Federal officers prepare to disperse a crowd of protestors outside the Multnomah County Justice Center on July 17, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Mason Trinca/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The top official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday defended the deployment of federal officers to counter protesters in Portland, Oregon, saying it was comparable to protecting the U.S. Capitol from attack.
“That’s all we’re trying to do in Portland — protecting a federal facility, a seat of justice,” said Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf at a Senate hearing, the second this week in which senators probed the use of force by DHS to deal with the protests.
President Donald Trump dispatched DHS agents to Portland this summer to prevent harm to federal property — and the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in particular — and respond to demonstrations that he has characterized as stemming from violent extremist groups.
Protests for racial justice and equality gained momentum in May across the country following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while in police custody.
Federal agents have used forceful tactics, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, against protesters in Portland. And viral videos showed officers in military fatigues grabbing protesters and taking them away in unmarked cars.
The administration has also threatened to send federal agents to other Democratic-led cities.
At Thursday’s hearing, Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott labeled the protests as “disgusting” and suggested that Wolf has simply been doing his job, a line of questioning that goes against charges that the federal government’s presence in the city is tantamount to authoritarian rule.
On July 29, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the Trump administration has acted as an “occupying force” that “refused accountability and brought violence and strife” to the city. That day, she announced the administration had agreed to a phased withdrawal of the officers.
GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, opened the hearing with a video depicting violent actions by protesters in Portland and other U.S. cities. He said the video showed how “peaceful” protests have devolved into criminal behavior and anarchy.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, said the situation in Portland required a response but called the agency’s “heavy-handed tactics” there unacceptable and said they caused additional chaos. “Instead of working with state and local partners, you sent a surge of federal personnel who did not have proper training to deescalate a situation.”
Peters also said the agency’s zealous focus on protecting federal property is distracting it from the threat posed by domestic terrorism and white supremacy groups, which he said hasn’t received sufficient attention from the agency.
“Terrorism is terrorism, whether it fits the ideological narrative of DHS leaders or not,” he said.
Peters also questioned Wolf’s assertion that local police officers didn’t help federal officers defend the courthouse in any significant way and didn’t partner with federal agents. “There are always two sides to every story, and we need to hear that story,” he said.
Wolf detailed episodes of violence against federal officers but took care to distinguish protests that have taken place between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. from those during other hours of the day, which he said have been peaceful. He said that he had no choice over whether to send officers to the city to quell violence after midnight, saying his responsibility to protect federal property is “a direction from the Congress.”
Wolf also noted that hundreds of officers have been injured on the job.
In response to questions from Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, he said he does not know of any officers who have been disciplined for using excessive force against protesters but is aware that civil rights complaints have been filed over the matter.
He also took issue with media comparisons of the federal officers to “storm troopers” and the “Gestapo” — the secret police used in Nazi Germany. Most reasonable Americans and law enforcement officers know that is “an absolute lie,” Wolf said.
In his questioning, Scott focused on a lack of sympathy for the federal officers. “Have you heard any [national politicians] say, ‘Gosh, I’m worried about your law enforcement officers losing their vision?’” he asked, to which Wolf said he hadn’t. Wolf singled out silence from the Oregon congressional delegation in particular when it comes to sympathy for federal agents.
Wolf’s testimony echoed similar sentiments from the agency’s second-in-command, Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, during a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday. Cuccinelli characterized some of the protests as “mob rule” and said federal agents have the authority to exert force if violent protests break out.
The department refutes claims that unidentified officers arrested people in Portland or infringed on constitutional right to peaceable assembly. It also maintains that federal officers have the right to arrest people for damaging federal property or attacking federal agents.
Inspectors general at DHS and the U.S. Department of Justice, meanwhile, have announced they are launching investigations into the Portland protests, according to the Washington Post.
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