US agents in Portland to pull back, but tensions remain
PORTLAND, Ore. - The Trump administration and Oregon leaders declared victory after it was announced that U.S. agents guarding a federal courthouse during violent demonstrations in Portland will pull back, but it wasn't clear the agreement will reduce tensions that have led to more than two months of protests.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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 they would go. He insisted 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.
Many demonstrators are peaceful, but smaller numbers have thrown fireworks, flares, rocks and ball bearings at federal agents, used green lasers to blind them and spread graffiti over the face of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse.
President Donald Trump earlier this month sent federal authorities as protests against racial injustice increasingly targeted U.S. government property, including the stately courthouse in downtown Portland. The deployment appeared to have the opposite effect, reinvigorating demonstrations with a new focus: getting rid of the federal presence.
The deescalation 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,” Wolf said on a call with reporters.
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.
Tyler Smith worked flipping burgers Wednesday afternoon at a stand that’s giving away free food to protesters in the park across from the courthouse. The stand was until recently known as Riot Ribs but is being run by new volunteers after a dispute over donated money.
“I think that’s a great idea," he said of the agreement to pull back the U.S. agents.
"I’ve been thinking this needs to be handled by the state or by the city for some time,” Smith said, adding that because Oregon state police troopers are Oregonian and they might take a softer approach with protesters.
The agreement also calls for the U.S. government to clean the graffiti off of the courthouse, which is federal property. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has previously said the federal government refused to clean the courthouse, contributing to the 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 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.
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.
Brown cautioned Wednesday that the lower visibility of the federal agents — and their ultimate departure — won’t immediately resolve the conflict at the courthouse.
“The violence, the property destruction, which includes burning of trash cans and throwing of rocks, that must stop," the governor told The Associated Press.
Many protesters want 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 federal agents was a chance to address that anger and begin to make improvements in community policing.
“This was a political theater for the Trump administration to bring federal troops into Portland streets. It was about winning political points with their base," she said.
Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Colleen Long contributed from Washington.
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus and Mike Balsamo at @mikebalsamo1.