Clash With Local Authorities as Feds Continue to Advance on Portland Protesters

In this photo, agents from different components of the Department of Homeland Security are deployed to protect a federal courthouse in Portland, Ore. on July 5. (Doug Brown via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Federal police who shot an unarmed protester in the face last weekend in Portland with a “less lethal” weapon should be under the same court order to limit use of such weapons that local police must follow, attorneys argued on Thursday, the same afternoon acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf arrived in the city and called protesters “a violent mob.”

Multiple videos show 26-year-old Donavan LaBella standing across the street from the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse, holding a boombox overhead as federal police dressed in army fatigues shoot canisters of tear gas. LaBella leans over to toss a canister back into the center of the street. 

Moments after he stands, he collapses before protesters carry him away bleeding. LaBella’s mother told The Oregonian her son had a fractured skull and underwent facial reconstructive surgery.

President Donald Trump said Monday that “Portland was totally out of control” and that federal officers “very much quelled it.”

Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, oversees several units of federal police that have violently suppressed Portland’s protests since at least July 4. He appeared on Fox News July 6 to decry the protests.

“We need help and assistance from state and local officials,” Wolf told Fox News. “If they’re not going to protect their cities, the president has been very clear we will. And we will step in.”

Meanwhile, federal police in unmarked vehicles have been grabbing protesters off the streets and detaining them without explanation, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.

“This is not law and order,” ACLU staff attorney Vera Eidelman said at a press conference on Friday. “This is lawlessness. This is a constitutional nightmare.”

Wolf arrived in Portland Thursday afternoon. He didn’t speak with press, but issued a statement:

“The city of 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,” Wolf said. “This siege can end if state and local officials decide to take appropriate action instead of refusing to enforce the law. DHS will not abdicate its solemn duty to protect federal facilities and those within them.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said on Twitter that he asked Wolf to leave.

“We’re aware that they’re here,” Wheeler said. “We wish they weren’t. We haven’t been invited to meet with them and if we were, we would decline.”

But early Thursday, Wheeler — commissioner for both police and Portland parks — directed police to clear Lownsdale and Chapman Squares, two parks across from the Multnomah County Justice Center and the federal courthouse, where protesters have gathered nightly for six weeks. The move turned out to be hours before Wolf’s arrival.

Wheeler’s office said the mayor spoke with Wolf Tuesday but didn’t know about his planned visit. Spokesman Tim Becker told Courthouse News the move to clear the parks has been in the works since early this week.

“There’s no connection between our decision to close the parks and Secretary Wolf’s arrival in Portland,” Becker said.

On Friday, after the story of federal police in unmarked cars whisking protesters off the streets without probable cause had made national news, Wheeler issued more forceful statements.

“We need our president to be held accountable,” Wheeler said. “He cannot continue to quell free speech. He cannot alter the foundation of American democracy. He cannot use federal agencies as his own personal army. Mr. President, we see right through you. We see what you’re doing. So do us a favor. Keep your troops in your own buildings and have them leave our city.”

Other officials weighed in Friday, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer calling for an investigation from the from the Inspector General, and U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams stepped outside the federal courthouse to tell a crowd of Portland religious leaders who were protesting on the courthouse steps that he asked the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate two such arrests by federal police working for the Department of Homeland Security.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown said Trump sent Wolf to Portland to provoke a confrontation “in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”

“I told acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets,” Brown said. “His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes. He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way. This, coming from the same president who used tear gas to clear out peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C., to engineer a photo opportunity.”

“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Senator Ron Wyden said via Twitter. “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.”

Questions over the authority of federal police are also playing out in the courts.

A federal judge banned the Portland Police Bureau from using tear gas two weeks ago, unless they declare a riot or there is imminent harm to human life. Federal police are under no such restriction, and the use of tear gas has continued almost nightly. Don’t Shoot Portland, a protest group leading the lawsuit, has filed a motion to hold the city in contempt, claiming police have continued to use tear gas and excessive force in violation of the order.

For at least one of those occasions, the city argued that Portland police weren’t the ones shooting that night.

“No PPB officers deployed munitions from either inside the Justice Center or from the portico in front of the Justice Center on June 26, 2020,” the city wrote in its response to the protesters’ motion for contempt.

Who fired shots and when are murky questions. Portland police aren’t the only officers using violence to quell the nightly protests against racism and police violence that have been held throughout the city and around the country since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

Federal police from the U.S. Marshals Service and several divisions of the Department of Homeland Security have worked alongside local police since at least July 4. Since then, they have made liberal use of less lethal munitions local police are restricted from using.

It’s a dynamic that a local civil rights attorney compared to domestic violence cases he’s seen.

“It’s a question of aiding and abetting,” Juan Chavez, attorney in the case and director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Civil Rights Project told Courthouse News. “You see this in domestic violence restraining orders. You can’t get a third person to continue the harassment that was restrained in an order. If the evidence shows that PPB was directing the federal police to fire tear gas into a crowd and it’s not in accordance with Oregon law, then it’s a violation.”

But federal leaders don’t seem to think they’re doing anything wrong. On July 11, Trump told Wolf he’d “really done a great job” in Portland.

“We should have more support of the local police there,” Wolf said. “But again, the Department of Homeland Security, along with the DOJ, FBI and others are surging resources, and we’re starting to make a difference there.”

Trump said Portland police “have been told not to do too much” – a possible reference to the temporary restraining order prohibiting them from using tear gas except in cases where lives are threatened.

“It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but that’s okay,” Trump added.

Meanwhile, in the case brought by protesters, a two-day hearing planned for Thursday and Friday on a motion for preliminary injunction was scrapped. Chavez said there were too many facts to establish before a judge could make a decision.

“Neither side agrees on what’s going on out in the street,” Chavez said. “It gets to the heart of the issue. On one hand, we’re saying passive, peaceful protesters are getting injured. And on the other side, the cops are saying they’re taking water bottles and other objects getting thrown at them. How do you square those two things? You have a trial.”

In a parallel case, the city agreed Thursday not to arrest legal observers and journalists covering the protests who haven’t broken any laws, but want to document police treatment of protesters. Journalists in the proposed class action sued the city in June, claiming police were targeting them for filming arrests. Now, they want to add federal police working alongside local police as defendants in the case.

“It’s a logical relationship,” Athul Acharya, attorney for the journalists said Thursday. “Claims against city and the federal police involve both actors doing the same thing, at the same time and working together on the same nights while using the same tactics, like tear gas and batons. Federal police are working in the PPB command center and plaintiffs in the case saw federal agents swarm out of the Justice Center, which is PPB’s headquarters.”

Acharya said several plaintiffs in the case were shot by tear gas canisters, but don’t know whether the canisters were fired by local or federal police. He added that protest policing – and the public’s understanding of it – is an evolving situation.

“It’s entirely possible that PPB could start coordinating with federal police tomorrow, or that discovery will reveal greater entanglement than we are aware of so far,” Acharya told U.S. District Judge Michael Simon.

Simon ruled Friday morning that the journalists can file their amended complaint adding the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as defendants in the complaint.

Simon found that the journalists’ claims document coordination between federal and local police, like in a July 12 instance where both federal and local police emerged together from the Multnomah County Justice Center  “and began a campaign of wholesale violence against protesters and neutrals alike.”

“I do think we have questions of law common to all the defendants,” Simon said at Friday’s hearing. “Does the First Amendment give journalists or legal observers the right to remain at a location despite an order to disperse? Do they have rights that are different than any other citizen?”

Simon had suggested he might invite the plaintiffs to file a separate complaint against federal police that he would also oversee. That way, he said, the parties could consolidate discovery and pretrial motions and he could decide later whether to have a single trial, or to separate the city from the federal police during trial.

Acharya said the second route would delay protections for journalists and legal observers. He described the experience of one videographer, who police shot in the back nearly a dozen times with rubber bullets as he covered the protests last Saturday.

“Mathieu Lewis-Rolland was shot up by federal agents four or five days ago,” Acharya said. “Since that time, he has been chilled from engaging in his protected expressive activity because he doesn’t want to get shot again. Any minute that the relief the court gave plaintiffs doesn’t extend to the federal entities is a moment that plaintiffs are chilled. And it’s a moment that the public is less informed.”

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