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Wall of Moms, Black Lives Matter protesters sue Trump administration for use of tear gas, force in Portland

A protester in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 24 in Portland, Ore. (Paula Bronstein for The Washington Post)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Protesters who say they were tear-gassed, shot at, pepper-sprayed and assaulted outside a federal courthouse while peacefully demonstrating and rendering aid to others sued the Trump administration Monday over its use of force during nightly demonstrations in downtown Portland.

A group of five women and two organizations, including longtime Black Lives Matter protesters and the yellow-clad Wall of Moms group that assembles nightly to stand between protesters and federal law enforcement officers, filed a lawsuit alleging that several agencies — the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Protective Service — have violated their constitutional rights of free speech, assembly and due process and against unreasonable seizures.

The agencies named in the lawsuit have deployed agents to protect the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse from a nightly barrage of fireworks and projectiles, including water bottles, canned food and paint, during demonstrations against police violence, racial inequity and what many in Portland have come to view as a federal occupation.

The lawsuit marks the latest court battle to rise from the smoke and gas of the nightly standoffs in Oregon’s largest city. The American Civil Liberties Union in the past week sued the Trump administration and the Portland police department over alleged attacks on street medics, volunteers who render medical aid to injured demonstrators. U.S. District Judge Michael Simon issued a restraining order that bars federal agents from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest or targeting journalists or legal observers at protests.

Large crowds faced off against federal forces for yet another night in Portland on July 23. Angry demonstrators demanded that Homeland Security forces leave. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

Oregon’s attorney general sought to restrict federal agents’ ability to use injury-causing force against state residents by filing a lawsuit that was denied Friday by U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman, who said the state did not adequately argue that a restraining order was needed to prevent future injuries.

In the lawsuit filed Monday, which was convened by the nonprofit organization Protect Democracy, protesters allege they “have been tear-gassed night after night, left vomiting and unable to eat or sleep because of the toxic poison blasted at them. They have been shot at over and over — with rubber bullets, bean bags, pepper spray, and a range of other projectiles fired at close range and with brutal effect. They have had flash-bang explosive devices detonated right in front of them. They have been forced to speak and assemble in fear of not just bodily harm, but the possibility of sudden arrest without probable cause.”

Bev Barnum, 35, an organizer with the Wall of Moms group, said that on the night of her first protest, federal officers shot a stun grenade that exploded near her feet and launched tear gas and a projectile that “felt like rock salt” into the crowd, where she stood with her arms linked with other women. She remembers her eyes burning, ears ringing and lungs constricting as she gasped for breath. When someone grabbed her arm to pull her away from the line of officers, she said, she vomited repeatedly onto herself and into the street.

More than a week later, Barnum said, she has flashbacks that leave her body shaking and her mind reeling. She howled and sobbed as she recounted the experience in an interview.

“I can’t sleep,” she gasped between racking sobs. “Now when I go back out, I just lie to my kids. … How is this legal? How are they allowed to do this to people?”

Three Portland mothers talk about the "Wall of Moms" demonstrations and why they think they're needed to protect protesters from federal agents. (Video: The Washington Post)

Teressa Raiford, 49, the founder of anti-police-violence organization Don’t Shoot Portland, said the chemical irritants have coated food that volunteers at an aid station in the city park across the street from the federal courthouse have served hungry protesters, homeless people and anyone who asks. Raiford said that she has left her downtown Portland home because of all the gas in the air and that she worries about the health consequences of federal officers deploying plumes of a riot control agent called CS gas each night.

“I hope [federal agents] are no longer able to use excessive force against people who are just freely expressing their right to protest,” Raiford said. “We have to stop it.”