‘Occupying Force’ of Federal Agents to Begin Pulling Out of Portland, Oregon

Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters hold their phones aloft last Monday in Portland, Ore. Federal officers’ actions at protests in Oregon’s largest city, hailed by President Donald Trump but done without local consent, are raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis — one that could escalate as weeks of demonstrations find renewed focus in clashes with camouflaged, unidentified agents outside Portland’s U.S. courthouse. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) — Federal agents who have sparked violent clashes with peaceful protesters and assaulted journalists and legal observers in Portland, Oregon, will begin to leave the city this week under an agreement with the Trump administration unveiled Wednesday by Governor Kate Brown, while they simultaneously deploy into three more American cities.

Protestors in Oregon’s largest city have demonstrated every day since May 31 against systemic racism, police brutality and the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by the Minneapolis Police Department. Peaceful protests of all kinds have ranged across the city, even on weekdays with temperatures forecasted to hit 100 degrees.

Citing what he claimed was local law enforcement’s inability to quell civil unrest, President Donald Trump claimed he was sending federal officers with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security to Portland to protect federal property. But agents’ actions quickly devolved into violence directed at peaceful protesters, journalists, legal observers and volunteer street medics.

Brown said in a statement the agents would no longer stay in the city as an “occupying force” and would begin to withdraw Thursday.

“After my repeated requests, the federal government has agreed to a phased withdrawal of federal officers that have been deployed to the Mark Hatfield United States Courthouse over recent weeks,” Brown said. “These federal officers have acted as an occupying force, refused accountability, and brought violence and strife to our community.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf used less certain language in his own statement issued Wednesday, leaving open the possibility that federal agents wouldn’t leave the city.

“The department will continue to maintain our current, augmented federal law enforcement personnel in Portland until we are assured that the Hatfield Federal Courthouse and other federal properties will no longer be attacked and that the seat of justice in Portland will remain secure,” Wolf said.

He added: “The department will continue to re-evaluate our security posture in Portland, and should circumstances on the ground significantly improve due to the influx of state and local law enforcement, we anticipate the ability to change our force posture, as we do every day at our other 9,000 federal properties we protect across the country.”

Though federal agents may soon begin to leave the city, Oregon State Police will replace them.  Wolf said state police will be deployed to patrol downtown Portland and surveil daily demonstrations where Wolf said protesters have subjected federal buildings to “nightly attack for the past two months.”

The move is a sudden and sharp turn from federal agencies’ earlier plan to send 100 additional troops to Portland. But in his statement, Wolf credited his own agents for making the departure possible.

“This plan is possible due to the valiant efforts of the DHS law enforcement officers protecting federal property in Portland from violent activity for the past two months,” Wolf said. He added the agency will constantly evaluate the security needs of federal property moving forward.

Even as it agreed to a possible retreat in Portland, the Justice Department on Wednesday announced that it would expand “Operation Legend” by sending federal agents to three more cities: Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. Federal agents will remain in Kansas City, Missouri, Chicago and Albuquerque. U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said Wednesday that he would “significantly increase” the numbers of agents in those cities through the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Barr said the move was an effort to combat violent crime, even though studies consistently show that violent crime has continued to decrease sharply since the early 1990s.

“The Department of Justice’s assets will supplement local law enforcement efforts, as we work together to take the shooters and chronic violent criminals off of our streets,” Barr said in a statement.

Barr’s efforts have not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill: In a letter to Wolf sent Wednesday, Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Chuck Schumer of New York and 13 other senators called on the Justice Department and the DHS to withdraw from jurisdictions that request removal of federal officers.

The senators said excessive force used against protesters by federal agents is not justified by stated claims of acting to protect federal property.

“But this does not justify the use of excessive force or the detention of protestors without probable cause by agents who refuse to identify themselves,” the senators wrote. “These tactics are not consistent with our Constitution or the rule of law.”

The senators also requested information on how many federal agents would be deployed to each city, what agency officers are from, their expected missions and how violators of mission rules would be held accountable.

If federal agents withdraw in Portland, Federal Protective Service agents who’ve always guarded the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland will continue to work with state police to guard the exterior of the courthouse and other federal buildings, Wolf said.

That was a message Trump backed up Wednesday. Trump told reporters that the troops he deployed to Portland would stay there until local leaders “secured their city.”

“Either they’re gonna clean up Portland soon, or the federal government is going up, and we’re gonna do it for them,” Trump said.

But local leaders said federal agents need to go now so Oregon can focus on the true issue at hand: ending police brutality and systemic racism. Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor said the federal occupation was a distraction from the original message of the protest movement that erupted across the country after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police who kneeled on his neck for nine minutes.

“The federal occupation of our community has brought a new kind of fear to our streets,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Wednesday. “Federal agents nearly killed a demonstrator, and their presence has led to increased violence and vandalism in our downtown core. The daily coverage of their actions has distracted our community from the Black voices at the center of this movement, and the urgent work of reform.”

Wheeler himself was tear gassed by federal agents last week. In the moments afterward, Wheeler told Courthouse News the experience made him reconsider his decision not to ban the chemical weapon. But hours later, Portland Police — who Wheeler controls as police commissioner — were threatening to tear gas the demonstrators who remained after Wheeler retreated to City Hall.

Brown also said Wednesday that the protests are not solely about the presence of federal agents.

“Across America and across Oregon, the Black Lives Matter movement has led a historic uprising, centering black voices demanding justice and greater police accountability,” Brown said in a statement. “The departure of federal forces represents the beginning of a process that will be as difficult as it is overdue. If slavery is America’s original sin, then anti-Blackness is Oregon’s.”

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