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.
When Tetra thinks back to the night he was kidnapped by federal police in downtown Portland, he can't help but laugh.
“It was such a mess,” said Tetra, 24, who asked the Mercury to use only his first name out of privacy concerns. “These officers had no idea what they were doing, which was both comforting and terrifying."
Tetra is one of the unknown number of protesters who has been chased down on the streets of Portland by federal police, forced into an unmarked van, and held for hours without being charged with a crime.
This practice was first made public in July, when protester Mark Pettibone detailed his experience with what felt like a kidnapping in an interview with OPB, drawing immediate national attention. Pettibone’s story inspired Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to file a lawsuit against the federal law enforcement agencies involved, suggesting that this “disturbing” tactic had likely been used to detain other Portlanders.
Tetra’s experience confirms that assumption. His story and others from people arrested by federal police during recent demonstrations further illuminates the unorganized, heavy-handed, and potentially unconstitutional tactics employed by officers sent to Portland to defend federal buildings.
"These officers had no idea what they were doing, which was both comforting and terrifying."
July 14 wasn’t Tetra’s first time attending the protests that have become a nightly fixture in Portland since the death of George Floyd in late May. He’d attended numerous demonstrations over the past month, many of which ended with police using violence to disperse the crowd of protesters. But that Tuesday night was the first time he heard a rumor from others in attendance that demonstrators were being picked up by people in unmarked vans.
Around midnight, Tetra was standing with a small group of friends on SW Main and 5th, several blocks from the protests’ front lines. He was bending over to get a drink of water from a fountain when he heard a car abruptly pull up to the corner.
“It was this sleek, black, newer van with side doors,” Tetra recalls. “Before it even came to a stop, three or four people in camouflage jumped out and began running toward us.”
Tetra bolted in the opposite direction, unsure if these unidentified, armed men were actually law enforcement or some rogue militia group. The person pursuing Tetra yelled at him to stop, and he did.
“He zip-tied my wrists behind my back, and I was asking him, ‘Who are you? What are my charges? What’s happening?’” Tetra recalls. “He told me he would explain in the van. That wasn’t reassuring.”
Tetra said he was forced to lie prostrate on the floor of the black van with his hands behind his back. Only then did he notice the words “Border Patrol” on the front of an officers’ uniform. Tetra was told that he matched the identity of someone who had assaulted an officer with a weapon.
“I heard them telling someone over the radio, ‘We think it’s him, we got the guy,’” he said. “I hadn’t done anything.”
Tetra spent the next hour in the van, as the group of federal police drove around attempting to track down one of their camouflaged colleagues lost in the chase, and then trying to figure out what to do with their captive.
“A thing that was really clear right away was that they were very disorganized. They kept radioing their bosses, but no one could tell them where to go or what to do, so they’d just keep driving around,” said Tetra. “I’d hear them pointing out protesters they passed on the street, calling them ‘pussies’ and laughing.”
The van eventually pulled into a parking garage in the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse—two blocks from where Tetra was originally picked up. There were at least nine additional officers in combat gear waiting in the garage to receive him. Several stood Tetra up against a concrete wall in the garage, removed his glasses, and shined a flashlight in his face. One man took a photo of him with his cell phone, saying it was his “mugshot.”
Tetra was then taken in an elevator to a lower floor, where officers patted him down and dumped the contents of his backpack on the ground. There were several hiccups in the process: Tetra recalls the officers spent minutes looking for a hallway lightswitch, and then fumbling simple directions from a higher-up officer.
“The [superior officer] even turned to me and said, ‘It’s like fucking herding cats in here,’ as if we were pals,” said Tetra.
"I was asking him, ‘Who are you? What are my charges? What’s happening?' He told me he would explain in the van. That wasn’t reassuring.”
He was eventually placed in a holding cell in ankle cuffs. No one had read him his Miranda rights, let alone asked for his name or ID. But he wasn’t the only person in the cell block.
“There was someone else already down there… Mark. We spoke to each other between our cell walls,” said Tetra. “The same thing had happened to him.”
Tetra learned Mark’s last name—Pettibone—several days later, when his story was published by OPB. Pettibone had been allegedly picked up, also while standing on a street blocks away from the protests, for matching the physical description of someone who pointed a laser at an officer.
At around 3 am, an officer returned to the holding cells. Tetra recalls him saying something along the lines of, “It’s your lucky night, you’re not who we’re looking for.” Both he and Pettibone were given most of their property back (Tetra’s glasses were missing from his backpack), and ushered to an exit door on the north side of the federal building.
“An officer told us to, ‘Get home safe!’—which I thought was hilarious,” said Tetra. “That’s when I got this burst of confidence. I was like, ‘Yeah, I hope we don’t get kidnapped again by people in vans.’”
Pettibone and Tetra parted after making sure each other had a ride home. Pettibone confirmed being detained with, speaking to, and leaving together with Tetra in an email to the Mercury.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tactical officers who took Tetra, refused to confirm Tetra’s detention “due to the privacy and safety concerns of the individual.”
In an email to the Mercury, DHS spokesperson Matthew Dyman went on to explain that these officers regularly use unmarked vehicles because it helps the armed combat officers “avoid… potential attacks by lawless criminals.”
Dyman was echoed by Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy director DHS, who testified before a congressional committee about the practice on Tuesday. “Violent extremists across the country have intentionally attacked marked police vehicles and attempted to set them on fire,” said Cuccinelli.
In a separate hearing before House Democrats on Tuesday, ACLU of Oregon’s Legal Director Kelly Simon called this practice, “nothing short of an unconstitutional nightmare.”
Neither Pettibone nor Tetra received any kind of paperwork documenting the encounter, or any way to follow up with DHS about their detention. Neither were ever charged with a crime.
Their experience, while under different circumstances, isn’t dissimilar from that of Portlanders arrested by DHS officers stationed in front of the federal courthouse during these protests.
The Mercury spoke with two protesters who were arrested by federal police while engaging in non-violent protest.
Brittainy, a Portland State University student who asked that we not use her last name because of privacy concerns, was protesting downtown the night of July 25 when she saw some people shaking the fence surrounding the Hatfield courthouse. Federal officers responded by spraying tear gas at the crowd.
As she and her friend began to disperse, Brittainy got hit with pepper spray that clouded her vision. She remembers getting dizzy and nauseous, and feeling disoriented. Her friend grabbed her hand, and a volunteer medic offered to help.
“The next thing you know, I lost my friend, I lost the medic, and I was being pushed to the ground and detained,” Brittainy remembered. Officers wearing DHS uniforms then zip-tied Brittainy’s wrists and walked her toward the Multnomah County Justice Center, which houses a county jail. A social media livestream video viewed by the Mercury shows Brittainy being pulled by two DHS officers, with a third one following close behind.
As officers gripped her arm tightly enough to leave bruises, Brittainy said she kept asking: “What am I being arrested for? What did I do?” The officers answered by telling her “not to resist,” though Brittainy said she was not physically resisting.
Once she was inside the jail, officers told Brittainy she was being detained for “failure to comply.” After being read her Miranda rights by two plainclothes officers, Brittainy willingly waived her right to an attorney, reasoning that she “didn’t feel I’d done anything wrong.”
“The only reason I was probably detained was because I was moving slow through the park, because I’d just lost the medic and my friend and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “Am I supposed to run when I can’t breathe? I don’t think so.”
"The only reason I was probably detained was because I was moving slow through the park... and I couldn’t breathe."
Marek Jarocki, a Portlander who was protesting in front of the courthouse the night of July 25, also found himself pinned to the ground by federal officers after getting caught in a cloud of tear gas. Jarocki said it’s possible federal officers had ordered the crowd to disperse before his arrest, but if they had, he hadn’t been able to hear it over the din of the crowd.
“There was so much gas and smoke that I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “Out of nowhere, people started shouting and I saw figures coming at me. I couldn’t make out who they were, I just saw shapes. At that point, I just got slammed to the ground and I was pinned.”
Jarocki said he was detained inside of the federal courthouse. Officers later told him he was being detained for assaulting an officer, but Jarocki said he had been a nonviolent protester the entire night. He noticed that most of the officers he saw inside the courthouse weren’t wearing masks. Many detainees had their masks confiscated upon arrest, and weren’t given new ones.
One of Jarocki’s cellmates told him that he had been arrested after slipping and falling while running away from federal officers; another cellmate arrived after Jarocki, coated in pepper spray and so disoriented he hadn’t realized he was being detained.
“It seemed to me that everybody who got grabbed didn’t really know why,” he added. “None of them seemed to think they’d assaulted anybody. It was similar to me: I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t see, and then I just got slammed to the ground.”
Civil rights lawyers say this pattern of federal officers detaining protesters who hadn’t been able to disperse quickly enough is troubling from a legal standpoint.
“Let’s say they’re being arrested for failure to obey an order to disperse, but they’re incapacitated—either they can’t hear the order, or they can’t comply with it because they’re in physical pain,” said Matthew Tokson, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah who’s been following the legality of federal officers’ actions in Portland.
“If you do something illegal but do so involuntarily… that’s not a crime,” Tokson said. “Part of committing a crime is doing it voluntarily.”
Juan Chavez, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said both Jarocki’s and Brittainy’s detainments appeared to be “without probable cause.”
“For these officers to even stop these people, they would’ve needed to have a reasonable suspicion that they had committed a crime—not just any crime, but a federal crime,” he said. “When they’re doing that, they have to have reasons. If you ask them, they have to tell you why, unless some sort of extenuating circumstance exists at that time.”
Both Jarocki and Brittainy were released after being detained for about four hours. DHS did not respond to the Mercury’s request for information about their detainment.
Neither protester had charges pressed against them, but both felt shaken by their experiences. They said federal officers antagonized both of them while they were detained, intentionally mispronouncing Brittainy’s name after she corrected them and mocking Jarocki’s physical appearance.
Jarocki said the general attitude of officers he encountered toward detainees could be summed up as “you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t protesting.”
Tokson, the law professor, said detainments like these could potentially be seen as a First Amendment violation.
“If federal officers are arresting or detaining people without charging them in order to get them to stop protesting in a nonviolent way, then that would be a violation of their First Amendment rights,” he said. “There have been credible allegations that basically what these federal officers are doing is just trying to shut down these protests because they don’t like the protests.”
However, both Brittainy and Jarocki said they plan to continue showing up at protests. Tetra, meanwhile, has attended at least a dozen nightly protests since his experience with the feds.
“I got to briefly experience the kind of helplessness that people of color, immigrants, and queer people experience all the time at the hands of the police."
“Yes, it was terrifying, but more than scaring me away, it made me want to be out there more,” said Tetra. “I realize I had a privileged experience. I was never asked for my ID. It was assumed I was white, it was assumed I was a man.”
Tetra said he was grateful that the officers never realized he was transgender, as it could have changed the way he was treated. A 2019 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that in the past year, 58 percent of trans people who interacted with law enforcement who knew they were trans had reported experiences of harassment or abuse by the police.
“I got to briefly experience the kind of helplessness that people of color, immigrants, and queer people experience all the time at the hands of the police,” said Tetra. “But, unlike many of them, I got to walk away. I just wish it didn't take white people like me experiencing violence first hard for this to be national news.”