Ten Democratic senators are urging lawmakers with power over federal spending to explicitly prohibit Justice and Homeland Security Department officials from engaging with street protesters—as both are currently in Portland and other major cities, to sometimes injurious effect, in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley led the call on Friday, saying federal personnel deployed by the Trump administration had beaten and injured numerous protesters, including a 26-year-old man whose face and skull were reportedly fractured by a federal officer, and used unmarked vehicles to “snatch and detain citizens nowhere near federal property, apparently without probable cause.”
The White House has used allegations of violence by “anarchists” to enter the city “uninvited,” the senators wrote in a letter to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding that “the violence to which they referred appears to center around undesired graffiti.” “These disturbing actions are usually reserved for authoritarian governments, not democracies,” the letter says. “And anybody who thinks this will be confined to Oregon isn’t paying attention to either what is going on or what the President has promised.”
The senators say the committee members must act to prevent further abuses by federal officers by attaching provisions in a future appropriations bill that “clearly prohibit” DOJ and DHS from “conducting or supporting any action that infringes upon the constitutional right to free assembly and peaceful protest.” Senators Cory Booker, Chris Van Hollen, Richard Blumenthal, Ed Markey, Maria Cantwell, Chris Murphy, Kamala Harris, and Patty Murray cosigned the letter.
Wyden earlier this month criticized federal officers deployed to cities like Portland for “acting like an occupying army.” Trump and DHS “must now answer” for the consequences of their actions, he said on Twitter, pointing to the case of Donavan LaBella, a 26-year-old protester who suffered skull fractures after federal officers fired “impact munitions” at his head. Since the incident, protesters in Portland have continued to engage nightly with camouflage federal officers near the federal courthouse downtown, using homemade shields and leaf blowers to defend against so-called “less-lethal” munitions such as teargas and pepper spray.
Thursday marked the 57th day of protests in the city since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, whose murder sparked an unprecedented wave of nationwide protests against police brutality targeting specifically Black people.
The refusal by federal agents on the ground to identify themselves—many have worn uniforms that bear no names or insignias—and the use of unmarked vans to apprehend and detain protesters off the streets prompted the rise of a group calling itself “Wall of Moms,” women in yellow shirts who’ve formed human shields at the vanguard of the protests. The group was subsequently joined this week by “Dads With Leafblowers,” who use outdoor power tools to dissipate tear gas and other chemical agents sprayed at protesters.
On Wednesday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed after reportedly attempting to talk down the protest. He was captured on video coughing and gasping while standing alongside a small group of protesters near the thousand-strong demonstration outside the courthouse. He wrote later on Twitter that he’d seen “what it means when the federal government unleashes paramilitary force against its own people.”
Wheeler has been under fire for the heavy-handed tactics of his own police force earlier this summer, which prompted calls to ban the use of teargas and acoustic weapons by police. In a statement early this month, Wheeler called on the federal government to adhere to Portland’s policies when it comes to “crowd control munitions.”
The DOJ and DHS inspector generals are reportedly investigating the actions of federal officials in regard to protests in Portland and Washington, D.C., the latter of which was the site of a sudden attack on protesters in June to make way for a presidential photo-op. In a federal lawsuit filed last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter, the civil rights organization, accused the Trump administration of an “unprovoked and frankly criminal” attack on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park near the White House shortly before Trump gave a speech holding a Bible in front of a historic church nearby.
President Trump has repeatedly touted plans to deploy federal police to Chicago to allegedly “drive down violent crime.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had on Tuesday threatened to sue the Trump administration should federal agents be deployed in Chicago without her permission, later publicly announced she had agreed to receive additional the federal officers, promising she would not condone the same “Portland-style deployment,” with “unnamed agents” snatching protesters up off the streets.
Trump has said federal agents deployed in Chicago will number in the “hundreds” and be pulled not only from DOJ and DHS, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Bureau, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well. During a press conference Tuesday, Lightfoot said the city would welcome a “partnership” with federal agencies but not a “dictatorship.”
Unconstitutional arrests would not go unanswered, she said.