What the heck is going on in Portland?

In Portland, Oregon, federal cops from multiple agencies dressed in military fatigues, and wearing “police” patches but no badges or identifying insignia, acting under a Trump executive order, are snatching protesters from the streets, hustling them into unmarked vehicles, and taking them to holding cells in the federal courthouse where, after a brief detention and questioning, they’re usually released without charges — or arrest reports being made (in other words, no paper trail).

Reporters have traced the unmarked vehicles to the Enterprise rental car agency, prompting liberals to call for a nationwide boycott of that company.

It’s no secret who these cops are, or what they’re doing; Trump’s homeland security boss, who’s in Portland to observe the operations, admits they’re federal law enforcement personnel and claims they’re “protecting persons and property.”

As far as I can tell from news reports, they haven’t grabbed any innocent bystanders, and the Portland protests haven’t been entirely peaceful, but nevertheless many people are crying foul. Oregon’s governor called the federal intervention “political theater.” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), whose district includes most of Portland, accused Trump of “acting like a dictator.”

Portland’s mayor said the feds’ presence is making things worse and has asked them to leave the city, the U.S. Attorney for Oregon is calling for an investigation, and both the Oregon attorney general and ACLU have filed lawsuits seeking injunctions. In Congress, several Democratic House committee chairpersons also called for investigations, which makes congressional hearings likely.

With all of these reputable public officials raising the alarm, it’s fair to conclude something is seriously out of whack.

Critics contend people are being arrested without probable cause and in violation of due process and First Amendment rights. In this country, people have a right to protest, period. That isn’t open for debate; it’s in the Constitution, and is a fundamental pillar of our democracy.

Of course that right doesn’t embrace pulling down statues, breaking windows, or throwing objects at riot police. All of those things have happened in recent protests in many cities, including Portland, but have mostly been perpetrated by a tiny number of agitators and troublemakers unaffiliated with organized protests; they’re interlopers. In Portland, the local police had been bringing the disorder under control, and the “mob violence” and “property destruction” cited by Trump officials as justification to flood the streets with something resembling a military presence consists mostly of graffiti and shooting off fireworks.

These Trump officials seem to suffer from a deficiency of perspective. The force on display is grossly disproportionate. Federal intervention in what is essentially a local police matter also is completely contrary to longstanding Republican philosophy of decentralized, local government — although a case can be made for using federal law enforcement resources to protect the federal courthouse and other federal facilities.

But one of the facilities the federal army of cops is protecting includes the local police union building.

Trump is a different story altogether; he has no understanding of our system of government, doesn’t grasp that government in a democratic society can’t be run the same way a CEO of a privately held company runs a business, and is a thin-skinned bully with no tolerance for criticism or difference of opinion. In addition, he’s a former TV personality whose frame of reference is playing to an audience — in this case, his political base. In other words, he seems to be doing it to please his voters.

The real purpose of these operations seems to be to break up the demonstrations by spiriting demonstrators off the streets and then sending them on their way. Not just the riots or violent protests, but all the protests. That’s an intolerable abuse of government force in our free and open society.

Trump also is a white supremacist and a racist. That comes partly from his family upbringing, especially his father, and partly from the fact many of his supporters are racists or at least enjoy the status quo of white privilege and want to preserve it. It’s hardly a secret that he was incensed by crowds pulling down Confederate monuments. He openly opposes the Pentagon’s decision to ban Confederate flags and paraphernalia from military bases. Here again, this is partly owing to his own inclinations, and partly playing to his political base.

In this context, it must be understood that most of the statues under attack by protesters are not, and never were, monuments to “southern heritage” or culture. They were not erected shortly after the Civil War in honor of Confederate heroes and veterans; most were put up in the early years of the 20th century by segregationists for the purpose of intimidating black people and reinforcing the South’s then-apartheid culture. To black people everywhere, they are symbols of hate and oppression.

I’m not advocating mob destruction of these monuments. I’m a lawyer, and lawyers are often called “process people,” because we strongly believe in going through the proper procedures. In the case of monuments, or painting murals on streets or public buildings, this means getting proper authorization and, where required, permits. A permitting review process usually involves sort of public process, maybe even public hearings, where all interested parties can input their concerns and get their views considered before action is taken. I’m for removing the monuments to Confederate leaders and slave owners, but doing it that way, not by mob action.


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  1. Mark Adams #

    One might be surprised at the amount of Federal Property there is in any American city. There is also situations where it is rented property. The Federal government has a mandate to protect all of that property. Usually there are agreements with local and state police with a recognition those units will do appropriate action. This has not always been the case. In the early history of the United States individual US Marshals had issues with local government with complaints that are somewhat similar to what is being said in Portland. There were even court cases in Federal court that are part of the spectrum of law stating the Constitution is supreme and the Federal government is supreme and may have agents who can make arrests anywhere. No martial law has been called, and no truck loads of troops have been deployed, but the Federal government could even without local permission.
    What maybe more amazing is that these Federal agents were already in the city from long before the protests, and will be there after everything settles down doing their jobs usually unnoticed.
    It is rather dirty pool getting onto Trumps assumed racism and Oregon in the same sentence. The whole state reeks from a racist beginning where only whites were allowed. It is part of the states original constitution even.
    Perhaps the responsible local authorities should be doing their jobs like protecting Federal properties and that still includes the post office.
    It very well be that probable cause and due process have been protected. There are Federal judges in the Federal Courthouse in Portland. There is likely one of those fusion centers out of the Patriot act in Portland, not likely the local authorities want to give up those Federal dollars or the assistance they receive from the Feds. Yes local authorities could be in collusion with the Feds in private and saying something different in public. Or at least should know better. Then again a lot of this is politics. If a fusion center, and all those Federal agents are ok when there is a Democrat in the White House well you get the same help when a Republican is in the White House.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    You are correct that Oregon was founded as a whites-only state, but to put this in context, the same constitution also prohibited slavery. This occurred in 1859, when the slavery issue was coming to a boil in other parts of the country, and the intent behind this was to make Oregon a refuge from the disputes that led to civil war in the east just two years later. Although that generation is long gone, echoes of Oregon’s apartheid history might be seen in recent attacks on Portland’s Muslims and minorities. The argument of this article is that police, whether federal or state, have no business breaking up lawful protests or arresting peaceful demonstrators, if that’s what is happening, which seems to be a concern of state and city officials with firsthand knowledge of the situation.