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Federal Officers Shoot Portland Protester In Head With 'Less Lethal' Munitions

Federal law enforcement officers use tear gas and impact munitions to disperse protesters demonstrating against racism and police violence from in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. Earlier in the night, officers shot a demonstrator in the head with a less lethal impact munition, causing severe injury.
Federal law enforcement officers use tear gas and impact munitions to disperse protesters demonstrating against racism and police violence from in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. Earlier in the night, officers shot a demonstrator in the head with a less lethal impact munition, causing severe injury.

Federal law enforcement shot and severely injured a protester Saturday night during demonstrations in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Portland.

UPDATE (9:00 p.m. PT) —

Donavan LaBella, 26, was shot in the head by what friends and witnesses said was an impact munition.

Videos of the incident posted online brought swift condemnation from some local leaders, including both of Oregon's U.S. Senators, who demanded answers from the federal government, and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who asked that federal troops leave Portland immediately. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler, in a statement released just before 9 p.m. Sunday, called on federal law enforcement to abide by the same standards as Portland officers in using less-lethal weapons against protesters. 

In one video, LaBella is seen pushing a canister of smoke or tear gas away from his feet across the street from the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. Moments later, LaBella returns to holding a speaker over his head with both hands. Shots of impact munitions can be heard, and LaBella collapses to the ground, dropping the speaker.

In another video posted online, LaBella is seen on the ground unconscious and bleeding from his head before protesters pick him up and move him out of the way. In that video, federal law enforcement officers can be seen standing by across the street looking on. 

The violence Saturday night represents a dramatic escalation between police and protesters, who have been demonstrating nightly since police killed a Black man in Minneapolis six weeks ago named George Floyd. While Portland police took aggressive measures early on, the last two weeks have been marked by a significant increase in violence by federal officers assigned to agencies within the Department of Homeland Security as well as the U.S. Marshals that deployed to Portland, Seattle and other cities at the direction of President Trump.

Desiree LaBella, Donavan’s mother, said he suffered facial and skull fractures. He came out of surgery early Sunday morning and was responding to doctors. He was moving his arms and legs, Desiree LaBella said. 

“He was awake enough to give the OK to talk to me,” she said. “He’s had some facial reconstruction surgery. They’re just watching him right now.”

Desiree LaBella said she planned to contact an attorney Monday for a possible lawsuit on behalf of her son. She spoke to her son via computer late Sunday morning and said that while he was awake, doctors were monitoring his neurological condition and continuing work to drain blood from his brain. 

Caitlyn Sakelik, one of Donavan LaBella’s close friends, said he had been standing in Lownsdale Square Park across the street from the federal courthouse when officers started shooting impact munitions into the crowd. Sakelik’s husband, Elton Rosas, said the shooting was completely unprovoked.

“He’s been completely nonviolent the entire time he’s been down there,” Rosas said. “He helps deescalate situations. Out of all people, he’s one of the nicest kids you will ever meet.”

The U.S. Marshals put out a short statement late Sunday acknowledging a person was injured in downtown Portland. It said the agency is investigating. 

“We are aware of the incident that happened on July 12 near the Hatfield U.S. Courthouse where an individual was injured while U.S. Marshals were securing the perimeter of the federal courthouse," agency spokesperson Nikki Credic-Barrett said. "The U.S. Marshals Service takes all injuries potentially arising from use-of-force very seriously. The incident is currently being investigated, and more information will be released as soon as possible.”

During a military briefing Friday, President Trump indicated he sent federal law enforcement officers to Portland to quell the nightly protests over police violence, and claimed Portland police were incapable of managing the protests themselves.

“It was out of control. The locals couldn’t handle it," Trump said, speaking to acting head of Homeland Security Chad Wolf. "And you people are handling it very nicely.”

The stepped-up force in Portland drew a rebuke from a number of elected officials on Sunday. 

Gov. Kate Brown called for federal officials to scale back their response to the protests. 

"The events of last night at the federal courthouse were the tragic and avoidable result of President Donald Trump, for weeks, continuing to push for force and violence in response to protests," Brown said in a statement.  "The cycle of violence must end. President Trump deploying armed federal officers to Portland only serves to escalate tensions and, as we saw yesterday, will inevitably lead to unnecessary violence and confrontation."

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley both called for answers from the federal government. 

"Given President Trump's misuse of force against protesters outside the White House and elsewhere, the deployment of federal agents in Portland raises serious concerns," Merkley said in a written statement. "What was their mission? Did they abuse peaceful protestors? Were their uniforms accurately marked? Did they made the situation worse? What weapons did they use? Were they invited by Portland police or local officials?"

"The consequences of Donald Trump unilaterally dispatching fed’l law enforcement into U.S. cities played out in Portland w/a peaceful protester shot in the head," Wyden wrote in a Sunday tweet. "Trump & Homeland Security must now answer why fed’l officers are acting like an occupying army."

Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly criticized the response. Hardesty demanded that federal troops be withdrawn immediately. And she warned that violence by law enforcement -- either federal officials or Portland Police -- will have deadly results if not checked. 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued a written statement Sunday evening asking federal officials to adhere to the same limits on violence against protesters as Portland officers. 

"I’m concerned that the actions of federal officers last night escalated, rather than de-escalated, already heightened tensions in our city," Wheeler wrote. 

But he also noted the role he's said some demonstrators play in escalating peaceful political protests into events that end with police using weapons on the crowd. 

"We are now more than a month and a half into witnessing nightly violence on our streets. Portland continues to be used as a staging ground for violence night after night," Wheeler said. "This is causing unprecedented harm to our communities, livelihoods, and Portlanders continue to fear for their safety. My main concern is this: that the continuing violence will lead to further injuries or even deaths."

Sunday afternoon, after elected officials had issued their statements, Desiree LaBella, Donavan’s mom, wasn’t happy with politicians blaming the President. She said she understands police may have to sometimes use force with violent protests but, she added, this shouldn’t be a political issue.

“In my opinion, the fault lies with the feds at the scene,” she said, “needlessly firing into a generally peaceful unarmed crowd and aiming for the head. It is my understanding that nonlethal rounds are not to be aimed at vital organs and no rounds of any kind should be shot at any unarmed person.”

Impact munitions are in wide use for crowd control by police departments across the country and, despite being called “less lethal,” they often kill or maim people. Even used when used as intended, they can break bones, cause heart arrhythmia or abdominal injuries. A blow to the head or neck can be fatal.

Federal officers have much wider latitude than the Portland police to use so-called "less lethal" munitions because the Portland Police Bureau and agencies under its command are limited by a temporary restraining order issued in June. That court order mandates PPB cannot use weapons like tear gas and impact munitions when people are engaged in passive resistance.  The order likely would not extend to federal agencies conducting their own operations in Portland to protect federal buildings. 

Federal officers used significant amounts of tear gas Saturday night to disperse protesters from several blocks downtown. They marched alongside Portland officers around 1 a.m. to break up groups of people who had gathered to demonstrate. Though local and federal officers marched side-by-side, Portland police have repeatedly stated that federal agencies are operating separately from local command

This story may be updated. 

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jonathan Levinson is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He’s the Audion Fellow covering Guns & America.