Federal government sued again over 2020 response to Portland protests

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Dec. 20, 2023 1 p.m.

“There’s been a critical lack of accountability,” attorney David Sugarman said.

About 2,000 showed up to day 56 of protests in Portland on July 23, 2020. Racial justice protests in the city continue to grow in size after  federal law enforcement officers deployed to help secure federal properties from protesters.

FILE: About 2,000 people showed up to a protest in Portland on July 23, 2020. Racial justice protests in the city grew in size significantly after federal law enforcement officers deployed to help secure federal properties from protesters.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Protesters injured by federal law enforcement officers in Portland during the summer of 2020 say they’re still seeking accountability for constitutional rights violations, according to a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court late Tuesday.


Across the country, protests grew after police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Throughout that summer in Portland, thousands of protesters took to the streets, at times clashing with police, often outside the federal courthouse downtown. As protests continued for months, federal officers deployed under the premise of protecting federal employees and buildings.

During July 2020, “the federal government unleashed unprecedented and sustained violence and intimidation on the people of Portland,” the lawsuit states. In the months and years that followed, demonstrators filed lawsuits against the Trump Administration, federal law enforcement agencies and even individual officers. While prosecutors criminally charged many protesters with serious crimes, federal law enforcement agencies have not been found liable for any alleged wrongdoing.

“There’s been a critical lack of accountability,” David Sugerman, one of the attorneys representing protesters, told OPB.

That’s in part because many of the cases relied on a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that allowed people to sue federal agents for monetary damages if their rights were violated.

Many of the lawsuits brought by Sugerman and other attorneys relied on what are known as Bivens claims. That included a case brought on behalf of Donavan LaBella, who was seriously injured when an unnamed federal law enforcement officer believed to be with the U.S. Marshals Service shot LaBella in the head with an impact munition.


Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that effectively gutted the decades-old precedent used in those prior lawsuits.

Tuesday’s lawsuit raises similar issues and involves the same injured protesters, but is filed under a different federal legal theory, Sugerman said.

“It’s also about standing up and doing what is necessary as citizens to ensure the federal and state rights to free speech mean something, they’re not just words on paper,” Sugerman said.

The lawsuit claims that federal law enforcement officers failed to de-escalate at protests and instead “escalated violence on a nightly basis” by targeting protesters, thus violating their constitutional right to assemble.

According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, the agency was unprepared when it sent more than 700 federal law enforcement officers to Portland. Few of the officers had been trained in riot and crowd control, even though that was their primary mission in Portland, the DHS report found. Officers also reported hundreds of injuries.

This latest lawsuit against the federal government is brought by three named protesters: Ellen Urbani, Nathaniel West and Rowan Maher on behalf of “at least 162 people,” the lawsuit states.

West told OPB he protested peacefully for more than 40 nights and was exposed to clouds of tear gas and shot at with pepper balls for doing so.

“I never threw anything, I never shot anything. (I was) just there to take space and show our disapproval for what the federal government was doing,” West said. He said he hopes the lawsuit will help establish where, when and how federal law enforcement went too far in its response.

“It’s about the next set of activists, the next set of protesters that come along,” West said. “The First Amendment right is something that we have to constantly work to preserve. … We’re really thinking about what it means to protest in America.”