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A judge considers limiting federal agents in Portland as protesters brace for another night of tear gas

Federal agents clash with protesters in Portland, Ore.
Federal agents charging Portland protesters early Wednesday overrun journalist Rian Dundon, who suffered burns when his face was pushed into an active tear gas canister.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Accusing federal agents of illegally detaining peaceful demonstrators here, the state of Oregon went to court Wednesday and presented the case of a 29-year-old named Mark Pettibone.

“I was terrified when an unmarked van stopped near me and men in military fatigues jumped out and approached me without identifying themselves,” he said in written testimony describing how the agents nabbed him in downtown Portland in the early hours of July 15 and took him into a federal courthouse for questioning.

“No one informed me as to which agency had abducted, detained or questioned me,” he said. “I am still unaware as to which agency or agencies were involved.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman said he believed the account and that the agents had no probable cause to arrest Pettibone, a Portland resident.

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But the judge gave no indication of whether he would grant the temporary restraining order sought by Oregon Atty. Gen. Ellen Rosenblum, who is suing four federal law enforcement agencies to require that agents properly identify themselves, stop carrying out arrests without warrants or probable cause, and explain to people why they are being detained.

Rosenblum told the court that unlawful detentions are an intimidation tactic aimed at scaring people from exercising their 1st Amendment right to peacefully demonstrate.

The Trump administration has argued that agents have acted within the law and targeted only protesters that they have probable cause to believe have damaged U.S. property or assaulted federal officers.

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David Morrell, a lawyer for U.S. Department of Justice, told the court that an injunction would expose agents to legal jeopardy and have a “serious chilling effect” on their ability to do their jobs.

While the judge said he sided with the state attorney general on the Pettibone example, he expressed skepticism about the only other example she presented — a video that has been circulating on social media showing a man being pulled into van.

Mosman said the video alone could not show whether agents had probable cause. He did not say when he would issue a ruling.

As of Wednesday afternoon, federal agents had arrested 42 people in connection with the protests, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon.

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A spokesman said that 26 of them face federal charges that include assaulting a federal officer and arson. Two have misdemeanor citations, 12 have been released without charges, and two are still being investigated.

President Trump, who has described the protesters as anarchists, said Wednesday that he would double down on the tactics in Portland and send a “surge of federal law enforcement” to Chicago and Albuquerque as part of the “law and order” platform that he has adopted for his presidential campaign.

Portland’s political leaders have opposed the federal presence, with the City Council voting Wednesday to ban police from cooperating with officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Marshals Service, Federal Protective Service and Customs and Border Protection.

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Mayor Ted Wheeler, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the state’s Democratic congressional delegation have called on Trump to remove federal agents from the city.

The nightly protests, which began after the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, have shown little sign of letting up.

In predawn hours Wednesday, a group of women in bike helmets and goggles calling themselves the “Wall of Moms” linked arms to form a barrier between federal agents and protesters.

“I am here to show presence as a mother and a grandmother, and to fight for a better future for my children,” said one of the women, 57-year-old Heather Swearingen, as black-clad protesters banged homemade shields on the sidewalk in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse.

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The women are variously known as “Moms against police brutality,” or “Momtifa,” a play on antifa, the anti-fascist movement. Like participants in the “Dad Bloc,” many followers say they are suburbanites who had been uninvolved but now want to make their voices heard.

Swearingen said that she was “radicalized” into action by images of violence in news reports.

Federal agents launched plumes of tear gas that mushroomed into impenetrable clouds, pierced only by white flashes from an array of “less lethal” munitions. Activists used the leaf blowers, hockey sticks and traffic cones to beat back tear gas canisters.

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Agents stormed the crowd repeatedly, pushing protesters across the park while making arrests. By 3:15 a.m., the crowd of thousands had dwindled to fewer than 100. The daily routine was done.

On Wednesday evening, activists began gathering again. Donning a cloth face mask and blue gloves, 19-year-old Chloe Kramer folded T-shirts, Band-Aids and hand wipes, preparing supplies for protesters and to spray saline into the eyes of those who are tear-gassed.

“I’ve been tear-gassed and chased by police for weeks,” Kramer said. “I’m so used it by now that I’m not afraid of being on the front line.”

Times staff writers Read and Etehad reported from Seattle and Portland, respectively. Special correspondent Yau reported from Portland.


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