PORTLAND—Border agents in camouflage uniforms with obscured insignias. Protesters whisked off the street. An unarmed activist shot in the head with a “less-lethal” projectile.
Federal agents in Oregon are operating under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security’s critical-infrastructure force, the Federal Protective Service, Customs and Border Protection said on Friday, after facing widespread outrage over an array of remarkable tactics.
But there is no border-enforcement mission in Portland. Instead, the feds have been carrying out a crackdown on weeks of protests in favor of Black liberation and against racist police violence. CBP claims those protesters are violent, but a DHS timeline of “rampant long-lasting violence” committed by Portland protesters gave heavy emphasis to graffiti and superficial property damage.
Still, CBP has been granted expanded authorities under President Donald Trump’s Jun. 26 executive order protecting “monuments, memorials and statues,” as well as from a recently created DHS task force known as PACT. And it’s vowing to continue operations that have drawn remarkable condemnation from Portland and Oregon elected officials.
“While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) respects every American’s right to protest peacefully, violence and civil unrest will not be tolerated,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement. “Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as injure federal officers and agents. These criminal actions will not be tolerated.”
In an escalation of their operations against Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Washington, D.C. last month, and in defiance of the Portland city government, CBP have snatched protesters and put them in unmarked vans for detention. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that CBP drove a detained protester, his face hooded by his hat, in a circuitous, disorienting path before arriving to detain him back at the federal courthouse near where he had been detained.
Unidentified federal officials, wearing the same uniforms, shot 26-year-old Donavan LaBella in the head with a “less-lethal” round on July 11 after he kicked away a gas canister the officers threw at him. LaBella suffered a fractured skull.
On Friday morning, after the latest evening of confrontation, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted pictures of “what I saw in Portland yesterday” that showed nothing more than graffiti’d buildings. Beside him in a subsequent picture were CBP officers kitted out in military-style uniforms as if they were an occupying army. Their uniforms said POLICE on the front.
“We will prevail,” Wolf tweeted. On Fox News, he estimated the size of his contingent at “about 100 or so” officers.
Sen. Ron Wyden, one of Oregon’s two U.S. senators and a Democrat, said CBP had become an auxiliary force of the president’s—and promptly committed an abuse of power.
“Border patrol agents have long been the political pawns of Donald Trump. It’s no surprise that the agency that detained innocent children at the border was deployed to Portland for more political theater at Trump's behest,” Wyden told The Daily Beast. “A lot of serious questions remain about this abuse of power, but what is clear: Trump and his occupying army are escalating violence and trampling on the constitutional rights of Oregonians.”
His Senate colleague, Jeff Merkley, told The Daily Beast that "any role for CBP apart from the border and ports of entry is inappropriate, unacceptable, and must be ended."
At a press conference in downtown Portland Friday afternoon, a series of speakers called for the removal of federal cops from the protests and for a federal investigation into what they termed the kidnapping of Portland citizens.
“We call for the immediate cease of the use of weapons and crowd control munitions against our citizens,” said the Rev. Tara Wilkins of the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. “We demand officials withdraw federal law enforcement and investigate the kidnapping of our citizens.”
Wyden, Merkley and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici said Friday they would ask the Justice Department and DHS inspector generals to investigate what Merkley called “horrific and outrageous” acts by federal law enforcement in Portland.
"CBP is operating as a shadowy paramilitary force in Portland and other places throughout the country, and this is absolutely horrific and unacceptable. The President may think that this authoritarian made-for-TV stunt will help his reelection, but real people’s lives and rights are at stake," Merkley told The Daily Beast.
In early June, before the executive order, hundreds of Border agents joined minimally-identified federal law enforcement deployed in Washington, D.C. streets, ostensibly to protect federal property as well. That time, however, the Justice Department had deputized them as temporary U.S. Marshals. This time, CBP said, they’re in support of the Federal Protective Service, a DHS arm for protecting critical infrastructure from terrorists—with whom the Trump administration has baselessly equated left-wing protesters.
Trump issued his executive order in response to the toppling of mostly Confederate monuments. But the order extends a sweeping grant of law enforcement authority, aimed against “anarchists and left-wing extremists,” that goes beyond even the “protection” of statues, to the protection of any federal property.
“Upon the request of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Administrator of General Services, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, personnel to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property,” the order’s fifth section reads. Nothing in the document provides detention authority for CBP.
A different, decade-old authority CBP cited to The Daily Beast, 40 U.S. Code § 1315, empowers DHS to “make arrests without a warrant for any offense against the United States committed in the presence of the officer or agent or for any felony cognizable under the laws of the United States if the officer or agent has reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a felony.”
Whether such “reasonable grounds” existed in Portland is the subject of substantial dispute. Protesters have said they were taken off the street and into minivans without any reasonable cause of action.
CBP said that one of the detentions it made, captured in a widely-circulated video, came after it “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. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.”
A spokesperson claimed CBP agents identified themselves and their insignia were visible, even though they make no such identification in several videos circulating across Twitter; their insignia patches are the same camouflage as their uniform; and the detentions occurred at night. “The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country,” the spokesperson said.
A Yale University philosophy professor who authored a book on fascism said the unfolding crackdown on the streets of Portland was ominous.
“Lawlessness in the name of law and order is the hallmark of fascism,” said Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works.
“We have been told by many that the Trump administration is just American politics as usual, with a dose of dysfunction, that we should not worry, that this too shall pass,” he said. “However, history teaches us that military and paramilitary forces bypassing the rule of law to crush dissent is a terrible sign of the nature of a regime. This is an alarm that must be heeded even by those who urge complacence.”
The AP, which first reported the applicability of the executive order to the Portland CBP deployment, identified on July 10 CBP personnel as an elite tactical team called BORTAC and noted it includes snipers.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday requested Wolf remove federal forces from Portland. Wolf, talking to Fox News, expressed defiance toward local elected authorities.
“I offered DHS support to help them locally address the situation that’s going on in Portland and their only response was, ‘Please pack up and go home,’” he said. “That’s just not going to happen on my watch… I saw the graffiti, I saw the broken windows, I saw the broken doors.”
Wolf visited Portland after calling it “under siege” from left-wing forces. But in repeated media appearances, the acting DHS head spoke in the name of liberating Portland police to “do their job” against the constraints imposed by local politicians.
To the national media suddenly hip to the presence of federal agents on the streets of Portland, it’s a stunning development to watch videos of unidentifiable officers in camouflage sweep protesters away.
To the founder of the Portland’s nonprofit civil rights organization Don’t Shoot PDX, it’s same song, different singer.
“It’s pretty arrogant for city and state leaders to be speaking out against this activity now when they didn’t denounce it before,” Teressa Raiford told The Daily Beast. “This is literally the same violence we’ve been experiencing at the hands of the Portland Police. It’s just a different agency.”
Raiford says it was a response to a slew of lawsuits that convinced city and state officials to shift the violent tactics of their law enforcement officers against protesters, and that shift wasn’t all that meaningful: from policies that permitted the unchecked deployment of tear gas in crowds to a mandate to warn protesters in some way beforehand. Activists in Portland say neither the local police nor the feds are abiding by the new rules.
“It’s all ‘how do we get away with attacking people using these agents, so they’ll go home?’” said Raiford. “It’s just to disperse us. So when they realized there might be a legal mandate for them to be prosecuted and held accountable, the tactics changed. Now they have other agencies doing the assaults.”
Raiford didn’t go so far as to suggest local and state agencies were coordinating with the feds, but Juan Chavez isn’t so sure. He’s the director of the Civil Rights Project of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, one of three firms that has successfully sued Portland officials over the use of force in the George Floyd-inspired protests. When it’s the Portland Police Bureau, Chavez said, there’s a clear defendant. With anonymous feds, the legal recourse is much more murky, Chavez told The Daily Beast.
“Legally speaking, it creates some holes in being able to go after them,” he added. “The people in these minivans abducting people are just John Does, at this point.”
That’s by design, Chavez insisted. “This is just another way to thwart accountability,” he said, and it’s likely a proving ground for Trump to deploy officers in other cities as well. The intent is to cause a psychic harm against people in Portland. It’s spooky right now.”
The federal agents’ behavior is an extension of the Portland Police Bureau’s, he suspected. “I don’t think anybody could foreclose on the idea that the PPB isn’t working with the feds on this,” he says. “We’re going to take them on. This won’t go unchallenged.”
Portland police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Thursday night, protester Doug Brown watched a group of protesters peacefully trailing Portland Police officers near the federal courthouse downtown. Jaywalking was their only crime, Brown insisted.
But that didn’t stop a group of federal officers in camouflage appearing and without warning shooting pepper balls at their feet, Brown told The Daily Beast. “Then they lined up, blocked the streets and started firing at people directly, no warning,” he said. “They’re nameless. There’s no accountability. They can just do what they want.”