S1: Last week, these videos started popping up on Twitter showing how protesters are being policed in Portland, Oregon. These images stand out because they’re just 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, they’re almost silent. Their faces are completely covered. They swoop out of vans towards small groups of pedestrians and seem to pick people to detain at random.
S2: It’s very different. It’s it’s this insidious form of of state violence that you see in or you expect to see in, you know, authoritarian countries.
S1: Jonathan Levinson is a reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. I asked him to walk me through one of these clips. It was shot downtown. Looks like it could be any urban street corner until the guys in Desert Cameo role up.
S2: What are you doing? A minivan is parked sort of across the street. Two officers camouflages floors, walk up, grab a guy and they’re walking back the minivan, put it in, drive off. And while they’re doing that, the person filming is saying, you know, who are you? Identify yourself. The guy who they’re grabbing is saying, I haven’t done anything wrong.
S3: What’s your name? Okay, you’re fine. We’ll get you out.
S2: You don’t know who they are. You don’t know who they’re working for. You know what you do. Who who do you talk to when you think that your rights have been infringed?
S3: You just violated their rights. Oh, kidnapping, you just violated their rights.
S1: Who these officers are working for. It turns out, is the federal government, but they aren’t wearing any identification. All the folks being detained now is that the people with that minivan, they’re dressed for battle, a minor things that you have military experience yourself. I do. So when you see this happening, what do you think about it?
S2: I mean, so a lot of people have asked similar questions or make that comparison. And I I sort of reject the premise of the question. Policing is not war policing and being a police officer and being in the military are not the same thing and should not be even categorized as the same thing. So the fact that we’re looking at that and drawing similarities, drawing comparisons, I think is goes to the heart of the problem.
S1: Well, is what’s happening in Portland right now policing?
S2: I mean. Right. I think that’s the question. And you hear federal officials calling them troops, referring to sending more troops in. And when did police officers become troops?
S1: Today on the show, how policing Portland came to look like a military operation against our own people. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. The uprising in Portland has been centered around the Multnomah County Justice Center right downtown. A little community has sprouted up there with a tent offering ribs and a snack van. How many nights of protests have there been so far in Portland?
S2: This is hotly debated. I believe the quote unquote official count is I think last night was 51.
S1: Huh. Why is it debated?
S2: Well, there was there was a protest like day zero that I think wasn’t very big or something like that, I believe. I’m not. So I’m not in the weeds on the debate. But I think the that the what people are calling day one was this massive protest with thousands of people marched from a park in northeast, partly where there’d been a vigil for miles all the way downtown to it’s the multinomial county justice center. And that’s where I was was dramatic is a good word that 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. This is 50 days ago.
S1: Well, 51, the justice center houses police headquarters and a county jail, and it’s surrounded by federal property, immigration court, district court. That’s how a month after these protests broke out. The president was able to send in federal agents on June 26.
S2: The president signed an executive order to protect statues and monuments around the country and to address criminal violence, I believe was the word he used in response, that executive order DHS pulled together this police force and sent them, as far as we know, sent them to Seattle, Washington, 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 1st.
S1: At first, the federal agents stuck close to federal buildings, but after a few days, that changed ostensibly.
S2: And what we’ve been told from the federal government and from city officials is they were sent here. Like you said, to protect federal buildings and the people inside. And for a few nights, that was what they did, like July 1st, July 2nd. They started coming out of the courthouse a little more to push people back away. And then July 4th, it was. That was the first time they really made this. That was it was a show of force. I mean, they came out in mass, pushed everyone away from the courthouse and then kept pushing them across the park, which is city property, and then kept pushing them like 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. And for like a few days after, we’re told that, no, that is not what they’re doing. They tried to say that there is a federal property, you know, four blocks away, that they were evicted. They were moving towards, which just does not line up with the reality of what happened. And so that’s that’s happened a number of times since then. They’ve a number of times they’ve either cleared the streets of protesters far away from federal buildings or as we saw in those videos, we talked about driving around, arresting people. That is what started on the 4th.
S1: When you’re out there as a reporter, do you feel safe?
S2: Not always so. The weapons are using are pretty indiscriminate. It’s nighttime. We are often standing far away from them. And they’re firing tear gas. They’re firing in back missions, flash bangs. And it would be, you know, very easy to get shot. I got shot in my foot one night. Other reporters have been shot. Portland police were ultimately there was a restraining order put on them and anyone operating sort of under their control, that 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, that we are allowed to stay behind and observe and report on what they do. So that was that actually there was a big and 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, you know, I was like, oh, you know, I’m a media. And I held up my credentials and they said, you know, I don’t give a I don’t give a shit and push me out of the way. So, no, I not not always.
S1: Some nights feel less safe than others, but the 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?
S2: Yes. I mean, I think the best story is the one that we wrote about was Mark Pettibone. He and a friend had been down protesting. They say they try to go a couple days a week since the beginning. 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 2:00, 3:00 in the morning. He and his friend are walking back to their car to get like a block and a half away. And they run into another group of people who had said, be careful. There’s people in the mini van driving around, grabbing people off the street. And what Pettibone told me was that was terrifying to hear. Understandably so.
S1: They get this warning from folks that they walk by. Then what happens?
S2: Yeah, they get about a half a block away, almost like right on schedule. A mini van pulls up. Four or five guys jump out as described, jump out of the minivan 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, you know, 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 asking if he wanted a lawyer or if he wanted to waive his rights and answer a few questions. And he said, no, 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.
S1: The same place where the protests have been happening. Exactly. I know you reject this idea of responding to what’s happening by looking back at your time in the military. But I want to go back to it because I saw this quote in The New York Times from a local journalist who said that what’s happening in Portland now is this close up to the line. As you can get to an actual war without live rounds. And I wonder if you agree with that or not.
S4: I mean.
S2: I don’t I don’t know that person’s experience or what he what he experienced on a deployment. I think there are fundamental differences and there are a lot of very scary similarities. I mean, there have been nights down there in the past week where I felt that same vibe, that same really uneasy feeling you get before things go really sideways. And I mean, it’s it’s hard not to see armed people in camouflage and drop draw comparisons. So. I get I get the comparison. He’s that person is making. I just I, I think it’s more constructive to point out that if you are even making that comparison, you are in a really dangerous territory. You are policing city streets. You are. These are protesters expressing exercising their constitutional rights. And if you are comparing the police response to the U.S. military in Iraq, then you have lost the plot.
S1: This weekend, leadership in Oregon came together to denounce the federal police presence in Portland. The governor and the mayor both asked the feds to pull out. The attorney general filed a lawsuit accusing several agencies of unlawful law enforcement. But even she was forced to identify federal officers as John Doe’s because the individual agents are so far unidentifiable for journalists like Jonathan, who’s been covering this story since it began. All of this was a sudden acknowledgment that all was not right in his city. Let’s talk about this weekend, because over the weekend is when these videos of people being snatched off the street 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? How did that impact the protests?
S2: So I we just wrote like we just wrote a story sort of catching everyone up on how we got to this point. And I was talking to some of the independent journalists here, and one of them, this reporter took 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. You know, the Portland police took off their named tapes and was like, hey, this is bad. And the 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 and even me as reporting that story, I knew it sounded bad. And it wasn’t really until the next morning when the story had, like, gone everywhere. I was like, oh, yeah, this is actually very bad. And the impact has been this past week, the protesters have been reinvigorated. The crowds are have easily doubled from what they were the past couple weeks. And so contrary to the intention behind the federal government, sending them here to, quote, quell the violent mob, it has just galvanized the city and the protests are gaining momentum once again.
S1: It feels like we’re really at an impasse right now because, you know, a couple days ago, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, he went on Fox. And, you know, he 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 that he would say now and I’m going to keep doing what we’re doing.
S2: Yeah, I mean, they have objectively made the situation worse. There’s no 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 and the federal officers here. There’s also an impasse between the protesters and the city government. I mean, the city government wasn’t being very successful before. Early on, there was clear demands of fifty million dollars being pulled out of the police budget and reinvest into the community. And that was that was not the policy they pursued. They did do some. They pulled. I believe it is about 15 million dollars from the police budget. So there were some policy concessions, but it wasn’t enough. And, you know, I think we would have to go back in sort of with a little bit of hindsight, figure out if if there were missteps early on or if it took too long. There was there was some point where there’s just this momentum, you know, is in the middle of the pandemic. There was just this routine, like in the evening you go to the justice center and you protest and it just it was just set in. And 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.
S5: Jonathan Levinson, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you. Jonathan Levinson is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson. We’re getting some help for the next few weeks from Daniel Eavis.
S1: And we’ve got help every day from Allison Bettencourt and Alicia McMurry. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.