Los Angeles – Rights activists and lawmakers expressed outrage on Friday over reports that federal agents circulating in unmarked cars in the western U.S. state of Oregon were grabbing and detaining protesters off the streets.
"What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States," said Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon. "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," he added.
According to interviews conducted by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), federal law enforcement officers have been driving around downtown Portland and detaining protesters with no explanation since at least July 14.
Mark Pettibone, a 29-year-old demonstrator, recalled being terrified when an unmarked minivan pulled up next to him early Wednesday and men with green military fatigues jumped out and detained him.
"It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel," Pettibone told The Washington Post. "It was like being preyed upon."
Pettibone said he was taken to the federal courthouse and later released without being told why he had been detained, or whether he had been charged with a crime.
In a statement on Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said its agents were behind the arrest carried out as they "had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property."
"Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location," the agency said in a statement. "For everyone's safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.
"The CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the encounter," the statement added. "The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country."
Federal officers have been deployed in Portland as part of U.S. President Donald Trump's plan to crush nightly protests outside the city's federal courthouse and another court building.
The protests against racism and police brutality were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and have taken place across the country for more than six weeks.
"A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump's secret police," Sen. Ron Wyden wrote in a tweet on Thursday that also denounced Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who visited Portland the same day.
"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 said.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Portland demanded Friday that Trump remove the militarized federal agents.
"Keep your troops in your own buildings, or have them leave our city,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said at a news conference.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said Trump is looking for a confrontation in the hopes of winning political points elsewhere and to serve as a distraction from the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing spiking numbers of infections in Oregon and the nation.
Brown's spokesman, Charles Boyle, said Friday that arresting people without probable cause is "extraordinarily concerning and a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights.”
Federal officers have charged at least 13 people with crimes related to the protests so far, according to OPB. Some have been detained by the federal courthouse, which has been the scene of protests. But others were grabbed blocks away.
"This is part of the core media strategy out of Trump’s White House: to use federal troops to bolster his sagging polling data,” Wheeler said. "And it is an absolute abuse of federal law enforcement officials.”
One video showed two people in helmets and green camouflage with "police” patches grabbing a person on the sidewalk, handcuffing them and taking them into an unmarked vehicle.
"Who are you?” someone asks the pair, who do not respond. At least some of the federal officers belong to the Department of Homeland Security.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that its agents had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaulting federal agents or destroying federal property.
"Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location,” the agency said. However, the video shows no mob.
In his case, Pettibone said a minivan rolled up to him around 2 a.m. Wednesday and four or five people got out "looking like they were deployed to a Middle Eastern war.”
Pettibone said he got to his knees as the group approached. They dragged him into the van without identifying themselves or responding to his questions and pulled his beanie over his eyes so he couldn't see, he said.
"I figured I was just going to disappear for an indefinite amount of time,” Pettibone said.
Pettibone said he was put into a cell and officers dumped the contents of his backpack, with one remarking: "Oh, this is a bunch of nothing.”
After he asked for a lawyer, Pettibone was allowed to leave.
"Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a tweet.
U.S. Attorney Billy Williams in Portland said Friday he has requested the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General investigate the actions of DHS personnel.
On Thursday night, federal officers deployed tear gas and fired nonlethal rounds into a crowd of protesters.
Wolf visited Portland on Thursday and called the demonstrators, who are protesting racism and police brutality, "violent anarchists.”
Wolf blamed state and city authorities for not putting an end to the protests. But Portland police said Friday they wound up arresting 20 people overnight.
At least two protests occurred Thursday night, one near the federal courthouse and the other by a police station in another part of the city. Police told protesters to leave that site after announcing they heard some chanting about burning down the building. Protester Paul Frazier said Friday the chant was "much more rhetorical than an actual statement.”
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell told reporters Friday that his officers are in contact with the federal agents, but that neither controls the others' actions.
"We do communicate with federal officers for the purpose of situational awareness and deconfliction," Lovell said. "We’re operating in a very, very close proximity to one another … so it’s important for us to know if they’re going to take some type of action and it’s important for them to know if we’re going to take some type of action.”
The ACLU said it would file legal papers Friday to add the federal government to a lawsuit it filed earlier to halt the use of crowd control measures, including tear gas and rubber bullets, against journalists and legal observers at protests in Portland.
Tensions have escalated in the past two weeks, particularly after an officer with the U.S. Marshals Service fired a less-lethal round at a protester’s head on July 11, critically injuring him.
The protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have often devolved into violent clashes between smaller groups and the police. The unrest has caused deep divisions in a city that prides itself on its activism and progressive reputation.