Mariah Bruce is a business student and freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.
The Controversial Decision to Deploy Federal Agents
This week, the Trump administration dispatched federal agents to the city of Portland, Oregon, a city deemed to be plagued by violent crime. This unprecedented move has garnered criticism for its use of force against activists protesting police brutality. President Trump has threatened to “surge” federal law enforcement to counter the protesters across the U.S., stating that local politicians have not done enough to address alleged “waves of crime” in various cities (McCarthy).
President Trump has previously expressed his opposition to the protests, calling it a “radical and dangerous movement to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” and calling on local politicians to get their cities back “under control" (Yokley). The protest against police brutality aims to reduce police department budgets, improve officer training, and eliminate qualified immunity. Many of the movement’s supporters advocate for the arrest of those responsible for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and many people of color who have died at the hands of trained law enforcement officers.
What are the Feds Doing in Portland?
According to President Trump, the deployment of federal agents will be “into communities plagued by violent crime,” as part of the Justice Department’s controversial Operation Legend. Attorney General William Barr notes that these “street agents” would come from the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals Service, Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and would be working to solve murders and take down violent gangs (Romo). Video footage from the nightly protests in downtown Portland shows federal troops in camouflage uniforms with no insignia, drawing sharp criticism from concerned community members and onlookers. One particularly harrowing account told of agents grabbing a peaceful protester off the street before throwing them into an unmarked van and placing them under arrest (Yancey-Bragg).
These federal agents claim to be protecting the federal courthouse building located downtown, but community members and local politicians agree that throwing teargas at protesters and snatching them off the street is going too far. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is in the process of suing the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies for violation of the U.S. Constitution (Egan). Oregon Governor Kate Brown called the move by the Trump administration a "blatant abuse of power,” and even Mayor Ted Wheeler (also the Portland Police Commissioner, cough cough) called it, “an attack on our democracy" (Martin).
"For years black people in the Albina area have been bullied and victimized by our so-called law-Men…it seems as if any time a police gets the urge to punch something, they snatch the first available black man they see and use him to satisfy their savage egos"
— Rachel James, Portland resident
A Dark History of Racial Violence
Perhaps tensions are extra high in Portland considering the Portland Police Bureau’s racist history and questionable relationship with the KKK. The local police have a violent and gruesome history with the black community of Portland. In 1974, Rachel James, a resident of Portland’s Albina neighborhood, wrote of the police brutality she had witnessed in her neighborhood:
For years black people in the Albina area have been bullied and victimized by our so-called law-Men…it seems as if any time a police gets the urge to punch something, they snatch the first available black man they see and use him to satisfy their savage egos (Serbulo).
Oregon was the first state to include overtly racist language in its constitution, in a law passed in 1844 excluding black people from living in the territory. These exclusionary laws provided a basis for a so-called “white utopia” centered around the exclusion and brutalization of people of color. Walidah Imarisha, a Black studies educator, believes Oregon is a useful case study for the rest of the nation, “the only thing unique about Oregon is it was bold enough to write it down,” she says (Camhi).
Peaceful Protest or Violent Riot?
President Trump's gross misuse of power in deploying federal agents to Portland is ironic considering it is the very thing the protesters are protesting against. But the question of whether some or all of these protesters are breaking the law is being hotly debated on internet forums around the world. Those who oppose the movement refer to protesters as rioters or looters and are doing a pretty successful job at steering the conversation away from the larger issue of systemic racism, framing protesters as members of a violent gang. People from Portland who have attended the protesters argue that the protests remain largely peaceful until law enforcement arrives, who then instigate the action by tossing tear gas into the crowd.
There is some misinformation about the difference between a riot and a protest, and many people are unsure if either is even effective at creating real change. Many people across the nation are experiencing protests and riots in their own cities for the first time. Change can be scary, but what we are hearing is the voices of people who have been silenced for far too long. An unimaginable feeling of pain and suffering passed on through generations that the majority of Americans will never understand. Reverend Charles Harrison says, “a riot is when people take it to another extent and they do damage to property or people…it’s showing that people are fed up" (Johnson).
Protests and riots send a unified message to end racism, but many people don’t understand the history behind it. Evava Pietri, Ph.D. and psychology professor is worried about how 2020 will read in history books. “I don’t want [it] to say the protests were violent based on looting because I just don’t think that is the case either…that would be a huge mistake because there are so many people protesting peacefully" (Johnson).
Protests against racial injustice are nothing new in this country, and the right of the people to peaceably assemble is written into the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Protesting has been an avenue for social change in this country since its founding and a critical part of our nation’s democracy. Trump’s deployment of federal agents in Portland this week is a disgustingly militaristic and fearmongering move - a blatant attack on states’ rights. Calling the decision part of “President Trump’s racist agenda,” the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington stated, “turning federal forces against racial justice protesters is what abuse of power looks like" (Higgins).
Camhi, T. (2020, July 31). A Racist History Shows Why Oregon is Still so White. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-white-history-racist-foundations-black-exclusion-laws/
Egan, Lauren. (2020, July 18). Oregon Attorney General sues DHS amid reports of unlawful detainment of Portland protesters. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/oregon-attorney-general-sues-dhs-amid-reports-unlawful-detainment-portland-n1234297
Higgins, E. (2020, July 22). 'Abuse of Power': Trump and Barr to Deploy More Federal Agents to US Cities. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/22/abuse-power-trump-and-barr-deploy-more-federal-agents-us-cities
Johnson, D. (2020, June 03). Differences behind protests and riots, the history behind them. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://fox59.com/news/differences-behind-protests-and-riots-the-history-behind-them/
Martin, B. (2020). Resistance Studies Initiative. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from http://www.umass.edu/resistancestudies/aggregator/sources/1Links
McCarthy, A. (2020, July 23). President Trump Announces a Federal 'Surge' against Violent-Crime Wave in Cities. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/07/trump-announces-federal-surge-against-violent-crime-wave/)
Romo, V. (2020). Trump Expands Deployment of Federal Agents To End 'Explosion of Shootings'. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.wnpr.org/post/trump-expands-deployment-federal-agents-end-explosion-shootings
Serbulo, L. C., & Gibson, K. J. (2013). Black and Blue: Police-Community Relations in Portland's Albina District, 1964–1985. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 114(1), 6. doi:10.5403/oregonhistq.114.1.0006. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jgeneeduc.67.1-2.0122?seq=1
Yancey-Bragg, N., Phillips, K., & Schnell, L. (2020, July 23). 'Secret police force': Feds reportedly pull Portland protesters into unmarked vehicles, stirring outrage. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/07/17/reports-federal-officers-detain-portland-protesters-unmarked-vans/5457471002/
Yokley, E. (2020, June 17). Movement to 'Defund The Police' Isn't Popular, but Voters Are More Open to Its Goal. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://morningconsult.com/2020/06/17/defund-the-police-community-programs-polling/
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.