“Flat-Out Unconstitutional”: Federal Officers In Unmarked Vans Are Snatching People Off The Streets In Portland

“They're snatching people and asking questions later," said one resident.

Protesters in Portland, Oregon, say federal officers deployed by President Donald Trump are increasing tensions and violating civil rights by roaming the streets in unmarked vans and detaining people without probable cause.

Videos and witness accounts detail how armed officers outfitted in camouflage and lacking identifying information on their uniforms are snatching people off the street. One viral video shared on July 15 shows two men in fatigues exiting an unmarked van, grabbing a person by their arms, and escorting them to a vehicle. The officers remained silent as bystanders asked who they were and what they were doing.

Militarized Federal Agents from a patchwork of outside agencies have begun policing Portland (in rented minivans vans) without the explicit approval of the mayor, the state, or local municipalities. This is what that looks like in practice:

The identity of the person detained in that video is unknown, but Portland resident Mark Pettibone told Oregon Public Broadcasting he was detained on July 15 by a group of federal officers. He said they grabbed him off the street for no reason, placed him in an unmarked van, and used his hat to cover his eyes while he was transported to a federal courthouse.

“I just happened to be wearing black on a sidewalk in downtown Portland at the time,” Pettibone said. “And that apparently is grounds for detaining me.”

Juniper Simonis, a quantitative ecologist who volunteers as a medic at protests, told BuzzFeed News that federal officers forcibly took them into custody and separated them from their service dog for using chalk on the sidewalk in front of a federal building on July 10. Simonis said they were sprayed with OC gas, a form of pepper spray, at close range.

“They jumped me and assaulted me without any legal or verbal communication to me about being under arrest, or telling me to stop,” said Simonis, a trans woman who uses "they"/"them" pronouns. “They're snatching people and asking questions later.”

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon sued the Department of Homeland Security and US Marshals Service in what it said was "one "many [lawsuits] the ACLU will be filing against federal authorities in Portland for their unconstitutional attacks on people protesting the police killing of George Floyd."

The ACLU added DHS and US Marshals Service to a lawsuit that had already been filed against local law enforcement agencies, where a federal judge had already issued an order blocking local officials from dispersing, arresting, or using force against reporters and legal observers until Oct. 30.

"What is happening in Portland is an unconstitutional nightmare," Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said in a statement. "The ACLU will not let the government respond to protests against police brutality with still more brutality."

The ACLU's motion filed Friday looks to add the federal agencies to the judge's order.

Although the motion specifically mentions federal agents' actions against journalists and legal observers, and does not mention arrests of protesters, it is the first attempt to legally block federal agents' actions on the ground in Portland.

A task force — including officers from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the US Marshals Service — was deployed to Portland in early July after Trump issued an executive order about protecting national landmarks. But rather than remaining on federal property to protect statues and memorials, federal officers have at times engaged peaceful protesters and citizens with “less lethal” munitions and have been documented driving around and detaining people on city streets.

“Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping,” Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement. “The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called the deployment of federal officers a “blatant abuse of power.” The use of federal officers has also been condemned by the mayor of Portland, both of Oregon’s US senators, the Portland Police Bureau, and the local sheriff.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with two other members of Congress, sent a letter to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and Attorney General Bill Barr requesting information about the deployment and a July 11 incident when a member of the US Marshals Service hit a peaceful protester in the head with an impact munition, fracturing his skull and requiring surgery.

“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Wyden tweeted. “Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media.”

On Friday, the US attorney in Oregon called on the DHS's Office of the Inspector General to look into reports that protesters were detained without probable cause.

Wolf arrived in Portland this week amid the criticism.

“The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city,” he said in a DHS news release on Thursday. “Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it.”

DHS released a list of 90 examples of what it called “lawless destruction and violence” in Portland dating back to May 29. Roughly a quarter of the incidents listed involved vandalism, graffiti, or trespassing. Eleven of the listed incidents resulted in arrests. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that federal officials have so far charged 13 people related to the protests.

In response to criticism that federal officers in Portland are not identifying themselves, Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, tweeted, “You will not see names on their uniforms b/c these same violent criminals use this information to target them & their families, putting both at risk.” Law enforcement officers are generally not required by law to identify themselves, according to Lawfare.

Benjamin Haas, the advocacy counsel at Human Rights First and a former Army intelligence officer, told BuzzFeed News the deployment of militarized federal officers in a US city is alarming.

“These law enforcement officers look more like the special operations forces I supported as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan than civilian police who are supposed to serve and protect American communities,” Haas said.

He added that the federal officers in Portland are “blurring the line between the military and law enforcement, [which] is unhealthy for democracy and American communities.”

After being grabbed off the street and brought to a federal courthouse, Pettibone said he was released without charges after he kept asking for a lawyer. DHS has not commented publicly on Pettibone’s arrest.

Simonis said they were also brought to the Portland federal courthouse after being arrested in front of the Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. After Simonis said they were detained for roughly eight hours and denied a phone call or access to a lawyer, they were released and issued two federal tickets for petty offenses.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the arrest of Simonis.

Simonis said it’s possible other people are being detained and kept for longer periods without the ability to contact a lawyer.

“We know that there are people getting snatched off the streets, but we only know the stories of the people who have made it out,” they said.

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