In scenes that bring to mind dictatorial regimes around the world, unidentified federal agents are snatching protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon, and throwing them into the back of rented minivans. Videos of some of the encounters have gone viral this week, and on Thursday, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) confirmed the story, reporting that law enforcement has been detaining demonstrators in this fashion at least since July 14. On Friday, the federal law enforcement activity prompted an ACLU lawsuit and the state’s U.S. attorney, Billy Williams, to call for an investigation.
“It’s like stop and frisk meets Guantanamo Bay,” Oregon attorney Juan Chavez told OPB.
The officers are with the U.S. Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security. They were sent to Portland last week as part of the federal government’s attempt to crack down on protests and protect federal buildings from graffiti. Like many cities, Portland has been the site of regular protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May. Portland “was totally out of control,” Trump said at a news conference this week. He praised federal agents for restoring order.
Federal officials have charged at least 13 people with crimes, OPB reports. Others, including Mark Pettibone, have been arrested and released. A regular participant in the Portland protests, Pettibone told OPB he was snatched off a downtown street in a disorienting scene:
Blinded by his hat, in an unmarked minivan full of armed people dressed in camouflage and body armor who hadn’t identified themselves, Pettibone said he was driven around downtown before being unloaded inside a building. He wouldn’t learn until after his release that he had been inside the federal courthouse.
The arrests aren’t the only police actions bringing attention to Portland. Last weekend, U.S. Marshals shot 26-year-old Donavan LaBella with a nonlethal round, fracturing his skull.
“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Senator Ron Wyden tweeted Thursday. “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.”
Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, was in Portland on Thursday to meet with federal law enforcement and condemn protesters, whom he called “lawless anarchists.”
“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,” he wrote in a letter on Thursday. On Friday, Wolf tweeted, “Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.” In another tweet, he showed images of the carnage he saw in Portland. It was all graffiti.
While Wolf was in Oregon, many state and local leaders called for him to take the federal law enforcement back to Washington with him. “We do not need or want their help,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “The best thing they can do is stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether.”
Governor Kate Brown said in a statement: “This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety. 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.”
Senator Jeff Merkley has similarly criticized the DHS efforts, tweeting Trump to “Get your DHS lackey and uninvited paramilitary actions out of my state. Our communities are not a stage for your twisted reelection campaign.”
On Friday, U.S. Attorney Billy Williams asked the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to open an investigation into some of the activity, per OPB:
“Based on news accounts circulating that allege federal law enforcement detained two protesters without probable cause, I have requested the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to open a separate investigation directed specifically at the actions of DHS personnel,” Williams said in his statement.
Williams also defended the federal officers’ efforts to protect the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse, but “said in ‘limited instances’ federal officers may have engaged in questionable conduct, such as the unmarked vehicle arrests.”
Also on Friday, the ACLU Foundation of Oregon filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the DHS and U.S. Marshals Service in order to prevent them from targeting legal observers and journalists: