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Federal Law Enforcement Tactics In Portland Mark A ‘Dramatic’ Escalation Between Protesters And Police

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Jonathan Levinson/OPB
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Federal law enforcement officers use tear gas to disperse protesters during demonstrate against racism and police violence in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse on July 12, 2020. Earlier in the night, federal law enforcement officers shot a demonstrator in the head with a less lethal impact munition, causing severe injury.

New tactics to quell ongoing protests in downtown Portland appeared over the past week: federal law enforcement officers reportedly picked people up in unmarked vehicles and detained them without telling them what crime they were accused of committing

On Friday, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon announced he would open an investigation into the actions of federal officers in Portland. And the Oregon Department of Justice issued a lawsuit against several federal agencies alleging their actions in Portland violated Oregonians' constitutional rights.

JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jonathan Levinson, one of the reporters who broke the initial story about the tactics of federal law enforcement officers.

Erik Neumann: Let's start with a case of Mark Pettibone. You talked with him last week. Who is he and what does he say happened to him?

Jonathan Levinson: Mark Pettibone, he's been going to protest for a few days every week since all of this started in late May. On Tuesday night when he was arrested, he said, he'd been in the park across from the federal courthouse in Portland, that's kind of been the epicenter of the protests here. They were listening to music, there was dancing. He said he played Frisbee for a little while. By comparison it had been a pretty mellow night. And then, around 2:30 in the morning, he and a friend were walking back to their car when a group of people on the street warned them that there were people in unmarked vehicles wearing camouflage driving around and grabbing people off the street.

Pettibone told me that that was pretty terrifying to hear. Sure enough, about half a block later, a minivan pulled up, four or five guys in camo jumped out. Pettibone said they grabbed him, pulled his beanie down over his eyes, blindfolding him. They tossed him in the minivan. An officer held his arms over his head while they drove him back to a building. Later, when he was released, he learned that building was the federal courthouse downtown. Once in there, officers searched his belongings, photographed him, they mirandized him - they read him his rights. Pettibone asked for a lawyer and soon after that they released him. In all it was about two hours. He says he was never told why he'd been arrested. He still isn't sure if he has been charged with anything.

EN: Do we know what agency the federal officials represented who arrested Pettibone?

JL: Not specifically. The officers never told Pettibone which agency they worked for and their uniforms don't have names on them, and he was blindfolded. We do know that there are three groups of federal officers here. There's the Federal Protective Service and then there's the U.S. Marshals special operations group and Customs and Border Protection BORTAC, which is Border Patrol's tactical unit -- basically their S.W.A.T. team. Those two, the Marshals and CBP, both wear camouflage. And that's what Pettibone said he saw all night was camouflage.

EN: Outside of Portland, these protests can feel very far away. Can you describe what kind of an escalation this is from what's been happening in recent weeks in Portland?

JL: It's really dramatic. Since the beginning, [with] the Portland Police and the Multnomah County sheriff department, most of the protests nights have ended with some sort of violence being used to disperse protesters, with tear gas or impact munitions. Infrequently did this happen without any warning. [When] the federal law enforcement showed up that sort of went out the window.

They are much more violent than Portland Police have been and with no warning whatsoever. The situation can feel very calm, the federal law enforcement officers seem totally relaxed and patient, and then within moments the streets are saturated with tear gas and there's impact munitions being fired and flash-bangs going off. It's really dramatic and frankly pretty scary when you're out there.

EN: What has the federal response been? Have they said why officers are arresting people who are near federal property?

JL: What we have been told is that the federal officers are here to protect federal property and the people inside the building. But I think it's important to note that there's vandalism and some protesters throw water bottles at the police. One protester was arrested for hitting a federal officer with a hammer, which is pretty dramatic, but by-and-large these protests are nonviolent. The response from law enforcement has been significant use of force.

EN: Through your reporting have you heard about this kind of thing happening anywhere else?

JL: No, I haven't. Federal law enforcement, I believe, were were slated to be sent to Seattle or actually were. I think they were sent to Minneapolis. This specific thing, I have not heard and as far as we've been able to see, their most dramatic and highest profile presence is here in Portland.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.