So this week, federal officers came to Portland and began arresting people.
But guess what? Local officials don’t want them to do this. And for very good reason: It’s apparently making the situation worse.
There is reason to believe that this is exactly what the Trump administration wants.
In an interview, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon told us that her contacts with Trump administration officials about the situation had convinced her that “they are not interested in problem solving,” and this has “nothing to do with public safety.”
More troubling still, Brown tells us that the situation had actually been improving in recent days, and that the arrival of federal law enforcement has caused it to deteriorate.
“We know that things were calming down,” Brown, a Democrat, told us. “We know that the presence of federal officers has inflamed the streets.” Over the weekend, a young man protesting was shot in the face and severely wounded by less-than-lethal ammo from federal marshals.
“If they were really interested in helping us, they would have had conversations first, and taken actions later,” Brown said. “Instead it’s Ready, Fire, Aim.”
Brown said that on Tuesday, she bluntly told the acting secretary of homeland security, Chad Wolf, that the presence of federal officers in the streets was exacerbating matters.
“I told him that the federal government should remove federal officers from our streets,” Brown told us. “I said it’s like adding gasoline to a fire.”
“I said, ‘We do not want you here, you are exacerbating the situation,’ ” Brown continued, adding that the mayor of Portland had the same conversation with Wolf. “It provokes confrontation to have federal troops on the streets. This is purely for political purposes."
Wolf refused the request. “It was really clear that they were not interested in conversation,” Brown told us. “If they were interested in a solution, they would have been willing to deescalate and dialogue.”
Wolf has since painted a lurid picture of the protests to justify the use of federal law enforcement, claiming Portland “has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob," and that “each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property" and "attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it.”
Brown flatly rejected this as an exaggeration. “It’s an overstatement and a deliberate effort to provoke,” Brown said. “Their presence here escalates the situation, and it is a blatant abuse of power by the federal government.”
It’s not entirely clear which federal law enforcement divisions are in Portland. But we got a clue when Wolf traveled to Portland, whereupon he found some graffiti and then helpfully tweeted photos of himself with a variety of officers, some looking as if they were about to invade Fallujah.
In one photo, an officer’s uniform reads “Homeland Security Rapid Protection Force,” which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service. It’s supposed to protect federal property. Another photo appeared to show Customs and Border Protection officers.
These are not military troops; they are federal law enforcement. Margo Schlanger, a senior Homeland Security official under Barack Obama, told us this means not only that they can arrest people (subject to their particular jurisdiction, though it’s still not clear how this is applying in Portland), but also that state and local authorities can’t tell them to leave.
And Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that there are numerous statutory authorities that “allow the federal government to use a wide array of federal law enforcement officers” in situations like these.
Separately, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that federal law enforcement have been “using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least July 14."
Whatever the truth turns out to be about unmarked vehicles, the bigger picture is that it’s plainly obvious that the government is trying to inflame the situation, and that this is exactly what Trump wants.
We know Trump wants these scenes to be playing out on people’s televisions in faraway states, such as — to select a few at random — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida.
And given that his homeland security chief is actively ignoring local officials’ demands that he pull out federal law enforcement — in a manner that those officials say is inflaming the situation — it’s reasonable to surmise that escalation is the whole point of these exercises in the first place.
What’s more, many in federal law enforcement are being told by their superiors and the president that the people they’ll encounter at a protest are murderous thugs (or in Wolf’s words, “violent extremists” and “violent anarchists”) who need to be dominated lest the social order break down completely.
“Dominate” is the word that Trump himself used, on a call with governors last month, including Brown. “You have to dominate," Trump told them.
It’s hard to overstate how irresponsible and reckless it is for the president and his homeland security chief to use such language. It could very well fuel a situation that combines fear, adrenaline, warrior-cop ideology, and the simple human psychology that says when you put someone in riot gear and tell them they’re headed into a volatile situation to confront violent extremists who are trying to destroy civil society, they’ll be on a hair trigger.
Is that what Trump wants? It sure looks like it.
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