Federal agents who have been guarding the U.S. courthouse during violent protests in downtown Portland, Oregon, will begin withdrawing in the next 24 hours, Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday, though Trump administration officials said some would remain in the building and the entire contingent would stay in the city on standby.
While each side declared victory in the political fight that the deployment touched off, it was not clear if the complex agreement would reduce tensions on the streets of Portland, where protests have been staged nightly for more than two months. Many demonstrators are peaceful, but smaller numbers have thrown fireworks, flares, rocks and ball bearing at federal agents, used green lasers to blind them and spread graffiti over the face of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse.
The deal also seemed likely to further muddle the situation by adding yet another law enforcement agency to the mix — the Oregon State Police.
President Donald Trump earlier this month sent agents to the city from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Marshals Service as protests against racial injustice increasingly targeted federal property, including the stately U.S. courthouse in downtown Portland. The deployment appeared to have the opposite effect, reinvigorating demonstrations with a new focus: getting rid of the federal presence.
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Brown said agents with CBP and ICE will begin leaving the city’s downtown area on Thursday, but Acting Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf wouldn't specify where the agents would go. He insisted that a federal presence would remain in Portland until the Trump administration was assured the agreement was working and the Oregon State Police was sufficiently protecting federal property.
The plan calls for the U.S. Marshals Service and Federal Protective Service agents to remain inside a fence set up around the federal courthouse, along with some state police, to keep protesters out. State police will also be outside the fence to keep protesters back.
“I want to be clear about this, the entire DHS law enforcement presence in Portland will remain in Portland, whether they’re staying inside the courthouse, next door or a different location, obviously I’m not going to get into that," Wolf said on a call with reporters. "If ... we have indicators and warnings that (the state police) deployment is not working, that entire DHS law enforcement presence is available.”
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Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said his agency would deploy a special operations team and some uniformed troopers to the courthouse for a two-week rotation. The agency hopes its efforts will allow the protective fence to be removed and "restore a semblance of normalcy, while meeting community expectations and our obligations to protect the federal property,” Hampton said, adding that the troopers were Oregonians.
The agreement also calls for the U.S. government to clean the graffiti off the courthouse, which is federal property. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has previously said the federal government refused to clean the courthouse, saying that contributed to the mistaken impression that the entire city was under siege.
Trump declared victory shortly after the announcement, tweeting that federal agents prevented Portland from being “burned and beaten to the ground.” The conflicts between protesters and the federal agents have been limited to roughly two square blocks around the courthouse and have not affected the rest of the city, which has been much more subdued amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Wheeler, meanwhile, also claimed a win in a lengthy Twitter post.
“The federal occupation of our community has brought a new kind of fear to our streets. Federal agents nearly killed a demonstrator, and their presence has led to increased violence and vandalism in our downtown core,” he said. One protester was critically injured July 11 and required facial reconstructive surgery after he was struck in the face by a non-lethal round fired by a federal agent.
Wednesday's announcement was an abrupt about-face from just two days earlier, when the U.S. government said it might send more federal agents to Portland instead.
In fact, the Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security had been weighing this week whether to send in more agents. The marshals were taking steps to identify up to 100 additional personnel who could go in case they were needed to relieve or supplement those who work in Oregon, spokesperson Drew Wade said.
Like many other protests nationwide touched off by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Portland demonstrations sought to highlight and call for an end to racial injustice, but they had increasingly focused on federal property even before the U.S. agents arrived. The deployment of federal agents — against the wishes of both state and city officials — touched off a debate about the role of the federal government and ended up drawing more Portlanders into the streets after protests had begun to devolve into smaller, though still violent, rallies.
Brown cautioned Wednesday that the lower visibility of the federal agents — and their ultimate departure — won't immediately resolve the conflict at the courthouse.
“I have grown increasingly concerned at the nightly confrontation between local community members and federal officers. We need to recognize that the protests in Portland are not solely about the federal presence," Brown said.
Many protesters want to see the Portland Police Bureau defunded and are angry that officers used tear gas on protesters multiple times before federal agents arrived. Brown said the departure of the agents was a chance to address that anger and begin to make improvements in community policing.
Protesters have tried almost every night to tear down a fence erected to protect the courthouse. Authorities this week reinforced the fence by putting concrete highway barriers around it.
Demonstrators near the courthouse Wednesday were met before dawn with tear gas, pepper balls and stun grenades fired by agents.