George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May forced all of us to examine our attitudes toward institutional racism.
Protests around the country, from big cities like Portland and Seattle to small towns like Long Beach and Astoria, are a potential turning point. White people who live in communities with few Black, Hispanic or other people of color are confronting issues that for generations have been convenient to ignore.
Overwhelmingly peaceful, these protests stir broad sympathy among the general American public. Although few should support any broad-scale effort to defund police departments — especially not after the deadly failed experiment in self-protection in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood — the protests shine a bright light on the absence of accountability in some enforcement agencies.
In Portland — which many coastal residents visit for healthcare, shopping and entertainment — protests over the past several weeks have too often spiraled into violence. Scenes of vandalism and looting, along with official overreach in attacking journalists and legal observers, have been shared across the United States.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives people the right to peaceably assemble, but in nightly clashes downtown near the Multnomah County Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, some demonstrators cross the line between protest and riot. However, Portland residents, police, the mayor and other city leaders were well on their way to reestablishing balance between civil rights and peaceful stability.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s misguided decision to deploy militarized federal agents has dragged the entire country into the streets of Portland. This inflamed tensions that now spread to Seattle and other cities. This week, even more federal forces are being dispatched, and even more counter reactions by protestors can be anticipated.
Earlier this month, a federal agent — acting on our behalf, using force derived from the government we elected — fired a “less-lethal round” at a protester’s head, causing critical injuries. Oregon Public Broadcasting and other news media have reported that federal agents are patrolling in unmarked vans, snatching protesters who do not appear to be immediate threats to federal property.
The New York Times reported that federal agents on the ground in Portland were not specifically trained in riot control or mass demonstrations. Their arrogance is reminiscent of that exhibited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who have disproportionately targeted undocumented immigrants in Pacific County since 2017.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a federal lawsuit to try to prevent federal agents from detaining protesters in Portland without identifying themselves or without probable cause or warrants. The lawsuit names the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Protective Service.
The lawsuit correctly alleges their tactics violate the First Amendment right to peacefully gather, the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures and the Fifth Amendment right to due process.
“Citizens who are reasonably afraid of being picked up and shoved into unmarked vans —possibly by federal officers, possibly by individuals opposed to the protests — will feel compelled to stay away, for their own personal safety, and will therefore be unable to express themselves in the way that they have the right to do,” the lawsuit states.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have made it clear the federal agents are not welcome. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and other elected federal officials in the Pacific Northwest demanded the Trump administration remove the forces, instead of escalating the confrontation.
Wyden, in an op-ed for NBC News, faulted President Donald Trump. “Not content with simply dropping squads of federal agents into my hometown to clash with peaceful protesters, as he first did in early July after signing an executive order to supposedly protect monuments from protesters, Trump and his acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, have now unleashed these agents like an occupying army — complete with fatigues, military-style equipment and tactics that are utterly unacceptable in an American city.
“These invaders are mounting this assault against my city on the flimsiest of justifications: While Acting Secretary Wolf rants about law and order, most of the incidents of ‘violent anarchists’ he cites are actually graffiti, or low-level vandalism.”
Portland was chosen as a stage for the Trump administration to make a political statement in an election year. Even while we denounce vandalism of federal property and other unlawful acts by demonstrators — and those who opportunistically use the protests as a cover for rioting — we all must voice strong disapproval of the administration’s transparent efforts to frighten ordinary citizens into voting for stability at the cost of freedom.
It would be a mistake to view what has been happening on the streets only through a partisan political lens.
Just like nearly everyone familiar with Floyd’s death saw the injustice, anyone looking at what federal agents have done in Portland should see the assault on our civil liberties.
They are acting on our behalf, using force derived from the government we elected. We should all demand that they stop.