George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May forced all of us to examine our attitudes toward institutional racism.
Protests around the country, from big cities like Portland to small towns like Astoria, are a potential turning point. White people who live in communities with very few Black, Hispanic or other people of color are confronting issues that for generations have been convenient to ignore.
One of the most difficult is that the police act on our behalf, using force derived from the governments we elect.
We have been fortunate on the North Coast that protests have been mostly peaceful.
In Portland, protests over the past several weeks have often spiraled into violence. Scenes of vandalism and looting, along with police overreach in attacking journalists and legal observers, have been shared across the United States.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives people the right to peaceably assemble, but in nightly clashes downtown near the Multnomah County Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, demonstrators and police have struggled to find the line between protest and riot.
We trust Portland — the people who live there, the police, the mayor and other city leaders — can find that line.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s misguided decision to deploy militarized federal agents has dragged the entire country into the streets of Portland.
Last week, a federal agent — acting on our behalf, using force derived from the government we elected — fired a less-lethal round at a protester’s head, causing critical injuries. Oregon Public Broadcasting and other news media have reported that federal agents are patrolling in unmarked vans, snatching protesters who do not appear to be immediate threats to federal property.
The New York Times reported that federal agents on the ground in Portland were not specifically trained in riot control or mass demonstrations.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a federal lawsuit to try to prevent federal agents from detaining protesters in Portland without identifying themselves or without probable cause or warrants. The lawsuit names the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Protective Service.
The lawsuit alleges their tactics violate the First Amendment right to peacefully gather, the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures and the Fifth Amendment right to due process.
“Citizens who are reasonably afraid of being picked up and shoved into unmarked vans —possibly by federal officers, possibly by individuals opposed to the protests — will feel compelled to stay away, for their own personal safety, and will therefore be unable to express themselves in the way that they have the right to do,” the lawsuit states.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Gov. Kate Brown have made it clear the federal agents are not welcome. The federal elected officials who represent us — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici — demanded the Trump administration remove the forces.
Wyden, in an op-ed for NBC News, faulted President Donald Trump. “Not content with simply dropping squads of federal agents into my hometown to clash with peaceful protesters, as he first did in early July after signing an executive order to supposedly protect monuments from protesters, Trump and his acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, have now unleashed these agents like an occupying army — complete with fatigues, military-style equipment and tactics that are utterly unacceptable in an American city.
“These invaders are mounting this assault against my city on the flimsiest of justifications: While Acting Secretary Wolf rants about law and order, most of the incidents of ‘violent anarchists’ he cites are actually graffiti, or low-level vandalism.”
Portland was chosen as a stage for the Trump administration to make a political statement in an election year. But it would be a mistake to view what has been happening on the streets only through a partisan political lens.
Just like nearly everyone familiar with Floyd’s death saw the injustice, anyone looking at what federal agents have done in Portland should see the assault on our civil liberties.
They are acting on our behalf, using force derived from the government we elected. We should all demand that they stop.