This article was originally published on our sister publication The Portland Mercury's blog Blogtown, where you can find ongoing coverage of Portland's protests related to the killing of George Floyd. —Eds.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday morning that, following conversations between her and Mike Pence, the federal government will begin withdrawing some of its troops from Portland on Thursday. According to Brown’s statement, officers from the Oregon State Police (OSP) will step in to police the protests outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland.
The move was quickly hailed as an end to a weeks-long reign of terror unleashed on Portlanders from federal agents, who have been quick to use tear gas and impact munitions to target protesters as well as journalists and legal observers. But while troops from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) likely won’t be a presence at Portland protests moving forward, other federal officers will remain.
“A limited contingent of federal officials, who act as building security year-round, will remain and will stay focused on the interior of the U.S. Courthouse,” Brown said in her announcement Wednesday.
A statement from Acting Department of Homeland (DHS) Security Secretary Chad Wolf also made clear that the feds aren’t leaving Portland completely. Wolf said officers from the Federal Protective Service (FPS)—a branch of DHS responsible for protecting federal property—will “coordinate” with OSP.
“The Department will continue to maintain our current, augmented federal law enforcement personnel in Portland until we are assured the Hatfield Federal Courthouse… will no longer be attacked,” Wolf’s statement continues. “The Department will continue to re-evaluate our security posture in Portland… [DHS] will not back down from our legal duty to protect federal law enforcement officers and federal properties.”
For Juan Chavez, an attorney and director of the Civil Rights Project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, Wolf’s reference to “augmented federal law enforcement personnel” is “concerning."
“I presume that is more surveillance and prosecutorial support for the US Attorney’s office,” Chavez said. “I’m terrified to think what we’re going to learn over the next couple years about what happened this summer—what kind of microwave radiation they’ve bathed us in to monitor our movements. But I don’t think it’s a secret that they’ve deployed military surveillance equipment out here.”
Chavez said Brown’s announcement indicates that OSP officers will take over for federal officers on the frontlines of protests at the federal courthouse. OSP officers often assist the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) in policing protests and other large events—but in those instances, OSP officers would follow PPB’s lead. Now, per Brown's statement, OSP will be in charge of guarding the federal courthouse, and reporting directly to the state government. It’s unclear if OSP will be as aggressive as either the federal officers or PPB in using tear gas and impact munitions against protesters.
“I don’t know how they [OSP] act on their own,” Chavez said. “I can say that they have participated in every PPB atrocity we have been protesting, so I don’t know if they’re much different from PPB. That said, they’re under more local control [than federal officers] and under state law, so if the Legislature wants to restrain them, they can.”
Another unknown element is what role PPB will now play in policing protests outside the federal courthouse. Last week, the Portland City Council barred PPB from coordinating with federal law enforcement, after reports showed that PPB appeared to be working with the feds. Portland officers have continued to have a presence near the federal courthouse and in other parts of the city, but have not officially been policing protests in front of the federal courthouse in the last week.
But now that OSP will be guarding the courthouse, there’s a chance PPB might work with them. Chavez said “only time will tell” what PPB’s involvement will be moving forward. Portland police will continue to have jurisdiction over local protests that happen away from federal property.
When federal officers in camouflage gear began policing protests in front of the courthouse earlier this month, protest attendance swelled with Portlanders motivated by animosity toward the Trump administration. But Chavez, a frequent protest attendee, pointed out that protests against racial injustice and police brutality have been going on for over two months now—and they’ll likely continue after CPB and ICE agents leave.
“This started as a movement for Black lives,” Chavez said. “Until we have a commitment from the people in charge that they also value Black lives, and that they’re committed to enacting the vision of the community right now, this won’t stop.”