Portland tensions rise as federal forces use flash-bangs against protesters


Protesters crowded in front of the US federal courthouse in Portland and the Oregon city’s justice center late on Monday night, before authorities cleared them out with flash-bang grenades.

It was the latest confrontation arising from nightly protests which began after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in late May.

Many such protests have attracted thousands and been largely peaceful. But smaller groups have focused on federal property and law enforcement buildings, at times setting fires, smashing windows and clashing violently with local police.

Police used teargas on multiple occasions until a federal court order banned it from doing so without declaring a riot. Concern is growing that teargas is being used by federal officers instead.

The actions of the camouflaged and unidentified officers, sent to the city by Donald Trump without local consent, are raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis.

Anger at the federal presence escalated on 11 July, when a protester was hospitalized with critical injuries after a US Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a less-lethal round. Video shows the man standing across the street from officers and holding a speaker over his head.

Court documents filed in cases against protesters show federal officers have posted lookouts on the upper stories of the courthouse with plainclothes officers circulating in the crowd. Court papers in a federal case against a man accused of shining a laser in the eyes of Federal Protective Service agents show Portland police turned him over to US authorities after federal officers identified him.

State and local authorities are awaiting a ruling in a lawsuit filed last week, in which Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, said masked federal officers have arrested people on the street, far from the courthouse, with no probable cause and whisked them away in unmarked cars.

“The idea that there’s a threat to a federal courthouse and the federal authorities are going to swoop in and do whatever they want to do without any cooperation and coordination with state and local authorities is extraordinary outside the context of a civil war,” said Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Cornell University.

“It is a standard move of authoritarians to use the pretext of quelling violence to bring in force, thereby prompting a violent response and then bootstrapping the initial use of force in the first place.”

Trump says he plans to send federal agents to other cities too, and it has been reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is planning to deploy about 150 agents to Chicago, where gun violence has risen.

The ACLU of Oregon has sued in federal court. The organization’s Chicago branch said it would similarly oppose a federal presence.

The DHS tweeted that federal agents were barricaded in Portland’s US courthouse at one point and had lasers pointed at their eyes in an attempt to blind them.

“Portland is rife with violent anarchists assaulting federal officers and federal buildings,” the tweet said. “This isn’t a peaceful crowd. These are federal crimes.”

Trump said the DHS and justice department agents were on hand to restore order at the courthouse and help Portland. Top Democrats in the US House have called on federal inspectors general to investigate.

“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, said on Twitter. “We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the president of the United States.”

Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, said on Sunday the demonstrations were dwindling before federal officers engaged.

“They are sharply escalating the situation,” Wheeler told CNN. “Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism. And it’s not helping the situation at all.”

Indeed, crowds had begun to dwindle a week ago, and some in the city, including black leaders, had begun to call for the demonstrations to end. But by the weekend, the presence of federal agents and Trump’s repeated references to Portland as a hotbed of “anarchists” seemed to give a new life to the protests.