DHS Chief: Portland Riots Different From ‘Normal Criminal Activity’

By Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
July 27, 2020Updated: July 27, 2020

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf on July 26 defended the Trump administration’s decision to deploy federal law enforcement agents to Portland following weeks of violent unrest, saying that protests in the city are different from “normal criminal activity.”

Wolf made the remarks in an interview Sunday as he criticized Portland leaders for claiming that the city’s demonstrations are peaceful. Federal agents have been deployed across various U.S. cities, including Portland, to protect a federal courthouse after it was attacked.

Wolf and the Trump administration have faced criticism from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, both Democrats, for sending DHS officers to the city to make arrests.

He told Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that the level of violence in Portland differs from other cities across the country which have seen demonstrations, riots, and calls to “defund the police.”

“They’re coming armed with rocks, bottles, baseball bats, power tools, commercial grade fireworks, eliciting that violence and targeting their violence on federal courthouses and federal law enforcement officers,” Wolf said, describing the situation in Portland, which has seen eight consecutive weeks of rioting and violence.

“That’s very different than what’s going on in Chicago, places like Chicago, Albuquerque, Kansas City,” he added. “That is where you see normal criminal activity, street crime, what we say regarding gangs and drug dealers.”

The Trump administration’s decision to surge federal forces to Portland, Oregon, to protect federal buildings and monuments has drawn widespread scrutiny. Rioting began in the city since late May in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Local and state officials have alleged that the unrest has further escalated after federal forces were dispatched to the city.

Local and state officials and congressional lawmakers have strongly criticized the federal government over allegations that the federal agents were engaged in “unconstitutional” tactics to arrest protesters. These protesters alleged that federal agents wearing camouflage and tactical gear without identifying insignia are detaining individuals and placing them into unmarked vehicles without stating the basis for an arrest, according to various accounts made to media outlets.

Wolf has disputed the accuracy of these reports. He says the federal officers wear multi-camouflage that have insignia that read “Police” and that the operations only target and arrest individuals who have been identified as committing criminal acts.

Acting CBP chief Mark Morgan told reporters in Washington on July 21 that utilizing unmarked vehicles is standard practice for law enforcement agencies across the country and the world.

These reports have sparked several lawsuits against the Trump administration, including a suit from Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, that was denied by U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman (pdf) on Friday.

Wolf on Sunday said that Portland “criminals” have been able to continue sparking unrest “untouched” under current city leadership.

“We see city leadership there has fostered an environment that allows these criminals to do this throughout the night, untouched, absolutely untouched. It’s time for Portland to join other responsible cities around this country working with federal law enforcement to address this violence,” he said.

“We need Portland to step up to the plate, do their responsibility and work with us to address violent criminal activity occurring every night.”

Janita Kan and Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.