As racial justice protests entered a third month across the U.S., Portland, Oregon has become ground zero for President Trump’s policy of deploying federal paramilitary forces to cities, to enact his “law and order” re-election campaign strategy. These federal agents, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security have indiscriminately shot tear gas and impact munitions at mostly peaceful protesters, journalists and legal observers. Clad in camouflage without identifying insignia, these forces have used unmarked vehicles to abduct protesters off the street without using legally recognized arrest protocols.
The presence of these federal forces has provoked an increase in the number of protesters in the streets around Portland’s federal courthouse who are demanding a withdrawal of what they view as an invading army. Mothers, veterans, teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and dads with leaf blowers pushing out clouds of teargas have coordinated their mutual defense in what can only be described as a grassroots rebellion against illegitimate authoritarian power.
Trump has since deployed federal law-enforcement agents to Kansas City, Seattle, and Chicago, and has pledged to send these forces to cities across the U.S., including New York, Detroit and Philadelphia. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, who talks about growing concern over the constitutionality of these federal agents’ actions, and the organized resistance to their presence in Portland.
MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: I think when we look at what the Trump administration is doing in response to this massive movement across the United States, it is actually backfiring spectacularly on the Trump administration. But that’s not to say that it is harmless and without extreme danger and cost. It is shocking. It is an outrageous violation of fundamental, constitutional rights. But it is at the same time, really important to recognize that quite frankly, they’re just not succeeding in repressing this movement. And that was obviously the goal.
SCOTT HARRIS: What can your organization, the Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, some of the other civil liberties legal organizations do to intervene here? Is there anything that could be done in the short term?
MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: Yes. I mean, there are, and we are working on these matters: Litigation to get injunctions against police tactics, against police conduct. I mean, this is where it’s inadequate just to go to a court and say, “Oh, we think there’s a general violation of the First Amendment or the Fourth Amendment.” You have to be able to point out with particularity what’s happening. So for those legal groups that actually are on the ground — and we are always on the streets — we are always out with people and demonstrating. And that’s true of a lot of, you know, civil rights lawyers who are really on front lines. It’s not just about being there for the show of being there. It’s because we believe in the issues, but also because it is the one way that we can actually observe what the police are doing with specificity to be able to effectively litigate.
And that’s what we’ve historically done at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund — is to be able to see these are the tactics they’re using. And we need to be able to get an order that they can’t do a particular tactic. That they can’t trap and detain people, that they can’t use “less” lethal weapons, that they can’t use indiscriminate weapons against people engaged in First Amendment activity, that they can’t engage in mass arrest, that they have to, you know, they can’t violate particularly “probable cause.” But this deployment, I believe is unconstitutional, illegal. To the extent the Department of Homeland Security has authority to protect a federal building — that doesn’t extend to just marching down municipal streets and arresting people and brutalizing people. They don’t have that authority. It extends well beyond what their statutory authority is to protect a federal building.
SCOTT HARRIS: Mara, I did want to talk about the propaganda and the intent here on the part of Trump and (Attorney General William) Barr. It seems pretty clear that President Trump wants to use this deployment of federal forces to cities like Portland to get some videotape of protesters battling police, fires being set, other chaos in the streets that are broadcast on right-wing networks like Fox News to drive home his election year message that the left in this country is threatening the suburbs with chaos. I mean, that seems to be verbatim what Trump is trying to get across. What should protest organizers be careful with in terms of not falling in a trap of the intentions of the Trump regime and their propaganda strategy?
MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: The Trump administration certainly wants to be able to have images of conflagration that as you said, can be spun on Fox News and try and threaten people that, you know, their neighborhoods are going to burn down if they don’t have a “law and order president” instituting his form of martial law on the streets of America. That said, the reality that’s happening here is, “Well, that historically has worked every time we’ve had a resurgence of a social justice movement.” You always have this propaganda coming from local officials, from police chiefs, from whoever is speaking out to say, “Well, you know, we welcome the good First Amendment protesters, but then there are going to be these other people. And that’s why we have to have police repression basically because we have to, you know, save your neighborhood from burning.” And that’s a common, common theme.
But the thing that’s happening in this time is that people are really seeing that the vast amount of damage and harm and bodily injury and really horrific attacks are coming from the police. That’s why more and more people are coming out and coming out from all walks of life, because they’re really seeing, I think for some parts of the nation’s populace – for the first time, they’re seeing a level of police abuse that they haven’t seen before or haven’t understood before. And so that’s, what’s really turning the tide – is the police violence, which is the vast amount of violence that’s occurring here is being exposed. And people, instead of being afraid and chilled are saying that they’re going to stand up and fight back against it.
For more information, visit the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund at justiceonline.org.