Portland protesters accuse federal officers of indiscriminate tear gas attacks

"I couldn't see," said a protester, who had been hit with tear gas while napping. "I ran with my eyes closed, tears and snot running down my face."

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By Alicia Victoria Lozano

PORTLAND, Ore. — David Harris had no idea he was about to be hit with tear gas.

He attended Tuesday night's protests outside the federal courthouse and had dozed off by a tree when he woke up early the next morning to chaos.

"I couldn't see," he said. "I ran with my eyes closed, tears and snot running down my face. I was choking in my sleep."

By Wednesday afternoon, Harris was back in the same spot where his ordeal had unfolded only hours earlier.

"I want peace," he shouted. "No bombs, no gas, no violence!"

For much of July, Department of Homeland Security forces have deployed tear gas into crowds of protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse. Under the urging of President Donald Trump to "dominate" protesters, agents have fired projectiles into the crowd, arrested demonstrators and even destroyed medical and food supplies.

Federal officers arrest a protester after she crossed a fence line set up around the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Residents and local leaders have accused federal officers of acting beyond the scope of protecting federal property and using "police-state like tactics" indiscriminately. Oregon's attorney general has requested a temporary restraining order against federal forces in Portland and is awaiting a decision from a federal judge.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said Thursday that his office will investigate the conduct of federal agents in Portland in response to concerns from members of Congress and the public. The investigation will look at use-of-force allegations and whether agents followed Justice Department guidelines, including adhering to requirements for providing proper identification and deploying chemical agents.

"If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider including other issues that may arise during the course of the review," Horowitz said in a statement.

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The move comes after a group of Democratic Oregon lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, sent a joint letter asking the Justice Department to review the federal intervention.

Trump's "strongman tactics will not be tolerated," Merkley said in a statement.

The president has said more Democratic-led cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Baltimore, could see similar federal enforcement efforts.

Portland protesters first gathered at the end of May to decry police brutality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but demonstrators have switched focus in recent weeks and are now calling for federal forces to vacate the city.

Shortly before Harris woke up to a face full of tear gas early Wednesday, federal officers swept through the park where protesters gather across the street from the U.S. courthouse. According to witnesses, agents slashed water bottles and pepper-sprayed food supplies. They also destroyed barbecue grills and first aid kits that had been donated by community members, witnesses said.

DHS did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.

"This shouldn't be happening, especially when we're trying to feed each other," said a volunteer, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted by law enforcement. "All it does is destroy. It hurts."

Blumenauer later denounced in a tweet the destruction of food supplies.

Hours after the protest camp was cleared, donations flooded in. Campers received 13 new barbecue grills by Wednesday evening, dozens of pizza deliveries and hundreds of water bottles. First aid supplies were restocked, and new tents were erected to replace those that were damaged.

A protester uses an umbrella to block pepper balls while clashing with federal officers at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

The tear gas that billowed through downtown streets Wednesday slammed parents, protesters and even Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Shortly before midnight, police declared a riot and repeatedly warned protesters to leave or risk use of force or arrest. But they did not move. Most hoisted signs or chanted in place. Only a handful of people near the barricade continued to shake the fence or toss fireworks toward the federal building.

Police drove in marked SUVs around the site, issuing warnings through loudspeakers. Meanwhile, federal officers used tear gas and projectiles to push protesters off the steel barricade that protects the federal courthouse.

Wheeler had been standing at the front of the group when he was suddenly shrouded in a cloud of tear gas. Earlier in the night, he had tried to address protesters but was repeatedly taunted and jeered. They screamed over him, calling for his resignation and asking him to leave.

A resident asked him what could be done to rid Portland of the federal officers.

"I think what we're doing tonight is actually the best thing we can right now: Be here, be unified and be clear," he said. "We didn't want them. We didn't ask for them ... and we want them to leave."

Shortly after being hit with tear gas, Wheeler called the tactic "abhorrent."

"The tear gas is ... indiscriminate," he said. "It makes me think long and hard about whether this is a really viable tool. I want to look at other options. This is not a good option."

Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler is surrounded by reporters and protesters on Wednesday.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Wheeler, who also serves as Portland's police commissioner, has come under fierce criticism for allowing local law enforcement to use tear gas when the protests began. A temporary restraining order bars police from using it, but residents worry what will happen when the order expires.

"We've heard this all before," said Tuck Woodstock, a Portland-based reporter who has been chronicling the unrest. "This has created a cycle where, to some extent, every protest is about the night before, because people come out protesting police brutality and then they experience more brutality."