The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Portland officials decry aggressive tactics of federal agents in their city

As Portland entered its 50th night of protests on July 16, here's a look back at how tensions between protesters and police have risen. (Video: The Washington Post)

PORTLAND, Ore. — City officials on Friday demanded the Trump administration remove what they called a heavy-handed army of federal agents who have been grabbing protesters off the streets — tactics that federal officials defended as legal and necessary to quell ongoing unrest.

The fight between the White House and the left-leaning city government intensified Friday amid videos and firsthand accounts of mysterious federal agents driving around in unmarked rental minivans and detaining protesters.

Friday night saw additional clashes, as federal agents used tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bangs to disperse a group of protesters. At least one person was arrested.

The unrest intensified in the early morning hours, as some protesters hurled water bottles and set off smoke bombs and fireworks aimed at courthouse and police buildings.

Portland protester Conner O'Shea described what he says were federal agents scouring the streets and making arrests in unmarked vans on July 15. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I wonder what country I’m living in,” said protester Beth Fernandez. “Having the feds come in and try to quench this anger is not the right approach and we want them out.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called the federal agents Trump’s “personal army” and said they should leave the city.

“This is part of a coordinated strategy of Trump’s White House to use federal troops to bolster his sagging polling data, and it is an absolute abuse of federal law enforcement officials,” Wheeler said. “As we were starting to see things de-escalate, their actions last Saturday night and every night since have actually ratcheted up the tension on our streets.”

Portland, a city with a long history of clashes between protesters and law enforcement, has been gripped for roughly 50 days by unrest since the death of George Floyd after he was arrested by police in Minneapolis. While other cities saw flashes of such conflict, Portland’s clashes have been more intense and persistent.

Acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf traveled to Portland this week to supervise the federal actions there, and he sharply criticized local law enforcement for not getting tough with “violent anarchists.”

Wolf told Fox News on Thursday night that he offered law enforcement assistance to the mayor and local leaders but was asked to “pack up and go home,” which he said is “just not going to happen on my watch.”

He accused local leaders of “fostering an environment that continues to breed this type of lawlessness.”

Federal agents severely wounded a protester

One widely shared video showed two men in military garb on the street at night taking a young man wearing all black into custody. On the video, the two agents do not answer shouted questions before putting the man into an unmarked minivan and driving away.

On Friday, Customs and Border Protection issued a statement taking responsibility for the apprehension and asserting its agents were wearing gear that identified them as CBP personnel.

CBP agents went after that person because they suspected he was involved in “assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property,” the statement said. “Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.”

The agency said the CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the apprehension.

One protester, 29-year-old Mark Pettibone, described being grabbed by several men in green military fatigues and generic “police” patches on their clothing in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Pettibone said he did not know whether the men were police or far-right extremists, who frequently don military-like outfits and harass left-leaning protesters in Portland.

“I was terrified,” Pettibone said in an interview. “It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon.”

Pettibone was taken to the city’s federal courthouse and placed in a holding cell. Two agents eventually read him his Miranda rights and asked whether he would waive those rights to answer questions. He declined, and the agents let him go. The federal agents who detained him did not tell him why he was being held or provide any record of an arrest, he said.

The federal law enforcement response in Portland has prompted a debate among current and former law enforcement officials about whether DHS and Justice Department law enforcement agencies are being misused by the Trump administration.

“The idea that they are leaving the perimeter of that federal property and going out in the streets of Portland gives me a lot of personal angst about their concept of policing in general,” said David Gomez, a former FBI official. “Policing is essentially a contract with the community. That’s why a lot of these communities are erupting, because they feel the police have effectively violated the contract. When you have the federal government coming in there, acting as state police, you’re effectively pushing the community away.”

CBP’s acting commissioner, Mark Morgan, tweeted Friday that his agents are not hiding their affiliation and are “clearly marked as federal [law enforcement officers] & have unique identifiers.”

The incident and others like it have sparked widespread criticism of the DHS, particularly after an unidentified federal agent outside the courthouse fired a nonlethal round into a protester’s face over the weekend. That protester was badly injured and suffered facial bone fractures.

Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, all Democrats, asked the Justice Department and DHS inspectors general to investigate what they called “the unrequested presence and violent actions of federal forces in Portland.” The U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, Billy J. Williams, said he had referred the shooting of the protester to the inspector general in the Justice Department.

A U.S. Marshals Service spokeswoman said Friday that the agency was not involved in the arrests and apprehensions described by Pettibone and others, adding that its agents always wear identifying insignia. However, nearly a week after the event, Marshals officials will not say whether the person who fired the impact munition into the protester’s face was one of their employees.

On Friday night, Oregon state law enforcement officials said they and the local district attorney’s office had opened an investigation into the July 12 incident.

“It’s painfully clear this administration is focused purely on escalating violence without answering my repeated requests for why this expeditionary force is in Portland and under what constitutional authority,” said Wyden.

Blumenauer, who represents part of Portland, said the “jarring reports of federal law enforcement officers grabbing peaceful protesters off the street should alarm every single American. This is not the way a government operates in a functioning democracy.”

Civil liberties advocates said they will keep fighting in court against the use of federal agents to police the streets of Portland.

“The Trump administration has added escalation on top of escalation in our community,” said Kelly Simon, the interim legal director of the ACLU of Oregon. “We won’t stand for it, and we will see them in court more than once in the near future.”

Jo Ann Hardesty, a Portland city commissioner, said in a statement that she was proudly “among the loud chorus of elected officials calling for the federal troops in Portland’s streets to go home.”

She said their presence “has escalated tensions and put countless Portlanders exercising their First Amendment Rights in greater danger.”

Hardesty also called for the Portland police “to immediately disengage in any coordination or collaboration with the federal officers,” saying they should not be “a subsidiary of [Trump’s] federal forces.”

The police bureau did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday about its involvement in the federal response and whether its officers had any role in the detention or questioning of anyone by federal officials.

Portland has a history of disagreement with federal law enforcement; the city council has voted to pull its police detectives out of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, out of concerns about the civil rights of Muslim residents.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency is not responsible for crowd control, and she declined to say whether it is investigating any actions of law enforcement surrounding the unrest.