Since late in the evening of Tuesday, July 14th, uniformed and masked authorities without identification have been periodically detaining people at random in Portland, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest’s third largest urban center, questioning them and releasing them afterward without filing any charges.
People have justifiably asked why these detentions are happening out of sync with demonstrations and periodic attempts to spray paint or cause other damage to federal facilities within Portland over the last fifty days, why they are happening outside of federal jurisdiction within Portland, and why they are continuing despite successful efforts to prevent further vandalism to public property.
The detentions were first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting on Thursday, July 16th, but federal authorities in downtown Portland have been taking an aggressive stance since June 26th, when an executive order was issued by Donald Trump’s White House to protect national monuments and buildings.
It’s the second time during Trump’s term that they have taken such a stance, the first being in June of 2018 when they cleared out a protest camp surrounding Southwest Portland’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters.
On July 13th, Trump tweeted that federal authorities were “doing a great job” in Portland quelling protests. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler responded on July 14th that the actions of federal law enforcement were unwelcome.
“The best thing they can do is stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether… Our goal is to end these violent demonstrations quickly and safely.”
The random detentions started shortly thereafter.
On July 16th, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, one of the architects of the “family separation” policy at the border, met with local law enforcement officials, including the head of the Portland police officer union.
His official comments were best summarized by his introduction: “The city of Portland has been under siege for forty-seven straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city. Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it.”
Mayor Wheeler has, in response to Wolf’s comments, demanded that federal officers be removed from Portland immediately.
(The Portland Police Bureau subsequently issued a statement that federal officers would no longer be allowed inside the their command center.)
Wheeler also was no doubt trying to get out ahead of an ultimatum from one of his city commissioners, Jo Ann Hardesty, after Portland police coordinated an assault on demonstrators on July 18th in tandem with federal authorities, which resulted in a counter-demonstration that led to a portion of the headquarters of the Portland Police Association being set on fire,
Governor Brown has also asked the Trump regime and acting Secretary Wolf to remove federal forces from Portland, stating in one article that “This political theater from Trump has nothing to do with public safety… The president is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government,” and stating in a more recent interview that “There’s absolutely no question that by having the presence of federal officers here, it’s simply like adding gasoline to a fire.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has filed a lawsuit against DHS and has initiated a criminal investigation, stating that their agents “have engaged in unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregonians by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.”
On July 17th, Senator Jeff Merkley’s office released a letter, co-signed by Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici (all of whom represent the greater Portland area) to Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, calling the actions of federal agents in the Portland protests “out of control” and “an abuse of power.”
That same day, the ACLU Foundation of Oregon sued the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service to block federal law enforcement from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists or legal observers.
The U.S. Attorney for Oregon, Billy J. Williams, is unsurprisingly not being helpful. Williams is calling for a federal investigation into the detentions, but also implying that the real culprit is antifa. “There are organizations who are hellbent on causing problems across the United States – antifa being one of them,” he said. “There are others. People need to wake up to this.”
And if the desired goal has been intimidation of the protesters, that seems to have failed miserably. But one new question has arisen — is it DHS, ICE or Border Patrol personnel that has been detaining demonstrators at random?
In a scoop by Willamette Week, it was found that at least some of the vehicles used to detain demonstrators were rented from a local Enterprise Rent-A-Car facility. Duties of federal law enforcement officers are usually carried out in taxpayer-owned vehicles that are designated for official use only.
So was someone sloppy, or was someone trying to further hide their tracks?
Or were they DHS, ICE or Border Patrol personnel at all?
One possibility, not confirmed: In recent demonstrations in Washington D.C. in June, the Federal Bureau of Prisons used special operations resource teams without identifying marks or badges to enforce the perimeter around the White House. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a correctional facility in Sheridan, some fifty miles from Portland (which has been dealing with accusations of ill treatment of its prisoners in relation to COVID-19 since at least March 31st).
They are bound by the nature of the facility to have at least one such team in readiness in the event of an emergency at the correctional facility.
The question remains: What agency is detaining people in Portland?
And on whose authority are they acting?