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Oregon Sues Federal Agencies For Grabbing Up Protesters Off The Streets

Federal officers use tear gas and other crowd dispersal munitions on protesters outside the Multnomah County Justice Center on July 17, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.
Federal officers use tear gas and other crowd dispersal munitions on protesters outside the Multnomah County Justice Center on July 17, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Protests continued in Oregon's largest city through Saturday night.

The Oregon Department of Justice plans to sue several federal agencies for civil rights abuses, and state prosecutors will potentially pursue criminal charges against a federal officer who seriously injured a protester.

The federal lawsuit will name the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Protective Service, three agencies that have had a role in stepped-up force used against protesters since early July. The state plans to file the lawsuit Friday night.

According to DOJ spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson, the suit will accuse the agencies of engaging "in unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregon citizens by seizing and detaining them without probable cause."

State attorneys will ask a judge to issue a temporary restraining order that "would immediately stop federal authorities from unlawfully detaining Oregonians," the DOJ said in a release.

The agency also plans to announce a criminal investigation in the case of Donavan LaBella, a peaceful demonstrator who was shot in the head with an impact munition last Saturday night, Edmunson said.

Those munitions are intended to be aimed below the waist. LaBella's mom said she believes the officer aimed at LaBella's head."He's 6'5"," said Desiree Labella, referring to her son. "He has to be a terribly trained marksman to be off by 3 feet to hit him in the forehead right between the eyes. If he's that bad of a shot at such a short distance he shouldn't have a gun."

The pending lawsuit, which would be the second filed against federal authorities on Friday, comes after reporting by OPB that revealed federal agents have detained peaceful protesters using unmarked vehicles, with little explanation or indication of which agency they belong to or why people are being taken into custody.

The DOJ release specifically highlighted the case of Mark Pettibone, a demonstrator who was snatched off the street by federal officers in the early hours of July 16, put into a van, and brought to the federal courthouse.

That arrest has spurred national attention as President Trump has made Portland a focal point in recent days, criticizing local elected leaders for being overly lenient on protesters. On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf flew into Portland to tour the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, the federal facility where graffiti and other vandalism has been frequent in seven weeks of protests over police violence and racial injustice.

Since arriving just before July 4, the officers from Customs and Border Protection's elite BORTAC unit and the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group have guarded Portland's federal courthouse. They've also assisted the Portland police in clearing protesters from city streets.

City, state and congressional leaders have criticized the federal force's use of weapons against protesters and demanded their departure.

"The federal administration has chosen Portland to use their scare tactics to stop our residents from protesting police brutality and from supporting the Black Lives Matter movement," Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a release Friday. "Every American should be repulsed when they see this happening. If this can happen here in Portland, it can happen anywhere."

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.
Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.
Suzanne Nuyen