The Trump administration is facing growing pushback — in the courts and on the streets — to sending federal agents to Portland, Oregon, where protests have spiraled into violence, and vowing to do the same in other Democratic-led cities.
Far from tamping down the unrest that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the presence of federal agents on the streets of progressive Portland — and particularly allegations they have whisked people away in unmarked cars without probable cause — has energized two months of nightly protests that had begun to devolve into smaller, chaotic crowds.
President Donald Trump’s administration also faces multiple lawsuits questioning its authority to use broad policing powers in cities. One filed Tuesday says federal agents are violating protesters’ 10th Amendment rights by engaging in police activities designated to local and state governments. The legal action was filed by the Portland-based Western States Center, which helps organize and promote the rights of communities of color and low-income people.
Oregon’s attorney general sued last week, asking a judge to block federal agents’ actions. The state argued that masked agents have arrested people on the street, far from the U.S. courthouse that’s become a target of vandalism, with no probable cause.
“It is time for the Trump troops to go home and focus their attention on other activities,” Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said on MSNBC.
Federal authorities, however, said state and local officials had been unwilling to work with them to stop the vandalism and violence against federal officers and the U.S. courthouse in Portland.
“We need to find a peaceful outcome,” acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a news conference Tuesday in Washington. “At the end of the day, we have to protect the federal property and the law enforcement officers.”
The use of federal agents against the will of local officials also has set up the potential for a constitutional crisis, legal experts say. It could escalate if Trump sends federal agents elsewhere, as he says he plans to do, including to Democratic-led Chicago.
Federal forces were deployed to Portland in early July, and tensions have grown since: A protester was hospitalized this month with critical injuries after a U.S. Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a round of so-called less-lethal ammunition. Anger flared again over the weekend after video surfaced of a federal agent hitting a U.S. Navy veteran repeatedly with a baton while another agent sprays him in the face with pepper spray.
Crowds had recently numbered fewer than 100 people but swelled to more than 1,000 over the weekend, attracting a broader base in a city that’s increasingly unified and outraged.
Among the protesters was Mardy Widman, who watched demonstrations against racial injustice unfold in her hometown for weeks but stayed away because, at 79, she feared getting the coronavirus.
When Trump sent in federal officers, that changed: A masked Widman took to the street Monday with other Portland residents.
“It’s like a dictatorship,” Widman, a grandmother of five, said, holding a sign that read: “Grammy says: Please feds, leave Portland.”
“I mean, that he can pick on our city mostly because of the way we vote and make an example of it for his base is very frightening,” she said.
Federal agents again used force to scatter protesters early Tuesday and deployed tear gas and rubber bullets as some in the crowd tried to pull plywood off the shuttered entryway of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse.
Portland police said some protesters lit fires in the street and tried several times to set them at the courthouse doors.
Wolf defended the federal response, saying the Department of Homeland Security has clear authority to protect government property and detain people suspected of threatening personnel or damaging such property.
Wolf said agents have been assaulted with lasers, bats, fireworks, bottles and other weapons and “yet the city of Portland takes little to no action.” While he said federal agencies have made 43 arrests since July 4, he disputed that they were done by unidentified agents, noting that they have the word “police” on their uniforms.
“These police officers are not storm troopers, they are not Gestapo. That description is offensive,” Wolf said.
Trump plans to send about 150 Homeland Security Investigations agents to Chicago to help local law enforcement deal with a spike in crime, an official with direct knowledge of the plans told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
The Trump administration also has sent more than 100 federal officers to Kansas City to help quell a rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there.
The Democratic leaders of Illinois and Chicago have pushed back on the planned deployment there. On Tuesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker called it a “wrongheaded move.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot softened her previous opposition, however, saying, “I’ve been very clear that we welcome actual partnership. But we do not welcome dictatorship.”