Bracing for the possibility of political violence stemming from Tuesday’s election, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is declaring a state of emergency in the Portland area and readying National Guard troops for potential deployment.
Brown announced Monday that she’d use her authority to declare an emergency from 5 p.m. Monday until 5 p.m. Wednesday. It’s the second time in two months that the governor has declared an emergency in preparation for possible violence. In this case, Brown and law enforcement officials said they will also guard against efforts to dissuade people from casting ballots.
“I want to be very, very clear that voter intimidation and political violence will not be tolerated,” Brown said. “Not from the left, not from the right and not from the center. Not this week, not any week in Oregon.”
The emergency declaration allows Brown to rejigger the command structure among law enforcement entities responding to unrest in Portland. Rather than the Portland Police Bureau, which would typically take the lead, response will be co-managed by the Oregon State Police and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
The arrangement is in part a way to allow law enforcement to use crowd control devices such as CS gas, a type of tear gas, which Portland police have been prohibited from using by Mayor Ted Wheeler. Both state police and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office have expressed concern about responding to tense situations without the ability to use the gas to disperse crowds.
Brown is also directing the Oregon National Guard to place troops on standby in case they are needed. The governor has been extremely reticent to use the guard during months of unrest in Portland, but troops were prepared to respond during the most contentious nights of protest this summer. Ultimately, the guard was only used in protest response once this summer, and even then troops were not on the streets engaging with demonstrators.
Michael Stencel, the Oregon National Guard’s adjutant general, said Monday troops would be available to support law enforcement agencies with tasks like crowd control, protecting buildings, detaining suspects, and riot control. Stencel did not say how many troops would be prepared to respond, if needed.
“We are primarily in a supporting role, and we’re really there to augment those agencies as needed," Stencel said.
The preparations come as Portland and cities throughout the country brace for fallout from an election with little precedent. With a record number of Americans voting by mail due to the coronavirus, President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on any electoral outcome in which he’s the loser — rhetoric that could further inflame tensions, particularly if results are tight.
While Portland is a liberal bastion guaranteed to heavily favor former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, the city in recent years has repeatedly been the target of right-wing groups, who have held rallies that have at times spilled over into open violence. At the same time, demonstrations against racial injustice have repeatedly led to property destruction by a small number of people.
“We’ve seen firsthand what happens when free expression is fueled by hate,” Brown said Monday. “We know that there are some people who might want to use peaceful election night protests to promote violence and property destruction. That behavior is not acceptable.”
There is no evidence that voting by mail is not secure or lends itself to easy voter fraud, as Trump has claimed. Over the course of two decades of conducting elections by mail, Oregon has won convictions in a vanishingly small number of fraud cases among millions upon millions of ballots cast, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office — about 0.0000006%.
Brown’s announcement puts to rest questions about how authorities would address potential election unrest. Last week, authorities held a joint press conference to warn against any illegal or violent activity, but did not offer clarity on which agencies would lead a response.
“I want to be really clear that voter intimidation, disruption, blocking access to ballot drop sites, preventing people from casting their ballots, any violence before or after the election will not be tolerated,” Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said at the time.
The governor last invoked an emergency to prepare for potential violence in September, when the far-right group the Proud Boys claimed it was bringing tens of thousands of people to a rally in North Portland.
Brown and city leaders worried the event would spur a clash with counterdemonstrators. Opposing factions have openly brawled in the city repeatedly in recent years, and a supporter of the conservative group Patriot Prayer was shot and killed at a confrontation in late August.
By handing control to the state police superintendent and county sheriff, Brown has been able to work around concerns that those agencies would not be able to use tear gas to disperse crowds they deemed unlawful.
Reese did not answer directly Monday when asked whether his deputies involvement responding to potential unrest was contingent on being able to use tear gas. Instead, he repeatedly stressed that the sheriff’s office has been working for weeks on a strategy for the election.
Brown, meanwhile, said that she hopes no force is required, but that deploying tear gas is sometimes necessary.
“Law enforcement needs these tools at times to keep Oregonians safe and to protect property,” she said.
The emergency arrangement produced an unexpected wrinkle in September, when more than 50 Portland police officers were deputized as federal agents — a designation that allows federal prosecutors to pursue more serious federal charges against demonstrators.
City officials were caught off guard when they learned that the deputations would last until the end of the year, rather than a matter of days. U.S. Attorney Billy Williams declined to cancel the deputations, despite the city’s request. That ultimately led the Portland City Council to take its own action to restrict officers who have been deputized.
Brown said Monday that no additional officers would be deputized as part of the new emergency declaration.
OPB reporter Jonathan Levinson contributed to this report.