What is going on in Portland, Oregon? There is surprisingly little attention being paid to the outrageous actions of the federal government against American citizens.
George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. That killing prompted worldwide protests against police brutality and racist police tactics and culture. Portland, Oregon has had daily protests since then, over 50 consecutive days.
They started as your basic protests, marches, chanting and so on. Portland police used tear gas and “impact” projectiles to try to clear protesters. [i] On June 9, a Federal District Court Judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Portland police prohibiting them from using tear gas unless the lives of police or the public are at risk.[ii]
By June 26 the police and protesters agreed to expand the order to include things like rubber bullets and pepper spray. Their used continued but the bar that needed to be met to authorize the use was higher. Then the Oregon legislature passed a law requiring the police to warn protesters before using tear gas. They must also make a determination that a riot was taking place.[iii]
The same day President Trump signed an executive order to protect statues and monuments. This was in response to the rising call for removal of confederate monuments. The Department of Homeland Security then created a task force to assess civil unrest and “surge” resources to protect against it.[iv]
On July 1, federal law enforcement began taking a more active role in combating the protests. That night they emerged from the Federal Courthouse across the street from the protest and began firing pepper balls at demonstrators that came too close to the courthouse.
As Oregon Public Broadcasting put it, “Their appearance changed the protests.”[v] Up to that point the protest were mostly peaceful and protesters were protesting the local police department and had made some progress with the TRO. Now the Feds were involved and protesters knew federal officers were not accountable to anyone.
It really kicked off on July 4. Protesters had amassed a pile of illegal fireworks. They fired them at the boarded up federal courthouse and the officers shot pepper balls back at the protesters. The federal officers then used flash bangs and marched out of the courthouse to disperse the protesters. They pushed them several blocks from the federal building.
Portland police complained that the federal officers were not under the authority and they made his job more difficult. President Trump said he sent the troops because local police couldn’t handle the situation.
On July 11 a protester who was holding a boombox over his head was shot in the head with an impact round by a federal agent. He was seriously injured and in critical condition.[vi] His condition has been downgraded to “serious”. He has a titanium place in his skull and they don’t know yet how his vision is or if he has brain damage.
Up to that point the government response was out of proportion, but at least the identity of the agencies and officers was known. On July 15, unmarked vans carrying troops wearing military camouflage with no identification of their agency or name began arresting people in Portland with no warning. [vii]
Federal agents are in Portland to protect federal property. They have no other authority, yet they are arresting people in places nowhere near federal property using unmarked vans. One account said they took the person they arrested to the federal courthouse, photographed and fingerprinted them, held them for a while and then released them. Journalists have tried to track down what agency made that arrest, but none had taken responsibility.
Portland Police have since cleared out the parks that protesters have been occupying, and even tearing down a pop up kitchen that had been serving BBQ to protesters since the beginning.
Portland and Oregon leaders have criticized the federal response and called for them to leave Portland stating that they have been escalating, not preventing violence[viii]. Homeland Security has defended their actions as necessary to protect federal property. The White House has stated that they will soon be bringing these same tactics to other cities.[ix]
The State of Oregon has sued the federal government for civil rights violations.[x] The Oregon Department of Justice has sued the Department of Homeland Security, the US Marshals Service, the US Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protective Service in the US District Court for the District of Oregon.[xi] State prosecutors have stated they will pursue criminal charges against the officer accused of shooting a protester in the head.
Over the weekend a group of women organized and formed a wall in front of the protesters. They called themselves a wall of moms. They linked arms and stood and chanted peacefully. Videos showed police using tear gas to force them to leave.[xii]
There are obvious civil rights violations going on all over Portland. Let’s start with the shadow arrests of people by unmarked, unnamed men in camouflage. The Fourth Amendment protest us against unlawful arrests among other things.[xiii] The government cannot arrest you without probable cause. In Portland, they have been arresting people without basis. No probable cause. Then they let them go without even telling them who arrested them or why. This is a violation of one of the most basic of protections Americans have under our constitution.
As a corollary to this, what is a person to do when a van swoops down on them and takes them into custody without identifying themselves as police. Can you defend yourself? You would be reasonable in thinking you were being kidnapped, yet if you tried to defend yourself, you would likely be charged with resisting arrest if not shot right then and there. This is a very dangerous precedent to set. We’ve all seen pictures of 2nd Amendment supporters carrying assault weapons in public wearing camouflage. They are indistinguishable from these unmarked federal agents.
I can see no justification for law enforcement to hide their identity other than to protect themselves from oversight and responsibility. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson and House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney wrote, in a recent letter to the Justice Department and DHS inspectors general, said “This is a matter of utmost urgency, Citizens are concerned that the Administration has deployed a secret police force, not to investigate crimes, but to intimidate individuals it views as political adversaries."[xiv]
What I believe we are seeing is the desperate actions of a desperate administration wanting to hold onto power by suppressing the voices of the people. The First Amendment protects those voices and the Fourth Amendment protects the people. Our civil rights are at risk as they have been in the past and we must fight it, but I have a good feeling for the future. This administration has pushed the envelope so far it has burst at the seams and you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. The people are standing against these abuses of power and have support across the world.
[i] Impact rounds include rubber bullets, bean bags, foam projectiles and other non-lethal ammunition.
[iii] Oregon law defines a riot as just five people acting in a violent manner.
The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission. It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.