Oregon Sues Federal Agencies For Grabbing Up Protesters Off The Streets

Mason Trinca, Getty Images

Federal officers use tear gas and other crowd dispersal munitions on protesters outside the Multnomah County Justice Center on July 17, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

Updated at 4:15 a.m. ET Sunday

Protests in Portland, Ore., continued through early Sunday morning, following the Oregon Department of Justice’s announcement it would be suing several federal agencies for civil rights abuses in the state. Demonstrations have taken place in the city for weeks following the police killing of George Floyd in May.

Protesters dismantled fences in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center and Hatfield Federal Courthouse. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon had previously said the fences were in place to “de-escalate tensions between protesters and federal law enforcement officers” and allow repairs on the buildings to begin.

Demonstrators also set fire to the Portland Police Association building, according to Portland police. The fire was put out later in the evening, and police declared a riot in the area.

Tear gas and flash bangs were used on protesters and arrests were made, according to videos and photos from the scene posted on social media.

The Oregon Department of Justice announced Saturday it would be suing several federal agencies for civil rights abuses, and state prosecutors will potentially pursue criminal charges against a federal officer who seriously injured a protester.

The federal lawsuit names the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, the United States Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Protective Service, agencies that have had a role in stepped-up force used against protesters since early July. The state filed the lawsuit late Friday night.

It lists defendants as John Does 1-10 because the “identity of the officers is not known, nor is their agency affiliation,” the lawsuit states.

According to Oregon DOJ spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson, the suit accuses the agencies of engaging “in unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregon citizens by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.”

State attorneys are asking a judge to issue a temporary restraining order that “would immediately stop federal authorities from unlawfully detaining Oregonians,” the DOJ said in a release.

The lawsuit is asking a judge to find that the federal agencies’ tactics are indeed unlawful and violate Oregonians’ First, Fourth and Fifth amendment constitutional rights.

It is also asking that federal agents and officers identify themselves and their agencies before detaining or arresting any person, explain to the person why they’re being arrested or detained, and not arrest any person without probable cause or a warrant.

The agency said that its Criminal Justice Division, joined by Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, has opened a criminal investigation in the case of Donavan LaBella, a demonstrator who was shot in the head with an impact munition last Saturday night, Edmunson said.

Those munitions are intended to be aimed below the waist.

LaBella’s mom said she believes the officer aimed at LaBella’s head.”He’s 6-foot-5,” said Desiree Labella, referring to her son. “He has to be a terribly trained marksman to be off by 3 feet to hit him in the forehead right between the eyes. If he’s that bad of a shot at such a short distance, he shouldn’t have a gun.”

The lawsuit, which is the second announced against federal authorities on Friday, comes after reporting by Oregon Public Broadcasting that revealed federal agents have detained peaceful protesters using unmarked vehicles, with little explanation or indication of which agency they belong to or why people are being taken into custody.

“I share the concerns of our state and local leaders — and our Oregon U.S. Senators and certain Congressional representatives — that the current escalation of fear and violence in downtown Portland is being driven by federal law enforcement tactics that are entirely unnecessary and out of character with the Oregon way. These tactics must stop,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement.

The state’s lawsuit specifically highlighted the case of Mark Pettibone, a demonstrator who was snatched off the street by federal officers in the early hours of July 16, put into a van and brought to the federal courthouse.

“On information and belief, defendants did not have a warrant to seize Pettibone or the other citizens who have been detained, and will continue to seize individuals off the street without a warrant, in the absence of an injunction,” the lawsuit reads.

Because the federal agents were not identified and their vehicles were unmarked, the lawsuit states that Oregonians could be at risk of kidnapping by “militias and other civilian ‘volunteers’ taking it onto themselves to pull peaceful protesters into their cars, in a manner that resembles the federal actions described.”

Pettibone echoed that concern in his declaration within the lawsuit.

“I did not know whether the men were police or far-right extremists, who, in my experience, frequently don military-like outfits and harass left-leaning protesters in Portland,” Pettibone said.

Pettibone’s arrest has spurred national attention as President Trump has made Portland a focal point in recent days, saying local elected leaders have been overly lenient on protesters. On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf flew into Portland to tour the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, the federal facility where graffiti and other vandalism has been frequent in seven weeks of protests over police violence and racial injustice.

Since arriving just before July 4, the officers from Customs and Border Protection’s elite U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit and the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group have guarded Portland’s federal courthouse. They’ve also assisted the Portland police in clearing protesters from city streets.

City, state and congressional leaders have criticized the federal force’s use of weapons against protesters and have demanded their departure.

“The federal administration has chosen Portland to use their scare tactics to stop our residents from protesting police brutality and from supporting the Black Lives Matter movement,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “Every American should be repulsed when they see this happening. If this can happen here in Portland, it can happen anywhere.”

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