Federal Agents Are Only Making the Portland Protesters More Determined

Officers in camo walk down a street at night amid smoke.
Federal officers clear the streets with tear gas and other crowd control munitions as protesters continue to demonstrate against police brutality outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday. Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Reuters

Last week, videos started to pop up on Twitter showing how protesters are being policed in Portland, Oregon.

These images stand out because they are so different from videos of police brutality you might have seen a few weeks back, in the first few days after George Floyd was killed. These aren’t videos of cops in riot gear holding a line. The law enforcement officers you see are almost silent. Their faces are completely covered. They swoop out of vans toward small groups of pedestrians and seem to pick people to detain at random. The officers are dressed for battle and aren’t wearing any identification, but it turns out they are working for the federal government.

Jonathan Levinson is a reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting, and on Monday’s episode of What Next, I asked him to walk us through what’s happening on the streets in Portland right now and how the arrival of federal agents has changed things. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: How many nights of protests have there been so far in Portland? 

Jonathan Levinson: This is hotly debated. I believe the “official count” is 51.

Why is it debated? 

There was a protest Day 0 that I think wasn’t very big. What people are calling Day 1 was this massive protest when thousands of people marched from a park in Northeast Portland, where there’d been a vigil, for miles all the way downtown to the Multnomah County Justice Center. And that night was—I guess dramatic is a good word. They got to the justice center, and they broke all the windows up front. There’s a small fire that got set in the records office right down at the bottom floor.

On June 26, the president signed an executive order to protect statues and monuments around the country and to address “criminal violence.” In response to that executive order, DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] pulled together this police force and sent them, as far as we know, to Seattle, D.C., Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania, and Portland. And so that is the task force that was sent here and that we started to see making an appearance around July 1. Ostensibly they were sent here to protect federal buildings and the people inside. And for a few nights, that was what they did. And then July Fourth, it was a show of force. They came out en masse, pushed everyone away from the courthouse, and then kept pushing them across the park, which is city property, and then kept pushing them two or three blocks past that, which is all city property. That was the first time we saw them really move away from the buildings and into Portland city streets and performing a function that we had been led to believe they would not be performing. They’ve either cleared the streets of protesters far away from federal buildings or, as we saw in those videos, they’re driving around, arresting people.

When you’re out there as a reporter, do you feel safe? 

Not always. The weapons they are using are pretty indiscriminate. They’re firing tear gas. They’re firing impact missions, flash-bangs. And it would be very easy to get shot. I got shot in my foot one night. Other reporters have been shot. There was a restraining order put on the Portland police that restricted how they interact with the media and with legal observers. So when they issued these dispersal orders, they’re no longer allowed to also disperse us. There was a noticeable difference in the way the Portland police treated us after that. That lasted about four days before federal law enforcement showed up. The restraining order doesn’t apply to them, and they don’t care at all about who we are. The first night they were out, I held up my credentials, and they said, “I don’t give a shit,” and push me out of the way.

Driving around arresting people seems so different tactically than moving a crowd back or moving forward as a unit. Can you tell the story of a couple of the protesters you spoke to who encountered these agents driving around in minivans?

I think the best story is the one that we wrote about Mark Pettibone. He and a friend had been down protesting. That night had actually been relatively calm down at the protests. He said there was music in the park, people had been dancing, for a while he played Frisbee. Around 2 or 3 in the morning, he and his friend are walking back to their car. They get a block and a half away, and they run into another group of people who had said, Be careful. There’s people in a minivan driving around, grabbing people off the street. Pettibone told me that was terrifying to hear. Understandably.

Then what happens? 

They get about a half a block away. Almost right on schedule, a minivan pulls up, four or five guys jump out wearing camouflage. His friend runs and gets away. Mark Pettibone gets grabbed. They pull his beanie down over his face to blindfold him. He said they tossed him in the minivan. An officer held his arms over his head. He said they didn’t tell him who they were or what was going on, drove around downtown for a couple minutes, and eventually unloaded him inside a building. They searched his stuff. He was photographed, put in a holding cell there where they read him his rights and asked if he wanted a lawyer or if he wanted to waive his rights and answer a few questions. And he said, “I want a lawyer.” They then terminated the interview, and very soon after, he was released. He wasn’t given any paperwork. He wasn’t given any idea if he had been charged with anything. And it wasn’t until he left the building that he realized he had been inside the federal courthouse the entire time.

Let’s talk about this weekend, because over the weekend is when these videos of people being snatched off the streets really started pinging around the internet and started getting a lot of attention. How did the widespread knowledge of these federal agents being in the city, and acting really brazenly from the looks of it, impact the protests? 

I was talking to some of the independent journalists here, and one of them, this reporter Tuck Woodstock, was talking about how when they saw those videos, it didn’t really register how bad it was because they had been out there every single night as things had steadily been escalating. The Portland police took off their name tapes, and it was like, hey, this is bad. And accountability slowly got harder, and the level of violence slowly increased. And then the federal police came, and the level of violence increased again and accountability just seemed impossible. And so for people on the ground, when that happened, I don’t think the extent of how bad it was really registered.

The impact has been that protesters have been reinvigorated. The crowds have easily doubled from what they were the past couple of weeks. So, contrary to the intention behind the federal government sending officers here to “quell the violent mob,” it has just galvanized the city, and the protests are gaining momentum once again.

It feels like we’re at an impasse right now because a couple of days ago, the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, went on Fox and said, “I called the governor and the mayor and said, Hey, I want to help you. And they told me what would help is if my agents packed up and went home. And I’m not going to let that happen on my watch,” which seems kind of shocking to me.

They have objectively made the situation worse. I don’t think there’s any other interpretation of what’s going on. And so, yes, there’s an impasse between lawmakers and the federal government here. There’s also an impasse between the protesters and the city government. Early on, there were clear demands of $50 million being pulled out of the police budget and reinvested into the community. And that was not done. There were some policy concessions, but it wasn’t enough. Things have gotten worse since, with federal law enforcement. But I don’t think the city knows what to do either. The protesters aren’t going anywhere.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.