points elsewhere and to serve as a distraction from the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing spiking numbers of infections in Oregon and the nation.

“This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety,” she wrote in a tweet. “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.”

“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Senator Ron Wyden wrote in a tweet on Thursday that also denounced Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who visited Portland the same day.

“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,” Wyden said.

“Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters,” Democratic US Senator Jeff Merkley said in a tweet.

In a letter Friday, Oregon’s two senators and two of its House members demanded that US Attorney General William Barr and Wolf immediately withdraw “these federal paramilitary forces from our state.”

Wolf on Thursday in Portland called the demonstrators, who are protesting racism and police brutality, “violent anarchists.”

Wolf blamed state and city authorities for not putting an end to the protests. But Portland police said Friday they wound up arresting 20 people overnight.

Tensions have escalated in the past two weeks, particularly after an officer with the US Marshals Service fired a less-lethal round into a protester’s head on July 11, critically injuring him.

The protests following the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis have often devolved into violent clashes between smaller groups and the police. The unrest has caused deep divisions in a city that prides itself on its activism and progressive reputation.

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