US: Oregon announces 'phased withdrawal' of federal troops

Federal authorities negotiate a deal with Oregon to increase police presence in Portland in exchange for the departure.

    A protester walks through tear gas deployed by federal law enforcement officers during a demonstration against police violence and racial inequality in Portland [Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]
    A protester walks through tear gas deployed by federal law enforcement officers during a demonstration against police violence and racial inequality in Portland [Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]

    Federal agents who have clashed with protesters in Portland, Oregon, will begin a "phased withdrawal" from Oregon's largest city, Governor Kate Brown said on Wednesday.

    Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement the plan negotiated with Brown over the last 24 hours includes a "robust presence" of Oregon State Police in downtown Portland.

    "State and local law enforcement will begin securing properties and streets, especially those surrounding federal properties that have been under nightly attack for the past two months," Wolf said.

    The agents will begin leaving the city’s downtown area on Thursday, Brown said.

    President Donald Trump appeared to stand firm with his deployment of federal agents to Portland.

    Trump told reporters on Wednesday morning: "We're not leaving until they secure their city" as he began a trip to Texas to tout his energy policy. 

    The news comes after agents deployed to Seattle from Portland to protect federal property left the city after local officials complained their presence was escalating tensions, the city's mayor said on Tuesday.

    Also on Tuesday, the United States Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security were weighing whether to send in more agents. The marshals were taking steps to identify up to 100 additional personnel who could go in case they were needed to relieve or supplement the deputy marshals who work in Oregon, spokesman Drew Wade said.

    Federal law enforcement officers deployed under the Trump administration's executive order face off with protesters
    Federal law enforcement officers close a street downtown as they move towards protesters during a demonstration against police violence and racial inequality in Portland, Oregon on July 29, 2020 [Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]

    Law enforcement officers again used tear gas to disperse protesters early on Wednesday on the streets of Portland as loud booms filled the air.

    President Donald Trump has not let up on criticising local authorities over their handling of the protests that began after George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police and have grown to include the presence of federal agents in Portland and other Democratic cities.

    The protests often turn raucous, with federal agents firing tear gas, making arrests and firing less-lethal ammunition at protesters who shine lasers at the agents, among other tactics. 

    "We, as you know, have done an excellent job of watching over Portland and watching our courthouse where they wanted to burn it down, they're anarchists, nothing short of anarchist agitators," Trump said on Tuesday.

    The developments came as the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon filed a motion alleging that the militarised US agents were attacking journalists and legal observers with riot-control munitions, despite a federal court ordering them to stop.

    Legal challenges

    Last week, the US District Court in Portland - located in the same federal court building that has been the focus of protests - temporarily blocked federal officers from targeting journalists and legal observers at the protests.

    The ACLU asked the court to sanction and hold in contempt federal agents for violating the temporary restraining order. It also asked the court to order the acting Homeland Security Secretary, Wolf, and Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli to personally appear and show why they should not be sanctioned for contempt.

    The organisation cited numerous instances in which agents have violated the order by firing impact munitions and using pepper spray against people clearly marked as journalists or legal observers.

    The motion was filed after US Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive federal response to Congress, saying "violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests" sparked by Floyd's death.

    US AG Barr tells Congress violent US protests must be stopped

    The ACLU accused federal agents of acting unlawfully in Portland.

    "This administration claims to be defending the federal courthouse, but won't obey the orders coming out of it. What purpose are these agents actually serving, then?" said Kelly Simon, interim legal director of the ACLU of Oregon.

    One journalist, Jonathan Levinson, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, said in a statement to the court that while he was trying to take a photograph on Friday, he saw a federal agent raise his weapon, aim it at him and fire several rounds.

    "My camera and lens were splattered with paint," Levinson said. "Based on my position and the position of people around me, there is almost no chance the agent was aiming at anyone other than me."

    Levinson, who has covered conflicts worldwide, said he was wearing a press pass and a helmet that says "PRESS" in big letters on the front and back.

    Kat Mahoney, a legal observer with the ACLU, said a federal agent fired a paintball at her, hitting her in the head on Friday. The next night, an agent sprayed her and three other observers in the face as they told him they were legal observers and pointed to their credentials.

    There was no immediate comment from the federal agencies on the motion and accusations.

    Court a flashpoint 

    Two groups also have sued the Department of Homeland Security, alleging it violated the constitution by sending federal law enforcement to disperse crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets.

    The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit from the Wall of Moms - a group of self-described mothers - and the Don't Shoot Portland group.

    Members of the group of mothers have "been tear-gassed night after night, left vomiting and unable to eat or sleep because of the toxic poison blasted at them," the lawsuit said.

    Portland's Democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler, and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had asked Wolf on Monday for a meeting to discuss a ceasefire and their desire for the removal of the extra federal agents deployed to Portland.

    On the same day, US Attorney Billy J Williams insisted that the agents will remain as long as protesters keep attacking the Mark O Hatfield Federal Courthouse.

    Protesters have tried almost every night to tear down a fence erected to protect the building, set fires in the street and hurled fireworks, Molotov cocktails and bricks, rocks and bottles at the agents inside.

    On the 60th night of protests, demonstrators near the court were met with tear gas, pepper balls and stun grenades fired by agents early on Tuesday.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies