Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams on Saturday called it “nonsensical, political theater” for Portland city officials to bar local police from collaborating with federal officers and urged local citizens to demand the “violent extremists” who attempt to breach the fence outside the federal courthouse each night to leave.
“Until that happens, we’re going to do what we need to do to protect federal property,‘’ Oregon’s top federal prosecutor said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive. “When the violence ends, then there won’t be a need for the presence of nightly federal officers. … It seems quite simple.”
“Anyone who thinks we’re just going to give up the courthouse, Hatfield, Pioneer (Courthouse) or any other federal facility downtown, that’s not going to happen. … We’re not leaving.”
Williams and Oregon U.S. Marshals Russel E. Burger answered questions in a phone interview Saturday, after an assistant federal prosecutor and spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security held a media briefing as demonstrators are expected to mark the 59th consecutive day of protests Saturday evening.
The protests against police violence and systemic racism were spurred by the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. But the size of the demonstrations in Portland have grown since early July and have shifted their focus to the 114 federal officers who President Donald Trump deployed to protect the downtown courthouse from vandalism.
Since early July, federal officers have detained or arrested 60 people. Of those, 46 face pending federal charges, including 30 misdemeanors, eight felonies and eight violations or citations, on allegations ranging from attempted arson to assault on an officer and failing to comply with a lawful order.
Burger and Williams stood by the federal officers’ use of tear gas and impact munitions to “repel” people from breaching what’s now a heavy embassy-style fence, anchored by concrete barriers, erected around the perimeter of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse at Southwest Third Avenue between Salmon and Main streets.
Burger said the fence is intended to “de-escalate” the tensions, though the fence has become a flashpoint, as one previously did outside the neighboring Multnomah County Justice Center and has since been removed.
Burger said U.S. Marshals are directed to remain in a “defensive posture” inside the courthouse, unless people are trying to break in, knock down the protective fence or set fires to the courthouse. Then, the marshals are directed to use “the minimal amount of force necessary to stop attacks on them.” The marshals are armed with flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and pepper balls, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel said the fence was put up to create some distance and further separate the courthouse from people intending to either set it on fire, pull plywood down from its exterior or break the glass doors, as had occurred in recent weeks.
Harry Fones, a spokesman for the federal Homeland Security Department, repeatedly referred to “rioters” and “violent anarchists” rioting in the street in a prepared statement he read. He didn’t take questions.
Deputy U.S. marshals would prefer to remain inside the courthouse, or not have to be present at all, but once people attempt to set the building on fire or breach the security fence outside with power tools, ropes or vehicles, then the officers will respond, Burger said.
Once federal officers leave the courthouse, he said, they’ve routinely faced a barrage of objects thrown at them, including fireworks, water bottles and ball bearings, and then must work to disperse the crowd.
He said if that means pushing people back across the street, or “if it means pushing them out four blocks away, if that’s what it takes, that’s what they got to do,” Burger said.
On Friday night, six federal officers were injured, including one who was hospitalized with burns from a mortar blast. Another suffered a concussion, according to Gabriel.
Outside lawyers say the federal officers have overstepped their legal authority to defend the courthouse by declaring unlawful assemblies, firing tear gas or rubber bullets at nonviolent demonstrators or pressing crowds to move several blocks away from the courthouse.
While acknowledging that other peaceful demonstrators are getting subjected to federal officers’ use of tear gas, and sometimes impact munitions, Burger said, “We want to support people’s rights to express themselves…but at the same time when our people are under attack, they have to defend themselves.
“It would be great if the peaceful protesters would tell the violent ones to please stop so they aren’t the recipient of gas or munitions,‘’ Burger said.
Williams said he has talked to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who himself was subject to tear gas when he attended a protest last week, but not the governor, and is talking with other leaders of the community, faith-based groups and business leaders.
He called Portland City Council’s vote last week ordering Portland police to end coordination with federal officers “short-sighted,‘’ considering police and federal officers have long worked together on joint task forces to combat crimes, such as sex or drug trafficking. “It doesn’t help anything,” he said.
Burger and Williams declined to comment on a deputy marshal’s shooting of 26-year-old Donavan La Bella in the head with an impact munition; the baton-battering of U.S. Navy vet Chris David, 53, who was attempting to talk to federal officers outside the courthouse; or allegations that two people have been picked up off the street, taken to unmarked vans without probable cause to detain them.
Those cases, Williams said, are under review by either the U.S. Department of Justice’s or Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.
Burger did say his prayers and thoughts go out to La Bella’s family and he was glad to hear that La Bella is recovering and has been released from the hospital.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel said, “There will be accountability” if any tactics did not comply with federal law or policy. He said the U.S. Attorney’s office, though, doesn’t control the tactics of the federal officers.
He said the office is aware that there’s “historic civil unrest,” due to longstanding racial injustice, economic disparities and a global pandemic.
“People are angry. Very large crowds are gathering, expressing deep and legitimate anger with police and the justice system,” Gabriel said. “We wholeheartedly support the community’s constitutionally protected rights to assemble together in large, even rowdy protests and engage in peaceful and civil disobedience.”
But he added, “We have to condemn the ongoing violence against police officers and justice facilities. … If the courthouse can stand and have integrity and not be subject to damage or attack, then the officers will go home. It’s that simple.”
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at [email protected]; 503-221-8212
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