The head of the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Tuesday defended federal agents who have cracked down on people in Portland, Oregon protesting against police brutality and systemic racism, insisting that the agents are making lawful arrests and are properly identifying themselves as law enforcement.
“We are only targeting and arresting those who have been identified as committing crime,” Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a news conference on Tuesday, noting that “all officers are identified as police law enforcement officers”.
Wolf said the people committing the vandalism in Portland should not be considered legitimate protesters. The protesters gather every night, he said, and converge on federal facilities wielding baseball bats, explosive fireworks, and accelerants to start fires and assault federal authorities.
“And yet,” he said, “the city of Portland takes little to no action.”
The federal forces were deployed to Portland in early July, and tensions have grown since then – first, on July 11, when a protester was hospitalised with critical injuries after a US Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a round of what is known as less-lethal ammunition. Then, anger flared again over the weekend after video surfaced of a federal agent hitting a US Navy veteran repeatedly with a baton while another agent sprays him in the face with pepper spray.
Federal police strike protester with baton, use pepper spray and tear gas outside courthouse in Portland pic.twitter.com/VX2xTVaaYq
— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) July 19, 2020
Far from tamping down the unrest, the presence of federal agents on the streets of Portland has given new momentum and a renewed focus to protests that had begun to devolve into smaller, chaotic crowds. The use of federal agents against the will of local officials has also set up the potential for a constitutional crisis – one that could escalate if US President Donald Trump sends federal agents elsewhere, as he says he plans to do.
Crowds had recently numbered fewer than 100 people but swelled to more than 1,000 over the weekend – and they are once again attracting a broader base in a city that is increasingly unified and outraged.
Federal agents again used force to scatter protesters early on Tuesday and deployed tear gas and rubber bullets as some in the crowd banged on the doors of the Mark O Hatfield Federal Courthouse and attempted to pull plywood off the shuttered entryway. The Portland Police Bureau said in a statement that some protesters lit fires in the street and tried several times to light fires at the courthouse doors.
At his news conference on Tuesday, Wolf took issue with the idea that the federal officers were engaged in anything other than vigorous law enforcement. He said the DHS officers on assignment wear camouflage, just as they do when they work on the border.
“These police officers are not storm troopers, they are not Gestapo. That description is offensive,” Wolf said.
After protesters in Portland lit a small fire and continued targeting the facade of the federal courthouse, the feds came back out to disperse them again. pic.twitter.com/IEcqNc6py1
— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) July 21, 2020
Wolf added that the department respects the rights of citizens to peacefully protest, but urged such protesters to “do so away from the violent activity that’s taking place near the courthouse on a nightly basis. For your own safety.”
The DHS said on Monday that it plans to deploy about 150 of its agents to Chicago to help local law enforcement deal with a spike in crime. The Trump administration also sent more than 100 federal law enforcement officers to Kansas City to help quell a rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there.
State and local authorities, who did not ask for the federal help, have sued to try and restrain the federal agents’ actions.
The federal government faces another lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in federal court. In it, The Western States Center, two state representatives and others argue federal agents violated protesters’ 10th Amendment rights because they engaged in police activities that are designated to local and state governments.
Officials in Illinois and Chicago have also pushed back on the planned deployment there. On Tuesday, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker called it a “wrongheaded move”.
Even some Republicans have roundly condemned the current administration’s policy. Tom Ridge, who served as the first DHS secretary under former Republican President George W Bush, called the deployments counterproductive and said domestic law enforcement is outside the scope of the agency’s remit.
“The department was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism. It was not established to be the president’s personal militia,” Ridge told conservative radio host Michael Smerconish in an interview that aired on Tuesday.
Ridge, a former two-term Pennsylvania governor, said he, if still governor, would welcome the opportunity to work with any federal agency to reduce crime, but noted, “it would be a cold day in hell before I would consent to an uninvited, unilateral intervention into one of my cities.”