Portland, Oakland Sue Federal Government Over Response to Protests, Riots

October 16, 2020 Updated: October 16, 2020

The cities of Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, filed a joint lawsuit this week against the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, claiming the response to protests and riots earlier this year violated the Constitution.

“This lawsuit challenges the unlawful and unconstitutional overreach of federal law enforcement in response to and in anticipation of civil protests in progressive United States cities,” the 48-page document, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, states.

Plaintiffs allege President Donald Trump’s administration enacted a new policy “authorizing the expanded and unbounded jurisdiction of federal law enforcement under the guise of protecting federal property.”

The U.S. courthouse in Portland was attacked by rioters starting in late May with little response by local law enforcement, leading to the deployment of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assets in early July to help protect the building, DHS officials have said.

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf told members of Congress in August that violent criminals, opportunists, and anarchists attacked the courthouse for months but the federal officers guarding it “received almost no assistance from state and local law enforcement in Portland.”

In a statement to news outlets about the new lawsuit, the Department of Homeland Security said it was filed by “dangerous politicians and fringe special interest groups.”

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A rioter throws a flaming object toward the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse after breaking through the perimeter fence, in Portland, Ore., on July 22, 2020. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

“They aim to harm President Trump and distract from his law and order agenda,” a department spokesperson said. “Department of Homeland Security have acted entirely lawfully. Instead of condemning the violence we are seeing across the country, these politicians focus on scoring cheap political points to the detriment of the American people.”

Wolf, Attorney General William Barr, and the DHS are named as defendants in the suit.

Plaintiffs said the policy President Donald Trump issued on June 26, aimed at protecting monuments, memorials, and statues, was meant to punish and respond to state and local governments that the president alleged “lost the ability to distinguish between the lawful exercise of rights to free speech and assembly and unvarnished vandalism,” or otherwise “failed to protect public monuments, memorials, and statues.”

Using the order, federal law enforcement “instituted and/or continued refining and executing the Policy, which concerns the broad deployment and operation of federal law enforcement in United States cities without the consent, request, or authorization from the states or local leaders; without using any known and non-pretextual legal authority to do so; and with the purpose and/or effect of taking on quintessential general policing powers granted to other governments,” plaintiffs said in the suit.

In one example listed, the federal government did not gain permission to erect a fence around the courthouse in its bid to protect it. The fence blocked an entire bike lane on one street and a lane of vehicle traffic on another, according to the suit.

The suit also challenged the need to continue the cross-deputation of local law enforcement.

Federal officials deputized Portland officers on Sept. 25 in preparation for a rally held by the Proud Boys, a right-wing group that has been involved in violence in the past.

Following that weekend, Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve wrote to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland to say the city was withdrawing consent to the federal deputation. Neither that office nor any other federal agency responded to Reeve, according to the suit.

Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland
Federal police clean in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland in Portland, Oregon, on July 28, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Instead, Billy Williams, U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, and Ross Burger, U.S. marshal for the District of Oregon, issued a joint statement rejecting the request.

“Officers have been repeatedly assaulted with bottles, bats, sledgehammers, lasers, rocks, and other weapons of convenience. In addition, the public has seen repeated efforts by criminals to burn down public buildings,” they wrote.

The deputation of Oregon state police officers, Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies, and Portland police officers “underscores the importance of providing accountability and deterrence for these criminal acts,” they added. “Importantly, the federal deputation supports front line law enforcement officers and their families in a way they have not seen from City Hall.”

Protests and riots have continued in Portland nearly every night since late May, except during a weekslong lull due to looming wildfires. The mayhem around the courthouse ceased following the deployment in late July of state troopers to the city to help keep the peace. Since then, protesters have turned their sights on other buildings, rotating between approximately six across the city.

A group of nearly 100 people gathered outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in the downtown area on Oct. 15, the Portland Police Bureau said.

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People flee from police officers during a riot in Portland, Ore., Oct. 11, 2020. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

“Members of the group were seen spray painting Central Precinct as well as putting garbage near the entryways and exits to the sally port garage doors. At the same time, members of the group started a large fire in the intersection located at Southwest Main Street and Southwest 3rd Avenue,” police said in an incident summary. “As the fire grew larger, members stood near blocking vehicular traffic. Smaller fires were lit by igniting the garbage left near the sally port doors.”

Portland firefighters doused the fire, with protection from the police. The group continued lighting small fires and blocking traffic. Officers eventually made some targeted arrests and the group was mostly dispersed by 12:30 a.m.

Nearly 1,000 protest-related arrests and subsequent referrals for prosecution have been made by police since May 29, according to Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. The office has moved to prosecute only 129 of those cases so far.

More than 100 others have been arrested by federal officers, Williams announced last month, with more than 80 facing federal charges related to “protest violence.”

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