Federal law enforcement officers shot a 26-year-old unarmed protester, causing him to be hospitalized with a skull fracture, and have been rounding up protesters in unmarked vans.
“We don’t have secret police in the United States.”
So said Democratic Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia, who took to Twitter Friday morning to criticize the actions of mysterious federal law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon.
The events that have unfolded this week in the city suggest otherwise. Hordes of federal officers have roamed the streets, throwing flash bang grenades and deploying tear gas at protesters, shooting an unarmed demonstrator in the head with an impact munition, and detaining others by throwing them in the back of unmarked vans.
Those officers, from the U.S. Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security, arrived in the city shortly before July 4, after President Donald Trump issued an executive order in late June protecting statues from protesters. The officers were sent to protect Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse from vandalism and assist the Portland Police Bureau in shutting down nightly protests that have raged since late May and have, at times, turned violent.
Instead, federal officers have escalated matters dramatically and provoked outrage from local leaders over their treatment of protesters.
Donovan LaBella was among those protesting in the streets last Saturday night, when federal officers shot him with less-than-lethal munitions. These types of ammunition, which can include bean bag rounds and rubber bullets, are generally used for crowd control, but can still cause extreme injury—which is what happened to LaBella, who fell to the ground bleeding profusely. The 26-year-old was hospitalized with a skull fracture and required facial reconstruction surgery, his mother told the Oregonian.
Oregon Public Broadcasting, which first identified LaBella as the victim, spoke to his friends, who confirmed he was a regular protester but was never violent or armed. Video of the graphic incident and its aftermath show that LaBella was holding a boombox over his head and did not appear threatening.
WARNING: These videos contain graphic violence and language.
The shooting drew immediate backlash from protesters and local and state leaders. “The serious injuries sustained by Donavan LaBella at the hands of a federal officer were unacceptable,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said. Wheeler, a Democrat, said he has no authority over the federal officials, but made clear he opposes their presence in the city outside of federal facilities.
“We do not need or want their help,” Wheeler said during a press conference on Monday. “The best thing they can do is stay inside their building, or leave Portland altogether.”
Oregon’s Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley has also criticized the federal officers for their actions and blasted the Trump administration for deploying them to the city.
Even Portland police officials have complained about the federal officers’ presence in the city. Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis told the Associated Press that the feds don’t coordinate with his agency, and complained “it does complicate things for us” to have them on the streets.
President Trump, however, heaped praise upon the federal forces just two days after they shot LaBella. “We’ve done a great job in Portland,” Trump said on Monday, speaking at the White House. “Portland was totally out of control. 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.”
The arrest of protesters by federal officers has sparked similar anger from residents and lawmakers. Mark Pettibone, a 29-year-old city resident, was among those arrested by the mysterious officers dressed in camouflage. Pettibone said he was walking home from a peaceful protest on Wednesday when officers jumped out of an unmarked gray minivan, detained him, and pushed him inside the van.
“I was terrified,” Pettibone told The Washington Post. “It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon.”
Pettibone said he was detained and searched, driven to the federal courthouse and placed in a holding cell, and eventually released after he refused to waive his Miranda rights and answer questions. Pettibone, whose story was first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, told the Post he still has no idea who arrested him or whether what happened to him can even legally be described as an arrest. He was given no record of an arrest and as far as he knows, he has not been charged with any crimes.
Pettibone’s case is not an isolated incident. Federal officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least July 14, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Videos posted to social media show officers driving up to people, detaining them with no explanation, and driving off.
These incidents have sparked concerns about the violation of civil liberties.
“What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States. Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping,” Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said in a statement on Friday. “The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.”
Some civil rights advocates believe the Trump administration is testing the limits of its executive power. “I think Portland is a test case,” Zakir Khan, a spokesman for the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Post. “They want to see what they can get away with before launching into other parts of the country.”
Other advocates and experts have similarly sounded the alarm on Twitter, even comparing the federal officials to the Gestapo of Nazi Germany.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, meanwhile, said she viewed Trump’s effort as a political stunt to distract from his failed leadership and try to buoy his sinking re-election prospects.
“This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety. The President is failing to lead this nation,” Brown said on Thursday. “Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government.”
“Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa,” she added in another tweet.
Despite this backlash, the Trump administration appears to be doubling down on its presence in the city, with Acting Homeland Security Chad Wolf arriving in the city on Thursday. Wolf has defended his officers’ actions, calling them “patriots” and calling protesters “violent extremists.”
“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 on Thursday. “Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community. This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day.”
The efforts of federal law enforcement, however, have proved ineffective: On Thursday, Portland residents gathered for their 50th—not 47th—straight night of protests.
Gov. Brown said she has asked Wolf to “remove all federal officers from our streets,” and said his response showed that he was “on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes.”
“He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way,” Brown added.
Merkley, meanwhile, had a harsher message for Trump on Friday.