Acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf called out rioters and looters, saying that his agency will not abdicate its “moral and legal duty” to protect citizens.
“Our Constitution protects the natural right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly,” Wolf said, adding that his agency “department supports the exercise of everyone’s First Amendment rights” but sought to differentiate between demonstrations and riots.
“There is, however, no constitutional right to loot, to burn, or to assault law enforcement officers or fellow citizens,” Wolf added.
Portland, Oregon, has experienced more than 100 straight days of protests, arson incidents, riots, vandalism, and looting in the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis.
“Let me be clear: Those who seek to undermine our democratic institutions, indiscriminately destroy our businesses and attack our law enforcement officers and fellow citizens are a threat to the homeland,” Wolf said. “The department has experienced this firsthand in Portland, Oregon, where violent opportunists repeatedly targeted and attempt to burn down a federal courthouse, the seat of justice in downtown Portland.”
Federal agents were deployed to a federal courthouse in Portland earlier this summer in an attempt to quell unrest after Trump administration officials said that it was no longer a protest. Attorney General William Barr said violent agitators have attacked the courthouse, agents, and other buildings. They also attempted to set fire to the buildings, according to police and the federal government.
The move to send federal officers drew condemnation from top Democrats, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who all said the agents should be withdrawn.
In late July, the DHS chief said federal officers would be mostly pulled away from the courthouse.
Brown, a Democrat, in late July accused the White House of fomenting discord in Portland by sending in the agents.
“These federal officers have acted as an occupying force, refused accountability, and brought violence and strife to our community. Beginning Thursday, all Customs and Border Protection and ICE officers will leave downtown Portland, and shortly thereafter will begin going home,” she said in a statement, adding that she had discussions with Vice President Mike Pence and other unspecified administration officials in the past week.
On Aug. 31, Wolf sent a letter to Wheeler, a Democrat, saying that he should request federal assistance after months of riots.
“I urge you to prioritize public safety and to request federal assistance to restore law and order in Portland,” he wrote. “We are standing by to support Portland. At the same time, President Trump has made it abundantly clear that there will come a point when state and local officials fail to protect its citizens from violence, the federal government will have no choice but to protect our American citizens.”
In his address on Wednesday, Wolf said that over the past two months or so, federal officers have been assaulted with sledgehammers, fireworks, pipes, rocks, IEDs, and other weapons.
Wolf again castigated local Portland and Oregon officials for refusing to cooperate with the agency.
“As Portland officials refused to cooperate with DHS, our law enforcement officers suffered over 240 injuries,” he said.
Over the Labor Day weekend, the unrest did not subside. Portland Police said they arrested more than 100 people in a several-night span for riot-related incidents.