Portland mayor tear-gassed by federal agents as protests continue

"Every single person should be scared of what's happening here," said resident Katrina Kerley. "We can't stand for this."

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By Alicia Victoria Lozano

PORTLAND, Ore. — Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed by federal agents as crowds of demonstrators in the city continued Wednesday night to protest the presence of federal officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Wheeler, a Democrat, was standing at a fence guarding a federal courthouse when he got caught in the cloud of tear gas. The mayor appeared slightly dazed and coughed as he put on a pair of goggles and someone handed him water, although he didn’t leave his spot.

It wasn't immediately clear if federal agents knew Wheeler was in the crowd when they used the tear gas.

The mayor has been accused by some residents of not reining in local police who used tear gas multiple times on demonstrators before federal agents arrived early this month. Others, including business leaders, have condemned Wheeler for not bringing the situation under control before the agents showed up.

After he was tear gassed, Wheeler, who has opposed the presence of federal officers in the city, told a Portland Mercury reporter, "It makes me think long and hard whether this is a viable tool. It's definitely not a good tactic — it’s indiscriminate. I mean, there’s a lot of people hanging out here who are not doing anything wrong."

Meanwhile, frustration has been rising between demonstrators calling for nonviolent action and activists determined to push out federal officers by any means necessary.

Portland residents have gathered every night since late May, after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, to demand criminal justice reform and more control over their police department.

Thousands of people descended on the city's downtown area Tuesday night for another round of demonstrations. They chanted "Feds go home!" and "Black lives matter" for hours as the "Wall of Moms" created a human shield in front of protesters.

But as sunset approached, some protesters argued among themselves over whether targeting the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse — named after the late Republican governor and senator who was described by those who know him as a pacifist — was the best strategy.

"This is not peaceful!" Portland resident Dan Thomas shouted into his loudspeaker. "This is war against the federal government!"

Thomas, who has attended every nightly protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, warned demonstrators against attacking federal property and playing into President Donald Trump's narrative that they are destroying the city and using systemic injustices as a pretext to commit crimes.

"This is what Trump wants!" he yelled. "Donald Trump wants to label Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization!"

Thomas pleaded with demonstrators to switch tactics and focus instead on the neighboring Portland Police Bureau building, which also houses a jail.

"You're not going to win against the feds," he said. "You're wasting your time."

The crowd wasn't listening. People shouted back, blaming the federal presence in Portland for the unrest and the nightly chaos. They screamed "No justice, no peace" and pledged not to leave until the federal forces are gone.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

"I've been seeing this my whole life," Portland resident Katrina Kerley said.

Kerley is one of the dozens of mothers who recently joined protesters near the federal courthouse and the neighboring Multnomah County Justice Center. Kerley, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, with two teenage children, has lived in Portland for 17 years but remembers the history lessons she learned growing up in the South.

Linking arms with two other mothers, Kerley held a large sign that read "1st Amendment Shield."

"Every single person should be scared of what's happening here," she said. "We can't stand for this."

The crowds had decreased by June, but repeated use of force by federal officers in July re-energized protesters and drew national attention. The city itself is split over how to respond.

City Commissioner Jo Anne Hardesty wrote an open letter Saturday asking Mayor Ted Wheeler to take control of the police department after learning that police were collaborating with federal forces to control crowds.

"I demand action right now," she wrote. "Mayor Wheeler, if you can't control the police, give me the Portland Police Bureau."

Wheeler rejected the request and said in a statement that he will "continue to work with elected leaders from the county and the state to ensure that we are examining the criminal justice system as a whole."

A federal court in Oregon issued a temporary restraining order this month limiting Portland police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to instances in which the safety of the public or police is at risk.

Wednesday morning, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mossman heard oral arguments from state Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum, who is asking for a separate temporary restraining order against federal agents and relief against "police state-like tactics."

Rosenblum said the state was seeking "extraordinary relief" under "extraordinary circumstances" and argued that actions taken by federal forces violate protesters' rights to free speech and due process. Mossman is expected to rule later Wednesday or Thursday.

The mayor and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have criticized the presence of Homeland Security agents and have repeatedly asked the federal government to withdraw its forces. Wheeler said this week that Trump doesn't understand what's happening in Portland, and he called the administration's tactics "abhorrent."

"Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism," he said. "And it's not helping the situation at all. They're not wanted here. We haven't asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave."

The message has largely been ignored in Washington.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that deployment of Customs and Border Protection agents and other federal forces wasn't a Trump executive order but simply routine practice. Policing protests is part of their duties to protect federal property.

The president said more cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, could see similar enforcement.

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Federal agents in Portland emerge each night from behind a plywood barricade, launching tear gas and projectiles into crowds gathered outside. On Tuesday night, several women participating in the Wall of Mothers were caught in the melee and were forced to retreat. They coughed away the tear gas, chugging water and fanning out their eyes.

Those not wearing gas masks quickly dispersed, while the women who did have protective gear remained defiant.

"They've gotten more harsh," said Jayla Lindseth of Portland, a member of the Wall of Mothers. "I have a broken pelvis — I was shot by pepper bullets. The cops know me by my face. They know what they're doing is too harsh."

Despite her injuries, Lindseth said, she continues to protest for her 3-year-old daughter.

"I want my child knowing she loves her skin," Lindseth said. "We need to uplift our children more, don't want her to worry about her skin color."

Lindseth and others described marchers as largely peaceful, singing songs and chanting in the park near the federal and county courthouses. As the nights wear on, smaller groups of demonstrators zero in on the federal building. On Tuesday, several people tried to light small fires outside, and others were seen kicking plywood barriers protecting the building's glass doors. Across the street at the police bureau, people kicked in windows.

Portland resident Murphy Jones calls them "agitators."

"They're really not part of the actual movement," he said. "They're part of the actual problem."

Like Thomas, Jones worries that too much attention is being given to these so-called agitators, compromising the message of justice and equality.

"People don't come in here and get the full story," he said. "We're not out here rioting and terrorizing Portland. We're out here getting to know each other, forming a community."

Caroline Radnofsky and David Douglas contributed.