United States top Homeland Security officials vow to ‘maintain’ presence as nationwide criticism over the federal response to Portland protests grows.
Top Homeland Security officials on Monday said they had no intention of pulling back in Portland, Oregon, amid an outcry of criticism and Congressional calls for investigation, and defended the federal crackdown on protests there, including the use of unmarked cars and unidentified officers in camouflage.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sent law enforcement units to Portland to back up the Federal Protective Service responsible for guarding United States government facilities after receiving intelligence about planned attacks around July 4, the DHS officials said.
“DHS is not going to back down from our responsibilities. We are not escalating, we are protecting,” Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security said.
President Donald Trump condemned protests in Portland and violence in other “Democrat-run” cities on Sunday as his Republican administration moves to intervene in urban centres he said have lost control of demonstrations.
Protests began across the country after the police killing of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
Demonstrations have continued in Portland for more than 50 days. Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a news conference on Friday that things were starting to de-escalate when federal forces began acting, and “have ratcheted up the tension on our streets”.
In Portland, federal officers last week started cracking down on crowds, using tear gas to disperse protesters and taking some into custody in unmarked cars, which local activists have referred to as abductions or kidnappings.
Wheeler described the troops as Trump’s “personal army” and alleged the use of federal forces is part of a White House “coordinated strategy” to “bolster sagging polling data” as polls show the president trailing his Democrat challenger Joe Biden.
Portland police early on Monday provided details on another tense night between protesters and federal law enforcement in the city, saying federal agents used tear gas to disperse a crowd that had gathered outside a federal courthouse downtown.
Federal officers reportedly deployed tear gas canisters at a group of mothers who had gathered near the courthouse over the weekend.
A large group of mothers gathered on Sunday night in defiance of the response of federal troops, many wearing yellow shirts, they formed a defensive human wall to protect the crowd of demonstrators.
Wolf, however, said federal law enforcement was doing its job.
“We’re not going to apologise for it,” he said. “We’re going to do it professionally and do it correctly.”
The clampdown in the liberal city has drawn widespread criticism and legal challenges as videos surfaced of officers without clear identification badges using force and unmarked vehicles to arrest protesters without explanation.
The state’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, on Friday filed a lawsuit against the DHS, US Marshals Service, US Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protection Service saying their tactics infringe upon the civil rights of protesters in the state.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deputy secretary, said the federal officers wore the same uniforms every day and the crowds knew who they were. He also defended the use of unmarked cars as routine.
“Unmarked police vehicles are so common it’s barely worth discussion,” he said.
Cuccinelli said if federal authorities receive the same kind of intelligence threat in other places, they would respond the same way. “It’s really as simple as that,” he said.
On Sunday, Democrats in the US House of Representatives demanded internal investigations into whether the Justice and Homeland Security departments “abused emergency authorities” in handling the Portland protests.
Portland’s mayor called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence.
Cuccinelli dismissed local leaders’ calls to leave the city.
“We will maintain our presence,” he said.