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Portland prepares for federal agents to step back from protests

Federal agents keep demonstrators from advancing in Portland.
Federal agents keep demonstrators from advancing during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Oregon police prepared Thursday to take over protecting a federal courthouse in Portland that’s been a target of vandalism during otherwise peaceful protests, in a deal between the Democratic governor and the Trump administration that aimed to draw down the federal presence and offered hope for a much-needed detente in a city roiled by two months of unrest.

Portland police cleared out a downtown park across from the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse that demonstrators have used as a staging ground, while state troopers headed into the area in preparation for their first night policing the protests. It’s not clear whether the move will ease tensions in the liberal city, where people have gathered nightly on the streets to decry brutality by law enforcement, racial injustice and the presence of the federal agents.

Under the deal announced by Gov. Kate Brown, federal agents sent by President Trump were to begin a phased withdrawal Thursday, with Oregon State Police taking over outside the building. But federal officials have resisted, saying agents wouldn’t leave the city completely but would be on standby in case they’re needed.

Trump said on Twitter that U.S. officers would stay in Portland until violence was under control.

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“If she can’t do it, the Federal Government will do it for her. We will not be leaving until there is safety!” Trump wrote about Brown, saying that she wasn’t doing enough to control what he called the “anarchists & agitators.”

In preparation for the handover, state troopers, the local sheriff and Portland police met and agreed not to use tear gas except in cases where there’s a danger of serious injury or death, Mayor Ted Wheeler said. Federal agents sent to the city in early July have used it nightly as protesters lobbed rocks, fireworks and other objects.

“The federal officers are using CS gas broadly, indiscriminately and nightly,” said Wheeler, using another term for the chemical irritant. “And that is why it is escalating the behavior we’re seeing on the streets rather than deescalating it — and that’s why this must come to an end.”

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Wheeler, who himself was gassed when he joined protesters outside the courthouse last week, added that tear gas “as a tactic really isn’t all that effective” because protesters have donned gas masks and often return to the action after recovering for a few minutes. The Democrat also apologized to peaceful demonstrators exposed to tear gas used by Portland police before federal officials arrived.

“It should never have happened. I take personal responsibility for it, and I’m sorry,” said Wheeler, who’s also the police commissioner and earned the nickname “Tear Gas Teddy” during the earlier protests.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he believes the new collaboration between local law enforcement agencies will be seen “as a victory in many ways.”

“A lot of people came out to express their displeasure of folks from the federal government here and engaging in crowd control with members of our community,” Lovell said. “So I’m hoping that on many levels that people are happy in this development.”

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Also Thursday, a county judge granted a temporary restraining order barring the city, including police, from collecting or maintaining video or audio of protesters in public. The order stems from a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and wouldn’t pertain to criminal investigations, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported. It expires Aug. 10.

The actions of federal law enforcement officers at protests in Oregon’s largest city are raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis.

Portland has seen the nightly demonstrations since George Floyd died in May after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into the Black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Demonstrations have at times attracted up to 10,000 people for peaceful marches and rallies around the city. But some protesters have turned to vandalism that’s been increasingly directed at the courthouse and other federal property.

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The Trump administration sent federal agents to guard the courthouse earlier this month and quell the unrest, but the deployment had the opposite effect, reinvigorating protesters who found a new rallying point in opposing the federal presence.

Demonstrations at the courthouse now begin peacefully but end with protesters hurling fireworks, flares, rocks and ball bearings at federal agents, who respond with tear gas, stun grenades and pepper spray.

The U.S. government had arrested 94 people as of Wednesday, and 400 people had been arrested by Portland police.

An AP analysis of more than 200 arrest records shows that even those accused of breaking the law during the nightly rallies don’t neatly fit into Trump’s depiction of protesters as “anarchists and agitators.”

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The AP found that 95% of those arrested by police and federal agents were local. The vast majority have no criminal record in Oregon. Many appear to be college students, and their average age was 28, court records show.


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