PORTLAND, Ore. — The head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security paid a visit to Portland while issuing a statement saying that the city was "under siege" by groups that he alternately called "a violent mob" and "violent anarchists," as nightly protests in the city continue.
Protesters have gathered in the streets of Portland every night since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police sparked demonstrations across the nation. The federal Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in downtown has become the epicenter for many of these protests.
(Photo courtesy Doug Brown / ACLU of Oregon)
“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," Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said in his July 16 release. "Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it."
The U.S. Department of Justice says that the Hatfield courthouse has been a repeated target of vandalism, and federal law enforcement officers have increasingly sallied out to disperse the crowds as the Portland Police Bureau faces new restrictions on the use of CS gas and "less than lethal" munitions. The federal officers are not so encumbered.
A number of arrests have stemmed from periodic clashes at the courthouse over the past several weeks — with individuals charged with either vandalism or "assaulting federal officers" who have reportedly been the target of thrown fireworks, high intensity lasers, rocks, bottles, or balloons filled with paint.
“A federal courthouse is a symbol of justice — to attack it is to attack America," Wolf said. "Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community. This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day."
Last Saturday, a protester reportedly not involved in any violent activity was struck in the head by a crowd-control round fired by one of the federal officers, fracturing the man's skull. Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to Wolf and Attorney General WIlliam Barr decrying the incident.
"An Oregonian suffered a resulting critical head injury and since undergoing surgery is now hospitalized," Wyden said. "This use of force appeared, from recorded accounts, to be an unnecessary escalation on the part of federal agents."
Meanwhile, camouflage-clad federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles throughout the downtown area, detaining protesters without explanation or any known probable cause, according to a recent OPB report.
U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said on Friday that he has asked the DHS Office of the Inspector General to investigate claims of federal officers detaining protesters extra-judicially, and said that the aforementioned injury of a protester with less-lethal rounds was already under investigation.
The clashes and resulting accusations have increasingly politicized the situation in Portland, with both Governor Kate Brown and Mayor Ted Wheeler firing back at Wolf and his criticism of how the protests have been handled.
"A number of people have asked if I know DHS leadership is in town, and if I'm going to meet with them," Wheeler tweeted on Thursday. "We're aware that they're here. We wish they weren't. We haven't been invited to meet with them, and if we were, we would decline."
"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."
The night of Wolf's visit saw a return of the violence, with federal officers deploying tear gas and firing less-lethal rounds into groups of protesters near the courthouse, the Associated Press reported, eventually dispersing the crowds.
“Protesters in Portland have been shot in the head, swept away in unmarked cars, and repeatedly tear gassed by uninvited and unwelcome federal agents," Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement. "We won’t rest until they are gone.”