Federal agents sent to quash peaceful protests in Portland provoke violence

First posted September 15, 2020 4:09pm EDT
Last updated September 26, 2020 3:10pm EDT

All Associated Themes:

  • Legal Action
  • National Security
  • Protest Politics
  • Violence / Threats

External References

50 Days Of Protest (And Subsequent Police Violence) In Portland: A Timeline, Guns & America

100 Days of Protests in Portland, Oregon Live

As Guns Get Drawn at Protest Sites, Demonstrators Fear a Volatile New Phase, The New York Times

Booker Letter to DOJ, DHS on Trump Deployment of Federal Officers in US Cities

Chad Wolf defends Trump administration’s Portland protest response, The Washington Post

Chad Wolf sworn in as acting Department of Homeland Security chief, fifth under Trump, The Washington Post

Chaotic Scenes in Portland as Backlash to Federal Deployment Grows, The New York Times

Cities in Bind as Turmoil Spreads Far Beyond Portland, The New York Times

Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

Facebook removes Patriot Prayer pages in bid to halt ‘violent social militias’, The Guardian

Federal Agents Agree to Withdraw From Portland, With Conditions, The New York Times

Federal Agents Push Into Portland Streets, Stretching Limits of Their Authority, The New York Times

Federal Agents Unleash Militarized Crackdown on Portland, The New York Times

Federal Officers Deployed in Portland Didn’t Have Proper Training, D.H.S. Memo Said, The New York Times

Fire in police union headquarters leads Portland Police to declare riot, KGW

George Floyd, From ‘I Want to Touch the World’ to ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ The New York Times

Homeland Security Chief: To Attack Our Monuments Is To Attack America, The Federalist

In His Last Hours, Portland Murder Suspect Said He Feared Arrest, The New York Times

‘It was like being preyed upon’: Portland protesters say federal officers in unmarked vans are detaining them, The Washington Post

Judge denies Oregon attorney general’s motion to restrict federal police actions, Oregon Live

Judge Rejects Challenge to Federal Agents Targeting Portland Protesters, The New York Times

More federal agents dispatched to Portland as protests rise in other cities, The Washington Post

New Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed Against Federal Law Enforcement For Actions In Portland, Oregon Public Broadcasting

Opinion | Chad Wolf launched a small war in Portland. He’s just getting started, The Washington Post

Oregon Sues Federal Agencies For Grabbing Up Protesters Off The Streets, NPR

Police declare riot in Portland, arrest 16 people, including Demetria Hester, a survivor of the 2017 MAX train attacks, KGW

Police shot Portland slaying suspect without warning or trying to arrest him first, witness says, The Washington Post

Portland police declare riot on 100th straight night of protests as ‘fire bombs’ hurled at officers, ABC News

Portland protests not abating after 100 days, MPR News

Portland sees peaceful night of protests following withdrawal of federal agents, The Guardian

President Donald J. Trump Is Combating Lawlessness In America’s Cities, White House

Protests at Portland courthouse smaller, calmer, free of tear gas after federal withdrawal, Seattle Times

Remarks by President Trump in Briefing on SOUTHCOM Enhanced Counternarcotics Operations, White House

Rosenblum v. John Does 1-10, et al.

Rosenblum v. John Does 1-10, Opinion and Order

Some federal forces poised to leave Portland, others could remain through election, Oregon Public Broadcasting

Surge of Federal Agents Leaves Many Questions Unanswered, Associated Press

Suspect in Fatal Portland Shooting Is Killed by Officers During Arrest, The New York Times

Trump called the ‘Wall of Moms’ that formed to defend Portland protesters from federal agents a ‘scam,’ Business Insider

Trump, Portland Mayor Blame Each Other After Deadly Shooting, The New York Times

Trump signs memo to defund ‘lawless’ cities but experts raise legality doubts, The Guardian

Two Friday Events Scheduled in Portland to Memorialize George Floyd, Portland Mercury

Were the Actions of Federal Agents in Portland Legal?, The New York Times

What Do Portland Protesters Want, and How Have the Police Responded?, The New York Times


More than two months after the police killing of George Floyd, protests against police brutality and systemic racism continued to roil several U.S. cities. Beginning in late May, demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, protested daily. In July, they began to confront camouflaged federal agents lacking clear identification, precipitating a number of lawsuits questioning the legality of their presence. Some provoked and attacked peaceful protesters, seemingly challenging their constitutionally protected right of Free Speech. Despite their almost complete withdrawal, Portland witnessed continued tension and violence, culminating in the shooting deaths of both a far-right supporter of President Donald Trump in late August and an anti-fascist sympathizer in early September.

Key Players

George Floyd was a Black man killed by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while two other police officers further restrained Floyd’s back and another officer looked on. A video of the killing captured by an onlooker shows Floyd begging for his life under Chauvin’s knee, repeatedly pleading, “I can’t breathe.” His death strengthened support for the Black Lives Matter movement and spawned heavily attended protests, both in the United States and abroad.

Chad Wolf, acting U.S. secretary of homeland security since November 2019, has led the effort to deploy federal troops to cities across the country. Wolf replaced Kevin McAleenan, who had been acting in the role since April 2019. In an op-ed published by The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, Wolf vowed to continue to support Trump’s “firm response to the lawlessness sweeping our nation.”

Further Details

The first protests in Portland against police brutality and systemic racism took place on May 28 — just days after the killing of George Floyd — and they immediately became a daily occurrence. Though the demonstrations have been generally peaceful, some have culminated in clashes with the Portland Police Bureau, which has deployed tear gas and impact munitions to drive protesters away, according to Guns & America, a collaboration among 10 public newsrooms about the role of guns in American life.

On July 4 — the first day federal agents arrived in Portland — hundreds of protesters gathered again outside of a federal courthouse, where many of the federal agents were stationed. Trump directed the agents to ensure the security of statues and other federal property in the city. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo justifying the decision to send federal agents to the city argued “sustained violence against government personnel and facilities” reflected the “enduring threat environment” in the area since 2015 and therefore necessitated a federal response, according to The New York Times.

The first reports of camouflaged federal agents detaining protesters in unmarked vehicles surfaced on July 17. In a widely circulated story, 29-year-old demonstrator Mark Pettibone told The Washington Post that men in green military garb exited an unmarked van and chased him for a half block. He said he could not discern whether the men were police officers or far-right extremists. He was detained and searched before suddenly being released with neither an explanation for his detention nor a record of the arrest. The Times described the appearance of federal agents as a “militarized crackdown.”

protester kneeling before armed police

The agents present in Portland included personnel from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal Protective Service (FPS). Some were specifically from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, CBP’s equivalent of a SWAT team, according to The Times. On July 18, The Times published a story detailing the lack of proper training provided to federal agents sent to Portland. According to an internal DHS memo, the agents were not properly taught how to control riots or mass demonstrations.

This extreme show of force by the Trump administration apparently led many protesters to adopt the same volatility and intensity they first exhibited in late May, according to The Times. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) noted that what took place in Portland “escalated things, not just in Seattle, but nationwide.” In cities as disparate as Los Angeles; Seattle; Omaha, Nebraska; and Richmond, Virginia, protesters continued to clash with police, reflecting a newfound intensity, according to The Times.

The events in Portland put the city in the national spotlight. For example, the women of the so-called “Wall of Moms” became national icons after hosting nightly gatherings to protect protesters beginning July 18. In response, Trump tweeted that the mothers were a “scam.”

Protests reached a climax Aug. 29, when a caravan of Trump supporters entered downtown Portland and confronted demonstrators. Individuals from the group shot paintballs into the crowd of protesters, some of whom retaliated by throwing objects, leading to fist fights. Amid the chaos, Aaron J. Danielson — a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, whose Facebook page was removed as part of an effort to expel “violent social militias” from the social media platform — was shot and killed.

Just five days later, law enforcement agents from a federally fugitive task force shot and killed Michael Forest Reinoehl, the prime suspect in the shooting death of Danielson, while attempting to arrest him. Reinoehl — a self-identified anti-fascist who attended many protests in Portland — confessed to the killing while speaking with a journalist just a few hours before he himself was shot, The Times reported. However, a witness said officers opened fire on Reinoehl without announcing themselves or trying to arrest him, contradicting the narrative offered by the police, according to The Washington Post.

On Sept. 5, Portland witnessed its 100th consecutive night of protests. Police set off tear gas while some protesters threw Molotov cocktails, a sign that the confrontations continued to intensify and showed no sign of letting up.


U.S. District Court judge rejects Oregon attorney general’s request for temporary restraining order against federal agencies

On July 17, 2020, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit against various federal agencies, alleging civil rights abuses against protesters. The lawsuit named as defendants John Does 1 through 10 (because the identities and affiliations of the agents are unknown, according to Rosenblum), the DHS, CBP, FPS, and U.S. Marshals Service. The suit argued the named federal agencies took steps to discourage the lawful exercise of First Amendment rights. 

Rosenblum sought a temporary restraining order against certain actions by federal authorities, but a week later, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman issued a 14-page opinion denying her request. He wrote that the state’s argument “rests on too little evidence,” and that Oregon therefore lacks standing to sue. “If I don’t have standing, I’m not quite sure who does,” Rosenblum told The New York Times.

Civil rights groups and state representatives sue federal agencies as senators demand answers

The Western States Center, the First Unitarian Church of Portland, two Oregon state representatives, and a legal observer from the American Civil Liberties Union filed their own lawsuits against the same defendants July 21. In addition to alleging that Portlanders are deprived of the ability to protest peacefully, the complaint argued that the federal agencies have chilled First Unitarian’s pursuit of its religious mission, which incorporates protesting injustices, thereby committing another First Amendment violation.

The next day, 27 U.S. senators signed a letter to Wolf and U.S. Attorney General William Barr stating “it remains unclear what legal authorities the federal government has invoked for its militarized interventions in American cities.” Wolf testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Aug. 6, and he criticized state and local officials for severing ties with the Trump administration in its efforts to protect federal property in Portland.

Oregon governor says federal agents have withdrawn from Portland with conditions

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) stated July 29 that federal agents who had clashed with protesters would begin their departure from Portland, according to The New York Times. Under an agreement between Brown and the DHS, Oregon State Police would now protect Portland’s federal courthouse, according to a statement from Wolf.

On July 31, protesters again gathered near the federal courthouse in the city. However, with fewer federal agents on hand, their demonstration was peaceful. State police protected the courthouse from the inside, remaining largely out of sight, according to The Guardian.

In spite of the agreement to remove all federal agents from Portland, however, some federal officers remained, though mostly out of sight. Anonymous federal officials confirmed that an “elevated force will likely remain in Portland through November,” according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Wolf added in his Senate testimony that the “full contingent of DHS personnel will remain on standby” in the city.

Protests continue as authorities in Portland declare riots and Trump attacks the city

As the daily protests continued, the Portland Police Bureau declared a gathering outside the Portland Police Association on Aug. 8 to be a riot and ordered demonstrators to disperse immediately. Police stated that they designated it a riot only after a group of protesters forcibly entered a police building and set it on fire, according to KGW, an NBC-affiliated TV station in Portland.

Police declared another riot the next day, after protesters threw fireworks and reportedly injured two officers with a mortar. Police arrested 16 people on charges of disorderly conduct and/or interfering with a police officer, KGW reported.

On Sept. 2, Trump signed a memorandum directing federal agencies to withhold funds from Seattle, Portland, New York City, and Washington, D.C., based on “whether the city defunded the police or prevented local law enforcement from intervening to restore order,” according to the White House. Federal agencies, however, cannot “willy-nilly restrict funding,” according to Sam Berger, a former senior policy adviser at the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration. As a result, the memo is unlikely to result in the reduction of federal funds, The Guardian reported. 

On Sept. 5, the 100th night of protests, Portland police stated protesters had thrown fire bombs, mortars, and other objects at officers and again declared a riot.