As the situation in Portland continues to garner worldwide attention, federal law enforcement is now facing increased scrutiny into its much-criticized response to Black Lives Matter protests in Portland from official internal U.S. watchdogs.
The inspectors general for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Thursday that they opened investigations into federal officers’ response to Portland’s protests. The action comes after a request from several Oregon Democrats in Congress for a formal inquiry into “the unrequested presence and violent actions of recently deployed federal forces in Portland.”
The Office of the Inspector General for the DOJ will investigate DOJ law enforcement response to protests in Portland as well as in Washington D.C. over the last two months by reviewing the training they received and compliance with DOJ policies regarding “the use of less-lethal munitions, chemical agents, and other uses of force,” according to a letter sent to the Oregon Democrats who called for an investigation.
The Office of the Inspector General for the DHS said in a separate letter that it is investigating allegations relating to a specific July 15 incident “in which DHS law enforcement personnel improperly detained and transported protesters in Portland.” The agency also indicated a broader investigation would be underway and a multi-disciplinary team would be created to “examine DHS’ deployment of law enforcement personnel to Portland.”
The inspectors general for the respective agencies are independent entities created to hold the DOJ and DHS accountable.
The Oregon city has been the site of ongoing protests following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25. The situation intensified after an increased presence of federal officers were first deployed in early July to crack down on protesters. While Trump has accused the protesters of being “anarchists” who “hate our country,” state and local officials largely characterize them as being mostly peaceful and exercising their legal right to protest issues including police brutality and racial injustice.
On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici formally called for an investigation. The group cited reports of a peaceful protester being seriously injured after being shot in the face with an impact minution, “unmarked federal agents grabbing protesters from the streets and taking them to unmarked minivans, apparently without probable cause,” “agents pepper spraying and breaking the hand of a Navy veteran” and “nightly use of teargas and munitions against peaceful protesters.”
The chairs of the Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight committees issued a joint statement Thursday welcoming the news of the investigations, and vowed that “Congress will continue to check this reckless Administration, but it is deeply important that these independent inspectors general get to the bottom of President Trump’s use of force against his own citizens.”
Meanwhile, Trump has vowed to send federal troops to more U.S. cities as federal and local authorities clash over how to handle protests. Federal officers from various U.S. agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Marshals Service and Customs and Border Protection, remain in Portland despite resistance from state and local leadership. Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Portland mayor Ted Wheeler have asked federal officers to leave and said they will not cooperate with them. Wheeler was tear gassed by federal officers Wednesday night while he was out protesting. He called their response an “egregious overreaction” and said they were “engaging in urban warfare.” (Further complicating the matter, Wheeler is also facing calls to resign from protesters over accusations that local police have also been overly aggressive at demonstrations.)
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued DHS, CBP, the Marshals Service and the Federal Protection Service last week in connection with the seizing of protesters from the street, “alleging they have engaged in unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregonians by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.” The attorney general’s office highlighted a July 12 incident in which Donavan La Bella, a peaceful protester, was “hit in the head with an ‘impact weapon’ and suffered severe injuries,” as well as a July 16 incident in which an unmarked minivan with undercover federal agents wearing generic green military fatigues forcibly detained (Oregon resident Mark) Pettibone, who was walking on a sidewalk.” Pettibone was later released. Rosenblum has also announced a state criminal investigation with the Multnomah County District Attorney over the circumstances that led to La Bella’s injury.
Here’s everything to know.
When did the protests in Portland start?
The Portland protests have been ongoing for more than 50 days and began following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police. As with demonstrations across the rest of the country, they have revolved around police brutality, racism and given rise to questions about defunding and reforming law enforcement.
Freelance journalist Garrison Davis has been documenting Portland’s protests since May, and he tells TIME the protests have “only gotten substantially larger” since federal officers arrived. Davis says federal law enforcement and local police shot at him with impact rounds and threw flash bangs in his direction so they blow up underneath his feet. “You get way more used to standing in clouds of tear gas. You’re less afraid at the sight of charging police officers,” Davis says. Several journalists have said or documented that they were harmed — punched, shot at or beaten — by law enforcement, even as they were clearly identified as press.
Davis was on the scene when federal officers shot La Bella in the head with impact munitions while he was holding up a boombox.
Protests intensified after La Bella’s injury and reports that demonstrators were detained by federal officers. Oregon Public Broadcasting was the first to report that federal law enforcement used unmarked vehicles to grab peaceful protesters on July 16.
Another video that has caught national attention shows a federal agent repeatedly beating a Navy veteran with a baton amid tear gas as the man stands still. Christopher David was left with two broken bones in his hand as a result, the Associated Press reported. Federal Protective Service deputy director of operations Richard Cline said Tuesday during a press conference that the incident involved US Marshal Officers and would be investigated by the inspector general’s office at the Department of Justice. DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf defended the officers actions at the briefing, saying: “We know officers were properly trained. What we’ve seen from the video is that they acted appropriately,” Wolf said.
An activist and committee member with the Portland General Defense Committee, which provides financial and legal support to protesters, including posting bail, says protesters are being released relatively quickly because of the coronavirus. The source asked TIME to withhold his name because he fears for his safety.
The Portland General Defense Committee reported Monday that at least 423 people have been arrested in Black Lives Matter protests since May 29 and that almost all of them have been bailed out. (Portland police said in an emailed request to TIME they would work to confirm arrest numbers but has not yet done so by the time of publication.) Since July 4, when an increased presence of federal officers emerged in Portland, there have been 43 arrests by federal authorities, including but not limited to those carried out by DHS, Wolf said at Tuesday’s press conference.
The Portland General Defense Committee’s GoFundMe page shows they have raised more than $1 million dollars since May 30. The group says they have so far spent more than $187,000 so far on bail, legal fees, lost wages because of being in custody or court, property destroyed or stolen by police and medical bills, among other forms of support. The group also reimburses protesters for slashed car tires and broken windows they say are caused by law enforcement, among other issues.
The source says they are seeing a lot of protesters who are being arrested for the first time. The volunteer-run group also manages a hotline to document complaints involving law enforcement, talk through traumatic experiences and refer them to appropriate resources. There are “horror stories,” the source says.
Based on the complaints he has heard and from his observations at protests, the Portland General Defense Committee source says that “federal law enforcement is incredibly aggressive,” even more so than local police, “which is already intense and aggressive.” Portland police said they had no comment on this characterization.
“They do not have training in terms of riot and protest control,” the source adds.
An internal Department of Homeland Security memo issued last week highlighted concerns that federal officers in Portland did not have specific training to handle protests or riots, the New York Times reported after getting a copy of the memo. “Moving forward, if this type of response is going to be the norm, specialized training and standardized equipment should be deployed to responding agencies,” the memo said. DHS tweeted that the Times‘ story was incorrect and that all DHS officers who were sent to “defend federal facilities in Portland had their training records reviewed to ensure their tasked missions aligned with their appropriate training.” The Times responded by posting a copy of the DHS memo, which asserted otherwise. At Tuesday’s press conference, Wolf said he had never seen any such memo and that officers deployed to Portland had specialized training that equipped them to deal with crowds.
The Portland General Defense Committee source says he is used to being caught in tear gas now. “Those experiences are unpleasant. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to see. You can really feel the fear of being treated like a military combatant,” he says.
Despite Portland’s liberal reputation, the city has a history of being an unwelcoming place for Black people. Oregon’s constitution banned Black residents until 1926. In 1844, Oregon passed laws that banned slavery but also all Black people from the region, regardless of whether or not they were enslaved. If they failed to leave Oregon after two years, they would “be flogged publicly for every six months until they did so,” according to the Communities of Color report.
Why did President Trump send in federal agents?
The Trump Administration, including the President and DHS leadership, has consistently generalized all protesters as being “violent anarchists assaulting federal officers and damaging federal property,” despite video evidence that law enforcement has in some instances harmed protesters who are not provoking them.
Trump said Monday that federal officers have “done a fantastic job in a very short period of time” in Portland and that “we’re going to have more federal law enforcement — that I can tell you,” he said.
DHS has accused protesters of setting fires and trying to “injure or kill federal officers” by “launching projectiles, including commercial grade fireworks and bags of paint,” at them and “targeting their eyes with laser weapons.”
CBP echoed DHS’ remarks in a statement last week and added that “these criminal actions will not be tolerated.” CBP also addressed a widely shared video that showed a protester being picked up by federal agents in an unmarked van.
The agency said they had reason to suspect the person in an unspecified video was “suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property” and that as they approached the person, “a large and violent mob moved towards their location.”
CBP said that the person was quickly taken to “a safer location for further questioning.” It said that the CBP agents did identify themselves but acknowledged that their names were not displayed on their uniform. This was because of “recent doxing incidents,” the CBP said.
Portland police said in a press release that people attempted to break into the federal courthouse and lit fires downtown on Monday night. They said “dozens” of people “pounded on and began breaking the plywood covering the west side of the building,” using “hammers, crowbars and other pry tools.” Just after midnight, federal law enforcement “began dispersing the crowd using a variety of munitions,” the police statement said. Portland police also reported Sunday that people had broken into the Portland Police Association and lit the building on fire.
Acting secretary of DHS Chad Wolf condemned the events in Portland on July 16, saying the city has “been under siege” by a “violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city.”
Acting deputy secretary of DHS Ken Cuccinelli said in an interview Sunday with the Washington Post that federal agents from DHS would continue to stay in the city in large numbers and that “if violence continues in other parts of the country,” the agency would consider sending reinforcements there, too.
What could happen next?
Given the Trump Administration’s remarks that federal officers in Portland are necessary and their use could be expanded, it’s likely that they may be deployed in other states and cities too, despite mounting protests from their leaders. Trump announced Wednesday that he would send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque.
“Today, I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” Trump said.” He then added, “You’ve been seeing what’s happening all around the country; we’ve just started this process and frankly we have no choice but to get involved.”
The mayors of major cities — Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Portland and Washington D.C. — sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of DHS Chad Wolf Monday objecting to the “deployment of federal forces” in their cities, which they said would be both unconstitutional and unprecedented. “In Portland, (federal authorities’) actions have escalated events and increased the risk of violence against both civilians and local law enforcement officers,” the letter states. It also notes that “federal forces have not been trained for urban community policing, including critical crowd management and de-escalation techniques” and that they lack oversight.
Asked about the president’s remarks in which he said he would expand the presence of federal forces across the country, Wolf said that a distinction which needed to be made between Portland, “which is unique” and related to “violent anarchists” as opposed to federal officers needed to address other criminal activity, like gang violence in other states. That’s what the president meant, he said.
What legal action has been taken?
The ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service last week “for their unconstitutional attacks on people protesting the police killing of George Floyd.” The ACLU accused federal agents from these agencies of “indiscriminately using tear gas, rubber bullets, and acoustic weapons against protesters, journalists, and legal observers.” The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of legal observers and local journalists, aims to “block federal law enforcement from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists or legal observers,” the ACLU said in a statement. The ACLU has also filed a similar lawsuit in protection of volunteer street medics who say Portland police and federal law enforcement have targeted and attacked them at protests.
The ACLU had already sued Portland police for using excessive force and Friday’s action adds federal agents to the lawsuit.
Jann Carson, interim executive director of ACLU of Oregon, tells TIME federal agents are only “adding to the escalation of violence and brutality against protesters that was started by the Portland police.”
“We are very concerned that this is creating precedent and that there’s clear intention that the President wants to take this to other cities,” Carson says. “What’s going on in Portland should concern everyone in the United States.”
The ACLU also said in a statement Thursday that the investigation launched by an internal watchdog for the DOJ was “a start, but not enough.” They argued that the DOJ “must immediately appoint an outside special prosecutor to investigate” and potentially prosecute crimes to “help ensure full accountability.”
Carson points out Portland isn’t the first time federal agents have used violent tactics against protesters; in Washington D.C. in June, federal officers were part of the crackdown on protesters near the White House shortly before Trump walked across the street for an infamous photo op at a nearby church.
Activists stress that it’s not just federal officers who have unleashed disproportionate force on them. Some Portland protesters, including the Black community advocacy nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland, filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Portland on June 5 for what they characterize as its indiscriminate use of tear gas. Plaintiffs argued for a temporary restraining order to stop Portland police from using tear gas as well as a permanent ban on its use by police. Portland police said they had no comment on the lawsuit.
Attorney Juan Chavez, director of the civil rights project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, who helped file the lawsuit, also helped a Portland couple sue the Portland police on June 8. Andy and Samira Green, along with their teenage children, were protesting peacefully on June 2 when they were caught in tear gas. Samira Green is pregnant and “struggled to move quickly to escape the gas due to her pregnancy,” the Oregon Justice Resource Center said in a press release.
For law enforcement, “there’s no difference between a bad or good protester; it’s just protesters who get tear gassed,” Chavez says.
How are Oregon-based officials reacting?
Following a request from U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici — all Democratic lawmakers from Oregon — inspectors general for the DHS and DOJ are investigating the response of federal officers at protests in Portland.
“Unidentified forces in military fatigues using tear gas and weapons against peaceful protesters are scenes from an authoritarian crackdown, and have absolutely no place in America,” Merkley said in a statement. “We have demanded not only that these acts end, but also that DOJ and DHS remove their forces immediately from Oregon.” He added that in the interim, the investigations from the inspectors general should provide some transparency and accountability.
The Oregon delegation has also introduced an accountability measure in Congress that would require agents’ uniforms to display information about an individual’s identity and agency affiliation, prevent the use of unmarked vehicles in arrests, add restrictions to federal agents’ ability to conduct crowd control activities to “federal property and its immediate vicinity” and ensure that the numbers and reasons why personnel are deployed are made clear on an agency website within 24 hours of deployment.
Oregon’s governor, attorney general and several Democrats in Congress, as well as Portland’s mayor, have all condemned the presence of federal officers in Portland.
Portland mayor Ted Wheeler said Saturday that he has taken steps to ensure that federal officers will no longer be able to co-locate with the police bureau. “Based on recent actions by federal law enforcement officers, I am not comfortable having them in our space,” he said.
Governor Kate Brown said in a tweet Thursday that she told Wolf “that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets.” She accused Trump of “looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”