PORTLAND, Ore. – Mardy Widman has watched protests against racial injustice unfold in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, for more than seven weeks but stayed away because, at age 79, she feared contracting the coronavirus.
But that calculus changed for Widman when President Donald Trump sent federal law enforcement agents to the liberal city to quell violent demonstrations — a tactic he's said he'll use for other cities. On Monday, a masked Widman was in the street with more than 1,000 other Portland residents — a far larger crowd than the city had seen in recent days as it entered its eighth week of nightly protests.
“It’s like a dictatorship," Widman, a grandmother of five, said, holding up a sign that read: “Grammy says: Please feds, leave Portland.”
“I mean, that he can pick on our city mostly because of the way we vote and make an example of it for his base is very frightening," she said.
Far from tamping down the unrest, the presence of federal agents — and particularly allegations they have whisked people away in unmarked cars without probable cause — has given new momentum and a new focus to protests that had begun to devolve into smaller, chaotic crowds. The use of federal agents against the will of local officials has also set up the potential for a constitutional crisis, which could escalate if Trump sends federal agents elsewhere.
Federal forces were deployed to Portland in early July, and tensions have risen since: On July 11, a protester was hospitalized with critical injuries after a U.S. Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a round of less-lethal ammunition.
Then, anger flared again over the weekend after video surfaced of a federal agent hitting a Navy veteran repeatedly with a baton while another agent sprays him in the face with pepper spray. Richard Cline, principal deputy director of the Federal Protective Service, told reporters Tuesday that the officers are part of the Marshals Service and that the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating.
Crowds in Portland had recently numbered fewer than 100 people but swelled to more than 1,000 over the weekend — and they're once again attracting a broader base in a city that's increasingly outraged.
Federal agents again used force to scatter protesters early Tuesday and deployed tear gas and rubber bullets as some banged on the doors of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse and tried to pull plywood off the shuttered entryway. The boarded-up courthouse, which has been a focus of protests, is now covered with graffiti.
Portland police said some protesters lit fires in the street and tried several times to set them at the courthouse doors.
“It is time for the Trump troops to go home and focus their attention on other activities,” Democratic Gov. Kate Brown said on MSNBC.
State and local authorities didn’t ask for federal help and are awaiting a decision on a lawsuit seeking to restrain the federal agents’ actions. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in court papers that masked federal agents have arrested people on the street, far from the courthouse, with no probable cause and whisked them away in unmarked cars.
The federal government was sued again Tuesday by the Western States Center, two state representatives and others who argued that agents violated protesters’ 10th Amendment rights by engaging in police activities designated to local and state governments.
Federal agencies defended the actions in Portland. Some in the crowd this weekend used radio frequency jammers and shot pellet and airsoft guns to injure officers, according to the Justice Department. It's also investigating “suspicious devices" outside the courthouse that could have caused "serious harm to those in the building,” spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
Some of the demonstrators also tried to barricade federal officers inside the courthouse and set the building on fire, Kupec said.
In a news conference in Washington, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said agents have been assaulted with lasers, bats, fireworks, bottles and other weapons and “yet the city of Portland takes little to no action.”
Wolf said the agency has clear authority to protect government property and detain people suspected of threatening personnel or damaging that property. He disputed that unidentified agents have made arrests, noting they have the word “police” on their uniforms and that officers wear camouflage like they do when working on the border.
“These police officers are not storm troopers, they are not Gestapo. That description is offensive,” Wolf said.
He said federal agencies have made 43 arrests since July 4.
While U.S. authorities can enforce federal laws on federal property, state and local officials say the agents have operated beyond their jurisdiction. Constitutional law experts said federal officers’ actions are “unprecedented” and a “red flag” in what could become a test case of states’ rights as the Trump administration expands federal policing.
Homeland Security plans to deploy about 150 of its agents to Chicago to help local law enforcement deal with a spike in crime, according to an official with direct knowledge of the plans who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly. The Trump administration also sent more than 100 federal law enforcement officers to Kansas City, Missouri, to help quell a rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there.
For days after the death of George Floyd — a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck — protests against racial injustice in Portland attracted thousands and were largely peaceful, though smaller groups vandalized federal property and police buildings and clashed violently with authorities.
Portland police used tear gas on multiple occasions until a federal court order banned them from doing so without declaring a riot. Now, anger is building as federal officers deploy tear gas.
As crowds have swelled again, most prominent are the Wall of Moms and PDX Dad Pod, self-described parents who have shown up by the hundreds each night since the weekend, wearing yellow T-shirts and bicycle helmets and ski goggles for protection.
Some wielded leaf blowers Monday night to help disperse tear gas as they marched down a downtown street.
“It's appalling to me, and it's a unifying thing. Nobody wants them here,” said Eryn Hoerster, a mother of two children, ages 4 and 8, who was attending her first nighttime protest.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long, Ben Fox and Michael Balsamo in Washington and Sara Cline in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to correct that Wolf spoke Tuesday, not Wednesday.
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus.