Federal officers deployed tear gas and fired less-lethal rounds into a crowd of protesters in Oregon, hours after the head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited Portland and called the demonstrators "violent anarchists."
Video showed many protesters leaving the area near the federal courthouse late Thursday as smoke filled the air. Protests have taken place for nearly two months in Portland, since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
During a visit to Portland earlier Thursday, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said state and city authorities are to blame for not putting an end to the protests, angering local officials.
"The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city," Wolf said in a statement. "Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it."
Mayor Ted Wheeler and other local officials have said they didn't ask for help from federal law enforcement and have asked them to leave.
Van report draws ire
Further questions have been raised after an Oregon Public Broadcasting report on Thursday detailed accounts of witnesses who have seen camouflaged officers emerged from unmarked white vans to swoop on individuals and apprehend them before driving off.
"Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters," Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said in a tweet in response to the OPB report.
The American Civil Liberties Union also expressed its condemnation of the actions described in the report.
Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping — what is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the US. <br><br>These actions are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered. <a href="https://t.co/1zS6u05GOK">https://t.co/1zS6u05GOK</a>
Homeland Security acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli said Friday morning on Fox & Friends that the federal government has a responsibility to protect buildings such as the courthouse.
"What we've seen around the country is where responsible policing is advanced, violence recedes," Cuccinelli said. "And Portland hasn't gotten that memo. Nor have a lot of other cities. And the president is determined to do what we can, within our jurisdiction, to help restore peace to these beleaguered cities."
On Thursday night, a few hundred people had gathered near the federal courthouse, news outlets reported. Police told protesters to leave after announcing they heard some chanting about burning down the building, according to The Oregonian.
A short time later, federal officers deployed tear gas to break up the crowd. Some protesters remained in the area early Friday and were detained, but it was unclear whether any arrests were made, the newspaper reported.
"This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown tweeted. "The President is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government."
Protester hospitalized last week
Tensions were exacerbated after a protester was hit in the head by a less-lethal weapon fired by a federal law enforcement officer on July 11. Less-lethal weapons can fire rubber or plastic bullets.
Bystander videos show Dustin LaBella, 26, collapsing to the ground unconscious and bleeding profusely from the head after being hit.
Who are these people? What agency do they work for? Who gives them orders? What are their use of force guidelines? What is their jurisdiction in Portland? <br><br>This lack of accountability is UNACCEPTABLE from federal authorities.<br><br>We don't have secret police in the United States. <a href="https://t.co/gHMJadt7BH">https://t.co/gHMJadt7BH</a>
LaBella's mother, Desiree LaBella, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that her son suffered facial and skull fractures.
U.S. President Donald Trump said two days after the incident that "Portland was totally out of control" and that federal officers "very much quelled it."
"They went in and I guess they have many people right now in jail. We very much quelled it. If it starts again, we'll quell it again, very easily. It's not hard to do if you know what you're doing," he said at a roundtable on law enforcement.
The federal response has greatly concerned Oregon's representatives in Washington, D.C. Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democratic senators, as well as Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer of the House of Representatives, have written U.S. Attorney General William Barr to demand answers into how the federal officers were deployed and the scope of their activities.
"A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump's secret police," Wyden tweeted on Thursday. "Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media."
Police Chief Chuck Lovell said Monday that police communicate with federal officers mostly to avoid any unintentional confusion.
Last week, Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis said an "agitator corps" of violent protesters were responsible for vandalism and chaos in the city. Davis made a distinction between Black Lives Matter protesters, whom he said were nonviolent, and a smaller group of people he repeatedly called "agitators."
The U.S. Marshals Service is investigating the LaBella shooting.
The investigation into the shooting will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy J. Williams said earlier this week.
With files from CBC News
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