Police Violence Was a Problem In Portland Long Before Federal Agents Arrived

Local law enforcement tear-gassed and beat protesters and journalists.

People protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland on July 27.
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Police Violence Was a Problem In Portland Long Before Federal Agents Arrived

Local law enforcement tear-gassed and beat protesters and journalists.

The crackdown on protests in Portland, Oregon, by federal law enforcement agents has become a national scandal. Videos of federal officers tear-gassing and beating protesters have drawn fierce condemnation and sparked protests in cities around the country.

Last week, Governor Kate Brown announced that she had reached a deal with the Trump administration to remove the federal officers from Portland. (President Trump has since threatened to send in the National Guard if state police cannot “clean out this beehive of—of terrorists.”)

Brown, a Democrat, used the announcement to once again attack the presence of federal forces in her state. “These federal officers have acted as an occupying force, refused accountability, and brought violence and strife to our community,” she said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat who also serves as Portland’s police commissioner—and who was tear-gassed by the federal agents— echoed Brown’s comments. “The federal occupation of our community has brought a new kind of fear to our streets,” he tweeted.

But federal agents did not introduce state-sponsored violence to the city. It was already there long before they arrived. 

For weeks, the Portland Police Bureau beat, tear-gassed, and shot projectiles at protesters, journalists, and legal observers. According to an analysis conducted by a master’s student at Portland State University, local law enforcement deployed tear gas more than 100 times from the end of May to the end of June. As Portland police repeatedly attacked demonstrators with tear gas, Wheeler refused to ban it. The frequent deployment of tear gas earned Wheeler the nickname “Tear Gas Teddy.” Wheeler’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

As federal agents leave the city, advocates and lawyers in Portland are determined to keep the focus squarely where they think it belongs: on the violence perpetuated by the local police force. 

“Almost all of policing is local. It’s an anomaly for the federal police to be involved,” said Elliott Young, a professor of history at Lewis & Clark College and co-chairperson of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing. “Our problem is really the local police.” 

Gregory McKelvey, vice chairperson of the Black Caucus of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said he has participated in the rebellion and been gassed by both federal and local law enforcement. “Your skin burns for hours,” said McKelvey, who is also a consultant for the campaign of Sarah Iannarone, one of Wheeler’s opponents in the 2020 mayoral race. “It then immobilizes you because you cannot see. It is hard to breathe.”

“Republican tear gas hurts just the same as Democrat tear gas does,” he said. 

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In early July, the federal government launched “Operation Diligent Valor” to suppress the Black Lives Matter protests that began in Portland after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Protesters and journalists have documented a litany of human rights violations perpetrated by federal agents:

On July 11, federal officers with the U.S. Marshals Service shot Donavan LaBella, who was protesting across the street from the Hatfield Courthouse, with an impact munition. He suffered a fractured skull and had to undergo facial reconstructive surgery. His long-term prognosis remains unknown, according to news reports

On July 15, two federal agents in camouflage, masks, and helmets grabbed Mark Pettibone as he was walking home from a protest. The men threw him in an unmarked van and took him to the Hatfield Courthouse. He was kept in a holding cell and then released. He was not charged with a crime. 

On July 18, federal agents shot at a protester who was nude—wearing only a mask and stocking cap—with pepper-spray balls. 

Last month, Don’t Shoot Portland, Wall of Moms, individual protesters, and the Oregon attorney general filed lawsuits alleging that federal agents have violated the civil rights of Oregon residents.  

“Our clients are being targeted with tear gas and pepper spray and other munitions because they’re there to speak up for Black Lives Matter,” said Jessica Marsden, counsel for Protect Democracy, which filed the suit with other attorneys on behalf of Don’t Shoot Portland, Wall of Moms, and demonstrators. 

Wheeler demanded that federal agents leave the city, saying that their presence “appears to be a blatant abuse of police authority by the Trump administration.” He signed a letter to congressional leadership with five other mayors that condemned the federal response. In the mayors’ joint statement, they called it “unacceptable, un-American and unconstitutional.” 

“These federal agents are not trained in modern community policing, crowd control, or de-escalation strategies,” their statement reads. “They do not know the communities in which they are operating, and they are not welcome there.”

But Wheeler’s admonitions of Portland’s police force have been more nuanced, even though they abused and denigrated protesters for weeks before federal agents arrived. Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, called protesters “criminals” and “rioters.”

Local and federal law enforcement have also obfuscated protesters’ demands. “As riots continue, it is obvious to everyone that this is no longer about George Floyd, social justice, or police reform,” said Turner. “This is about a group of individuals intent on causing injury, chaos, and destruction.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr made similar remarks when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee in defense of federal actions in Portland. 

“Largely absent from these scenes of destruction are even superficial attempts by the rioters to connect their actions to George Floyd’s death or any legitimate call for reform,” he said. 

As Willamette Week noted in its report on Barr’s remarks, the protesters have articulated their demands. They’re calling for Wheeler to resign, for the police budget to be defunded by 50 percent, for all charges against protesters to be dropped, and for federal agents to leave the city. 

Federal and local law enforcement’s actions have also largely mirrored each other. Don’t Shoot Portland sued the city for the Portland Police Bureau’s use of tear-gas against protesters. The judge hearing the case found that there was “evidence that officers have violated the constitutional rights of peaceful protestors,” and, on June 9, granted the plaintiffs a temporary restraining order, requiring that tear gas be used only if the lives of the public or police are at risk. Three days earlier, Wheeler had directed the Portland police to avoid using tear gas “unless there is a serious and immediate threat to life safety, and there is no other viable alternative for dispersal.” But tear gas continued to be deployed against protesters throughout June. (On June 30, Governor Brown signed a bill that restricts police from deploying tear gas unless police declare a riot.)

The ACLU of Oregon and the law firm BraunHagey & Borden LLP filed suit against the city, Portland Police Bureau officers, and other agencies working in concert, on behalf of legal observers and journalists. 

“On June 6, the police beat me with a baton and threatened me with tear gas,” journalist Sergio Olmos said in a statement for the lawsuit. Olmos said his press pass was visible and he was wearing a vest that said, “PRESS” on both sides.  

Another journalist, Suzette Smith, who covered the protests from June 7 to June 20, said in her statement, “Every night, at around ten or eleven, I know what’s coming—flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, arrests—and it makes me want to leave. The police have consistently been clear that they do not care that I am there as a member of the press. Consistently, when I hold my press badge up, they say ‘I don’t care about press.’”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service were later added to the suit as defendants. 

Journalists Lesley McLam and Cory Elia filed suit against, among others, the Portland mayor, Multnomah County sheriffs, and the city alleging that while reporting on the demonstrations on June 30, they were both tackled, arrested, and then detained at the Multnomah County Detention Center. 

Portland-based activist McKelvey places much of the blame for these abuses with Mayor Wheeler. “He has the power to have not done this,” McKelvey said. “This is on him.”

On Thursday, Wheeler apologized for the use of tear gas by local police officers against “non-violent demonstrators.”  

“It should never have happened,” he said. “I take personal responsibility for it, and I’m sorry.”  

Last week, Wheeler voted in favor of a ballot initiative that, if approved by Portland voters, will create a new oversight agency for the police. After protesters’ demands, the police budget has also been reduced.

“There’s been some efforts at reforms and shrinking the police,” said Young. “But Wheeler has definitely been dragged. He has not been leading these efforts.”

Calls for Wheeler to step down have become a rallying cry among demonstrators. More than 13,000 people have signed a petition for him to resign. When he attended the demonstration last month, protesters chanted, “Fuck Ted Wheeler,” according to Oregon Public Radio

“It has been incredibly discouraging to see our mayor on national TV as some sort of resistance hero just because he is willing to say that he wants Donald Trump out of Portland,” said McKelvey. “What it feels like he is saying is, ‘You don’t get to gas my people. I get to gas my people.’”

This story has been updated to include Greg McKelvey’s role in Sarah Iannarone’s mayoral campaign.

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