Politics

Oregon outrage: Elected officials blast federal authorities for grabbing protesters off the streets in Portland

Key Points
  • Oregon elected officials blasted the Trump administration after reports that federal law enforcement personnel in recent days arrested protesters off the streets of Portland while using unmarked government vehicles and refusing to tell people why they are being detained.
  • The protests in Portland, like others nationwide, were sparked by the Memorial Day killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a Black man who was being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit bill to make a purchase.
  • Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said, "Portland "has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city."
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Oregon officials object to federal agents grabbing protesters the off streets in Portland

Oregon elected officials blasted President Donald Trump's administration after reports that federal law enforcement personnel in recent days have arrested protesters off the streets of Portland while using unmarked government vehicles and refusing to tell people why they are being detained.

The tactics came as federal authorities already were being criticized for shooting a protester in the head with an impact munition on Saturday night outside of Portland's federal courthouse.

"This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety," said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, in a Twitter thread condemning the arrests.

"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," Brown wrote.

Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.
Zach Gibson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, pinned a video of one of the arrests in question to the top of his official Twitter account, and wrote, "Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters."

"These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end," wrote Merkley, referring to the president and U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

The protests in Portland, like others nationwide, were initially sparked by the Memorial Day killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a Black man who was being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit bill to make a purchase.

Oregon Public Broadcasting, in a report Thursday night, said that federal authorities, including the U.S. Marshals' Special Operations Group, and a tactical unit from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, since at least Tuesday have used unmarked vehicles to patrol downtown Portland and arrest protesters.

"Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show the officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation of why they are being arrested, and driving off," OPB reported.

"But interviews conducted by OPB show officers are also detaining people on Portland streets who aren't near federal property, nor is it clear that all of the people being arrested have engaged in criminal activity," the report said.

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Unmarked vans reportedly picking up, removing protesters in Portland, Oregon

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler's office referred local press to his statement earlier in the week about federal law enforcement agencies dealing with protesters.

"We do not need or want their help," Wheeler, a Democrat said in that statement.

"The best thing they can do is stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether."

The White House referred a request for comment from CNBC to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not immediately respond.

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Nation's top military officer apologizes for appearing at Trump church photo-op

In a statement, U.S. Border Patrol said its "agents have been deployed to Portland in direct support of the Presidential Executive Order and the newly established DHS Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT)."

"As a law enforcement component under DHS, CBP will be providing support, as needed at the request of the Federal Protective Service, to protect Federal facilities and property," Border Patrol said.

A Marshals' Service spokeswoman said the agency does use unmarked vehicles, but also said that its personnel wear clear identification on their uniforms, and do inform suspects about why they are being detained.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf looks up during the launch of a new initiative to combat online child sexual exploitation during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2020.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, in a letter issued Thursday, on the same day he visited Portland, said that the city "has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city."

The letter included a long list of vandalism or attempted vandalism of federal properties, including the courthouse, in Portland by what Wolf repeatedly called "violent anarchists."

"Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community," Wolf wrote. "This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day."

"DHS will not abdicate its solemn duty to protect federal facilities and those within them."

Wolf on Friday tweeted a photo of him addressing men in camouflage, writing, "Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch."

During an interview with Fox News on Friday morning, Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said, "What we've seen around the country is where responsible policing is advanced, violence recedes."

"And Portland hasn't gotten that memo. Nor have a lot of other cities. And the president is determined to do what we can, within our jurisdiction, to help restore peace to these beleaguered cities," Cuccinelli said.

But Oregon's other senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, wrote on Twitter, "'A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump's secret police."

"Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media," Wyden wrote.

Brown, in her Twitter post, wrote, "I told Acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets."

"His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes. He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm's way," the governor wrote.

Police make arrests after a 'riot' is declared as hundreds gather at the Portland, Oregon Police Association building on July 13, 2020 to protest police brutality and racial inequities.
John Rudoff | Sipa USA | AP Images

Brown pointed her finger at Trump, saying the tactics in Portland are "coming from the same President who used tear gas to clear out peaceful protesters in Washington, DC to engineer a photo opportunity."

She said that "Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa," two battleground states in the 2020 presidential election.

The criticisms of the Trump administration come six weeks after Barr and Trump were strongly criticized over federal law enforcement authorities violently clearing demonstrators from Lafayette Square, an area just outside of the White House, so that the president could walk to a nearby church and pose with a Bible in front of it.

On the heels of that incident, federal authorities who did not wear identification showing either their names or agencies' names were deployed in the area surrounding the White House.

OPB, in its report on the situation in Portland, cited an account by two friends, Mark Pettibone and Conner O'Shea, who were walking home early Wednesday morning after protesting outside the federal courthouse. The men described an unmarked van pulling up to them, with four or five men in camouflage hopping out and moving to detain them.

O'Shea ran off, and eluded a second unmarked van that pursued him, he told OPB. But Pettibone was caught, he said.

"I am basically tossed into the van," Pettibone told OPB. "And I had my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn't see and they held my hands over my head."

After being taken to a place he later learned was the federal courthouse, he was detained for 90 minutes, read his Miranda rights and refused to submit to an interview, saying he wanted a lawyer, Pettibone said. He soon after was released without being given any paperwork indicating he was arrested or charged.

"I just happened to be wearing black on a sidewalk in downtown Portland at the time," Pettibone told the news site. "And that apparently is grounds for detaining me."

Drew Wade, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, told NBC News that "All United States Marshals Service arrestees have public records of arrest documenting their charges. Our agency did not arrest or detain Mark James Pettibone."

Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, in a statement said,  "What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States."

"Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping. The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered," Carson said.