Oregon has agreed to deploy state police to protect federal buildings in Portland amid violent racial justice protests, and once they have succeeded the additional federal forces deployed by Homeland Security will leave, the department announced Wednesday.
Acting Secretary Chad Wolf announced that he’d struck a deal with Gov. Kate Brown that includes “a robust presence of Oregon State Police” to help out.
“We’re happy to have them on the team,” Mr. Wolf told reporters.
“The department will continue to re-evaluate our security posture in Portland, and should circumstances on the ground significantly improve due to the influx of state and local law enforcement, we anticipate the ability to change our force posture, as we do everyday at our other 9,000 federal properties we protect across the country,” he said.
Ms. Brown, a Democrat, confirmed the deal on Twitter — though she saw the details differently, saying Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel will withdraw starting Thursday.
She did agree to deploy state police, though she cast their mission as protecting protesters, rather than the federal buildings that have been under attack.
“Our local Oregon State Police officers will be downtown to protect Oregonians’ right to free speech and keep the peace,” she said. “Let’s center the Black Lives Matter movement’s demands for racial justice and police accountability. It’s time for bold action to reform police practices.”
Mr. Wolf insisted the officers will remain “in the area” and are ready to respond. He also said it will take time to know whether the governor’s plan is working.
“DHS law enforcement officers that are there today will remain in Portland until we are assured that Oregon State Police and the plan the governor has put together is successful,” he said.
He said he had reached out to Ms. Brown initially and was rebuffed. She told him he needed to remove federal law enforcement.
But last week Ms. Brown, while dealing with Vice President Mike Pence, signaled the chance for a change, which led to the deal. Mr. Wolf said it delivers on what he’s been asking for.
“I’m glad she did it. I wish she would have done it earlier,” he said.
Despite the differing versions of what’s to happen, the deal represents a breakthrough after more than 60 days of protests that have increasingly targeted the federal Hatfield Courthouse in the city’s downtown.
Federal officers have been pelted with bottles, been blinded by high-intensity lasers, tried to duck attacks from commercial-grade mortar-launched fireworks, and dealt with Molotov cocktails and fires.
Protesters, meanwhile, say they’ve been tear-gassed and fired at with less-lethal rounds such as pepper balls and impact projectiles.
Federal officials say Portland officials had blocked their own police, leaving the situation to spiral out of control and forcing deployment of more federal officers and agents — the very thing Portland officials said they didn’t want to see.
Indeed, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has at times appeared to fuel the conflict.
Last week he took to Twitter to spread an unsubstantiated rumor that federal agents had been authorized to use live ammunition on protesters. He acknowledged that the U.S. attorney told him it was not true, but he still posted the rumor, saying he felt protesters should know it was out there.
Mr. Wheeler also joined the protesters, and said he ended up getting tear gassed along with them.
Portland police have described a nightly routine of large crowds of demonstrators gathering to listen to racial justice speeches, chant slogans, block traffic and bang on the fence surrounding the federal courthouse.
As the night progresses most protesters leave but a core group remains and grows more confrontational.
On Tuesday night, they fired commercial grade fireworks at the courthouse and threw bottles and rocks, and some attempted to climb the protective fence. A large fire was also set.
Federal agents allowed the activity to go on for a couple hours, then dispersed the crowd.
Portland police noted that they did not engage with the crowds themselves.
Mr. Wolf said he expects state and local police will keep violent protesters away from the courthouse in the first place.
But Mr. Wheeler, on Twitter, suggested a more limited role.
“The Oregon State Police, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, & Portland Police Bureau will continue working together to keep Portlanders safe, and the governor and I have given clear direction: we expect that they will continue engaging only if there is violent criminal activity,” he said.
The mayor also renewed his attacks on the federal government, saying it “has brought a new kind of fear to our streets,” and suggested the levels of violence increased in response to the deployment.
“Federal agents nearly killed a demonstrator, and their presence has led to increased violence and vandalism in our downtown core,” he said.
Mr. Wolf countered that a month ago, before the enhanced federal deployment, Mr. Wheeler had admitted his city was suffering a month of violence.
Attorney General William P. Barr told Congress on Tuesday that without the federal officers, he believes the protesters would have burned the courthouse to the ground.
He said the courthouse is usually protected by a small contingent of U.S. Marshals, which he said isn’t a threat to anyone’s First Amendment rights.
“When people are arrested, it’s because they’re trying to come into the fence,” he said. “When you have, you know, 100, 120 federal people behind a fence trying to protect the building and all these people are trying to cut their way in. That is the occupation of a city?”
He said there are protests in other cities but additional federal officers haven’t had to be deployed because local police have responded — which he said is how it’s supposed to work.
“Even where there are these kinds of riots occurring, we haven’t had to put in the kind of reinforcements that we have in Portland because the state and local law enforcement does their job and won’t allow rioters to come and just physically assault the courthouse,” he said. “In Portland, that’s not the case.”
Mr. Wolf said 245 Homeland Security law enforcement agents and officers have been injured in the clashes, ranging from minor scrapes to serious wounds. Several officers may have been permanently blinded by protesters’ lasers.