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House leaders 'alarmed' feds policing protests; Oregon sues to stop arrests

Democrats in Congress are asking for an investigation into agents deployed during protests in Washington, D.C., and Portland, as Oregon sues to end federal arrests.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Top leaders in the U.S. House said Sunday they were “alarmed” by the Trump administration’s tactics against protesters in Portland, Oregon, and other cities, including Washington, D.C., and called on federal inspectors general investigate.

“This is a matter of utmost urgency,” wrote House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi, and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-New York, in a letter to the inspectors general of Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

The Democratic lawmakers are seeking an investigation “into the use of federal law enforcement agencies by the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security to suppress First Amendment protected activities in Washington, D.C., Portland, and other communities across the United States.”

The mayor of Oregon's largest city said Sunday the presence of federal agents is exacerbating tensions in Portland, which has seen nearly two months of nightly protests since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Speaking on CNN's ‘State of the Union,’ Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler said federal officers “are not wanted here. We haven't asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave.”

President Donald Trump has decried the demonstrations, and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf blasted the protesters as “lawless anarchists” in a visit to the city on Thursday.

“We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”

Late Saturday, protesters broke into a building, set it on fire and started dumpster fires, police said.

The fire at the Portland Police Association building was put out a short time later, Portland police said on Twitter. The department declared the gathering a riot, and began working to clear the downtown area.

“As the crowd was dispersed, several people in the crowd were arrested and officers were able to extinguish the fire. Portland Police did not use any CS gas,” the bureau said in a statement early Sunday.

Tear gas was deployed, according to pictures and video from the scene, but it was not necessarily CS gas. Fencing that had been placed around the federal courthouse had also been removed by protesters and made into barricades, police tweeted.

RELATED: Police declare riot in North Portland after union headquarters briefly set on fire

Police said protesters had gathered Saturday evening at the Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct, vandalizing patrol vehicles and taunting officers as they reported for work. Later, as police dispersed a group that had gathered near North Interstate Avenue, people threw rocks and paint-filled balloons at officers. Some were injured, the statement said.

Before the aggressive language and action from federal officials, the unrest had frustrated Wheeler and other local authorities, who had said a small cadre of violent activists were drowning out the message of peaceful protesters in the city. But Wheeler said the federal presence in the city is now exacerbating a tense situation.

"What we're seeing is a blatant abuse of police tactics by the federal government, Wheeler said Sunday.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued Homeland Security and the Marshals Service in federal court late Friday. The complaint said unidentified federal agents have grabbed people off Portland’s streets “without warning or explanation, without a warrant, and without providing any way to determine who is directing this action.”

Rosenblum said she was seeking a temporary restraining order to “immediately stop federal authorities from unlawfully detaining Oregonians.”

However, federal officers and Portland police advanced simultaneously on demonstrators to clear the streets early Saturday, making arrests as protesters threw bottles and pieces of metal fencing.

The action by Portland's police was condemned by Jo Ann Hardesty, a prominent member of the City Council. Hardesty said Saturday that local police “joined in the aggressive clampdown of peaceful protest.”

Hardesty also slammed Wheeler, telling the mayor he needed to better control local law enforcement. Hardesty, who oversees the city's fire department and other first-responder agencies, said in an open letter to Wheeler if "you can’t control the police, give me the Portland Police Bureau.”

In a statement Saturday, Portland Police said as they responded to the overnight protests some federal agencies took action “under their own supervision and direction.” Portland Police said city officers arrested seven people, and one officer sustained a minor injury.

Demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality have happened every day in Oregon's largest city since Minneapolis police killed Floyd on May 25. At 10 p.m. Saturday, several hundred peaceful demonstrators against police brutality rallied in front of downtown's Multnomah County Justice Center and the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, which has a newly built fence around it.

Credit: Doug Brown, ACLU of Oregon
Federal officers in Portland, Oregon. Photo by: Doug Brown, ACLU of Oregon.

Trump has decried the disorder, and the Homeland Security secretary blasted the protesters as “lawless anarchists” in a visit to the city.

“Keep your troops in your own buildings, or have them leave our city," Wheeler said Friday.

The state attorney general late Friday sued Homeland Security and the Marshals Service in federal court. The complaint says that unidentified federal agents have grabbed people off Portland’s streets “without warning or explanation, without a warrant, and without providing any way to determine who is directing this action.”

Rosenblum, Oregon's AG, said she was seeking a temporary restraining order to “immediately stop federal authorities from unlawfully detaining Oregonians.”

“The current escalation of fear and violence in downtown Portland is being driven by federal law enforcement tactics that are entirely unnecessary,” Rosenblum said in a statement.

The administration has enlisted federal agents, including the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and an elite U.S. Customs and Border Protection team based on the U.S.-Mexico border, to protect federal property.

But Oregon Public Broadcasting reported this week that some agents had been driving around in unmarked vans and snatching protesters from streets not near federal property, without identifying themselves.

Tensions also escalated after an officer with the Marshals Service fired a less-lethal round at a protester’s head on July 11, critically injuring him.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, issued a joint statement Saturday denouncing the Trump administration's actions.

“We live in a democracy, not a banana republic. We will not tolerate the use of Oregonians, Washingtonians –- or any other Americans -– as props in President Trump’s political games. The House is committed to moving swiftly to curb these egregious abuses of power immediately,” they said.

On Friday night, hundreds of people gathered for a vigil outside the downtown Justice Center, which is sandwiched between two federal buildings, including a courthouse, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Across the street, dozens of other protesters entered two recently closed city parks after dismantling chain-link fencing that blocked access.

Federal agents emerged from an office building next door and used impact munitions, stun grenades and tear gas to clear the area, the news organization reported. It said its journalists did not observe any incident that might have prompted the use of the weapons.

Federal officers deployed tear gas again just before midnight after a few protesters placed dismantled fencing in front of plywood doors covering the entrance of the federal courthouse.

Early Saturday, Portland police declared the gathering unlawful, saying protesters had piled fencing in front of the exits to the federal courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice Center and then shot off fireworks at the Justice Center.

Federal officers and local police then advanced simultaneously on the demonstrators to clear the streets, making arrests as protesters threw bottles and pieces of metal fence at police, the Portland Police Bureau said. Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell told reporters Friday that his officers are in contact with the federal agents, but that neither controls the others’ actions.

In a statement Saturday, Portland Police said as they responded to the overnight protests — which included people throwing projectiles at them — some federal agencies took action “under their own supervision and direction.” Portland Police said city officers arrested seven people, and one officer sustained a minor injury.

The statement said the city's police supports peaceful protests, and beginning Saturday night Department of Homeland Security police won't work in the Portland Police incident command center.

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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