Political Fight Over Violence By Federal Officers In Portland Deepens

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB) and Conrad Wilson (OPB)
July 13, 2020 9:32 p.m.

UPDATE (July 14, 12:09 p.m. PT) — Two days after federal law enforcement officers shot an unarmed protester in the head with "less lethal" munitions, causing severe injuries, President Trump lauded officers currently deployed in Portland. His comments were part of a growing conflict between city, state and federal officials over the presence of federal law enforcement at ongoing protests.

"We've done a great job in Portland,” Trump said, speaking at the White House. “Portland was totally out of control. They went in and I guess they have many people right now in jail. We very much quelled it. If it starts again, we'll quell it again, very easily. It's not hard to do."


Overall, Trump said he was pleased with the federal response. He did not specifically address the use of impact munitions that left one Portland protester needing facial reconstruction surgery.

On Saturday night, a federal officer shot a crowd control device and severely injured Donavan La Bella, 26, who was standing across from the federal courthouse holding a speaker playing music over his head. The impact munition shot by a federal officer hit La Bella in the face, leaving him hospitalized with facial and skull fractures.

Related: Federal Officers Shoot Portland Protester In Head With 'Less Lethal' Munitions

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said Monday in Portland that the president has a dangerous fixation with strong-arming peaceful protesters.

“What America does not need is Donald Trump parachuting federal law enforcement into U.S. cities as if they’re enemy strongholds requiring an occupying army to suppress,” Wyden said.

Wyden referenced Trump using federal police to clear protesters in Washington D.C. for a photo opp outside a church as an example.

“And America saw some of those past dangers in Portland when a peaceful protester was shot in the head,” Wyden said

Department of Homeland Security officers were sent to Portland after the president issued an executive order in late June protecting statues from protesters.

Since arriving just before July 4, the officers from Customs and Border Protection’s elite BORTAC unit and the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group have played an aggressive role protecting the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse from vandalism and assisting the Portland Police Bureau in clearing protesters from city streets.

Court documents filed Monday also revealed federal agents have used undercover officers embedded with protesters to make at least one arrest involving a protester who allegedly pointed a laser pointer at federal agents.

Asked about their use, Wyden was displeased.

“I have already asked the federal government why law enforcement planes are engaging in surveillance of our city. And I’m going to insist on answers to that matter as well,” Wyden said.


Sens. Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Oregon Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici — all Democrats — sent a letter on Tuesday to Attorney General Bill Barr and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf expressing their outrage over what they said is a lack of coordination between various federal agencies and their “illegal” use of force.

“We unequivocally condemn such acts of violence and any effort to target, attack, or silence those peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights,” the letter reads.

The four representatives requested answers to a number of questions, including whether or not the officer who shot LaBella had been identified and details about any investigation. They requested answers no later than July 21.

They also requested details about how undercover officers are being used in protest response across the country.

Recently filed court documents show federal officers have focused, in part, on protesters who use laser pointers. Several people arrested in July have been charged with assault on a federal officer for using laser pointers on snipers and other law enforcement officers stationed at the federal courthouse. According to charging documents, federal agencies have at times used plainclothes officers in the crowd to track down people using the devices.

On Saturday, a federal officer noticed a protester pointing a green laser pointer “3-4 times for periods of 5-10 seconds and the subject moved around between usages,” court documents state.

The agent located on the seventh floor of the federal courthouse stated he tracked the laser to an unknown person on the ground.

The agent “used his binoculars to see the person on the ground, and then took photos of him and sent the photos and descriptions to plainclothes agents working in the crowd,” court documents state.

The protester was charged with assault on federal officers

Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, said antifa is likely part of the protests and violence outside the federal courthouse.

“Portland is well known for Rose City Antifa, right? They’ve been around a long time,” he said. “It’s hard to call it organized. Antifa is known for loosely organized versions of their group … I believe they're a part of this, I believe there are just individuals who are anarchists, individuals who are agitators, but it all falls into the category of lawlessness and that’s what has to stop.”

Shortly after nationwide protests over police brutality began, President Trump said the United States would designate antifa as a domestic terrorist organization, though that could prove legally challenging.

Federal officials continue to pursue charges against protesters. On Monday, Jacob Michael Gaines, a 23-year-old Texas man, was charged with assault after allegedly hitting a plywood barrier on the federal courthouse and an officer with a hammer.

In contrast to many elected officials who have demanded federal officers leave the city, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Monday he has no problem with the federal law enforcement protecting federal property in Portland.

“What I have a problem with is them leaving the facilities and going out onto the streets of this community and escalating an already tense situation like they did the other night,” Wheeler said.

An investigation into the use of force that left LaBella injured has been referred to the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. Wheeler said he thinks the findings of that investigation should be public.