Ken Cuccinelli, the No. 2 official at the Department of Homeland Security, is defending an aggressive federal response to civil rights demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, which has included disturbing detentions described by some as “kidnappings.”
Several top officials in the state are calling for investigations amid growing national concern over Homeland Security’s actions, some of which have been caught on video and widely circulated on social media. Unidentified federal agents in military-style gear have taken to patrolling Portland’s streets in unmarked vans and detaining protesters over allegations of property damage and violence.
Asked Friday whether he would support such an investigation, Cuccinelli told NPR, “The more investigations, the better.”
DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf announced July 1 that a new task force would be formed to enforce President Donald Trump’s executive order on protecting monuments and all federal property, which was signed in late June. The task force ― comprising officers from agencies including Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Marshals Service ― is conducting “ongoing assessments of potential civil unrest or destruction” so that it can “allocate resources to protect people and property.”
But many in Portland say that the federal officers are only making the city less safe for people to exercise their First Amendment rights.
“The current escalation of fear and violence in downtown Portland is being driven by federal law enforcement tactics that are entirely unnecessary and out of character with the Oregon way,” state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said early Saturday morning. Her office is suing DHS, CBP, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Protection Service, arguing that the detentions and enforcement tactics are illegal.
Cuccinelli defended the legality of his department’s actions.
“With as much lawbreaking is going on, we’re seeking to prosecute as many people as are breaking the law as it relates to federal jurisdiction,” he said on NPR.
DHS has outlined dozens of incidents in Portland to justify the presence of federal forces, including damage to federal buildings by fireworks and many instances of graffiti.
Speaking to The New York Times, unnamed officials claimed that legal authority for the response comes from a section of U.S. law that allows DHS to recruit federal officers to help the Federal Protective Service, an agency it oversees that is charged with protecting federal property.
The aggressive response from DHS has sown worries that the department could soon start sending unidentified officers to other cities around the country where anti-racism protests have marched on since the late-May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minnesota police officer.
Cuccinelli seemed to confirm those fears, telling NPR, “This is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we’re responsible for around the country.”
Protests continued Saturday night as demonstrators gathered outside the the Portland police union’s office. Protesters flipped nearby dumpsters and formed a barricade around the building, The Oregonian reported. Police declared the scene a “riot” and alleged demonstrators set a fire inside the building. Multiple people were taken into custody.
About five miles south, in downtown Portland, protesters dismantled fencing around a park and marched near a courthouse. Federal officers fired tear gas at protesters and struck at least one demonstrator with a baton, according to The Portland Tribune.
Opposition to the aggressive DHS response has been driven by alarming anecdotes and images posted to social media. One protester, Mark Pettibone, described being grabbed by federal officers with generic “police” badges and forced into an unmarked gray van, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Pettibone said he was brought to a federal courthouse the officers said they were in charge of protecting, and released after around 90 minutes after he refused to answer questions. Last week, a federal officer was caught on video shooting a projectile at a protester’s head, causing severe injury.
U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams said Friday that he had requested an inspector general investigation into the DHS actions, supported by both of the state’s senators and two of its representatives.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has deployed legal observers to the Portland protests, promised this week to sue.
“Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping — what is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the US,” the civil rights group said in a statement. “These actions are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.”
Trump on Sunday appeared to defend the deployment of federal officers to Portland.
“We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” the president tweeted, claiming the city’s leadership had “lost control of the anarchists and agitators.”
“We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE,” he added. “These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”
Hayley Miller contributed reporting.