Following the May 25 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests calling for an end to police violence targeting communities of color swept the country. Portland, Oregon, with a long history of street activism, has seen more than 50 consecutive days of mostly peaceful protests, with some vandalism and property destruction. However, in recent weeks masked, camouflaged federal officer without identification or badges, began arresting Portland protesters.
In one confrontation with this federal force on July 10, a peaceful protester, 26-year-old Donavan La Bella, suffered a fractured skull and required facial reconstruction surgery after he was struck in the head by impact munitions fired by an armor-clad officer.
On July 17, the U.S. attorney for the Oregon District called for an investigation into these federal agents, some deployed by Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security, who have been seen on video recordings arresting protesters and putting them into unmarked SUVs. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Ken Klippenstein, The Nation magazine’s Washington, D.C. correspondent, who talks about an internal memo he obtained which details the Trump regime’s coordinated program of domestic counterinsurgency that began in Portland. According to the president, this same federal force will soon be deployed to other U.S. cities.
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Chad Wolf, who is head of Department of Homeland Security, which contains within it Customs and Border Protection, has said that even though the mayor of Portland and a bunch of municipal figures along with two U.S. senators from Oregon have said they don’t want the support, he said, “It’s too bad. We’re going to do it anyways.” And that you know, causes a lot of resentment I would imagine that on the part of (the) Oregon government and Oregonians, but also confusion as to, you know, if the locale isn’t asking for the assistance, why on earth are they sending it? So what was given to me from a source of mine who was in the Department of Homeland Security, was a memo describing the length and scope and locations of this program — where they’re sending these federal agents to assist with law enforcement (and) what those details are. And what the memos show is that this is being done pursuant to President Trump’s executive order a couple of weeks ago about protecting the national monuments. You all remember when that was a big story. So that’s sort of where it’s drawing its authority from.
And, in response to that executive order by President Trump, the Department of Homeland Security established what is called a Protecting American Communities Task Force or PACT for short. So under this PACT task force, they are providing federal agents to assist with local law enforcement in response to perceived unrest or that kind of thing. And one of the big problems with this is according to the memo, it says that they will be deployed for an unspecified period of time, at an unspecified location and with drones ready and waiting should their assistance be needed. So they haven’t ruled out the use of drones. That’s another big issue because you remember in Minneapolis during the George Floyd protest, there was a big public outcry in response to the use of a predator drone to, you know, what seems like surveillance of demonstrators there. So unfortunately we have a profound lack of information from the administration about what exactly their goals are, how long this will last, and indeed what cities exactly will be deployed to, because there’s no indication that this will be limited to Portland. And in fact, there have been hints that, that this program will be expanded to other cities.
SCOTT HARRIS: Ken, I did want to ask you about the Democratic party, which controls the House of Representatives and their response to this secret, unaccountable federal force that’s in Portland and may be descending on other cities.
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Well, one constructive thing that happened, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s office reached out to me after my report and showed me a bit of legislation that they’re working on to require that, you know, every federal agent not only has their last name clearly emblazoned on their uniform, but also the agency that they work with. I think that’s a constructive proposal. I don’t want to be too harsh on them because it’s limited what they can do when they’re facing the full force of the federal government.
So what is Congress doing? I would say not enough, generally. One thing that the major power that Congress has in situations like this is the power of the purse strings, especially when we have the National Defense Authorization Act coming up for passage soon. They could very easily be suspending or cutting or, you know, doing something to send the message to DHS that they need to get their act together because that is the major power that they have. And even just at the committee level, they could be doing these things regardless of how the Senate might vote.
SCOTT HARRIS: I’ve been surprised by some of the very strong language that I’ve heard from Oregon senators and other commentators and politicians in general who are referring to what’s going on in Portland, Oregon. In some cases they’ve said, it’s the leading edge of a fascist crackdown on the Trump regime’s opponents. I’m not sure where you come down on that, but how do you gauge how serious to take this? Is this just an election year stunt? Or is this something that poses a more serious threat to our democracy?
KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Well, this is something I’ve thought about a lot. I think the distinction between authoritarian spectacle and then –you know, sort of genuine authoritarian practice sort of breaks down at a certain point. As we see with the number of authoritarian regimes, things that, you know, may be sort of media exercises or storytelling can very easily spill into actual policy and practice. So it may be, you know, all of the above. It may be just optics.
But the tendency is, something like this these things can spin out of control very quickly. Just to do a sort of thought experiment – suppose that, you know, there is a terror attack in Portland because people are angry and feel as though they’re being occupied by feds that don’t really have any right to be there. Well, then I would imagine that the Trump administration would be under a lot of pressure to come down even harder and that can escalate out of control. So even if it is just a practice in optics, I do think that could very easily escalate into something far more serious.
More of Ken Klippenstein’s The Nation articles, can be found here.