A large crowd in Portland, Oregon, tried to break into a U.S. courthouse and set the building on fire late on July 21 before being dispersed by federal officers.
Riots have been taking place in the city virtually unabated since late May.
Video footage showed the crowd of several thousand outside the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse and the nearby Justice Center. Some members of the group started kicking and pounding on plywood attached to glass doors at the courthouse. Others used hammers, crowbars, and other tools to rip the plywood away.
Federal officers responded at 11:12 p.m., after the group breached a set of doors into the courthouse, according to the Portland Police Bureau.
On orders from city officials, local police have repeatedly declined to engage with the rioters at night, but provide daily reports of what happened.
Federal officers used tear gas and other crowd-control munitions to disperse the crowd. Rioters kept returning to the courthouse, forcing officers to disperse them at least three more times.
Rioters collected fences and plywood and used the items to block an exit from the courthouse. They reinforced the barrier with sandbags. In recent days, the group has increasingly focused on trying to trap federal officers inside the building.
At one point, rioters set fire to some of the wood placed on the courthouse. The fire was extinguished.
The mayhem came as local and state officials urged the Trump administration to remove all federal officers from the city. Officials haven’t said how they will protect federal buildings, which were repeatedly attacked in the time leading up to a surge of federal officers on July 4.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat who also serves as police commissioner, last week ordered the removal of federal officials from the city’s command center.
For the past several days, Portland Police refrained from providing any assistance to federal officers.
“Portland Police were not present during any of the activity described. Portland Police did not engage with any crowds and did not deploy any CS gas. No arrests were made by Portland Police,” the agency said in its daily summary of the rioting.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters in Washington on July 21 that the lack of enforcement of the law by city police officers prompted the surge in federal assets.
“These individuals congregate in the same area night after night. We see them planning their attacks. And yet the city of Portland takes little to no action to stop or disperse this crowd,” Wolf said.
“These individuals carry lasers, baseball bats, explosive fireworks, metal pipes, glass bottles, accelerants, and other weapons, all targeting federal facilities and law enforcement, and yet the city of Portland takes little to no action.”
The groups have destroyed fencing erected in an attempt to protect the courthouse, sprayed graffiti on the building, set fires, tried to break into the courthouse, thrown explosive material into the building, and erected barricades in the area.
In most cities across the United States, local police officers help defend federal facilities, disperse crowds, and make arrests, Wolf said. That’s not happening in Portland.
Wheeler and other elected officials in Oregon blame the federal actions for the continued violence, despite the fact that the riots have been going on for more than 50 days.
Before the surge in federal assets, Portland officers were engaging in “de-escalation tactics” and the crowds were losing energy, Wheeler told reporters last week.
“We would have seen the end of this nightly engagement by now. A week ago, we were saying, given the withering energy, the declining numbers we were seeing, the lack of targets that were available, we actually believed we would be in the clear by this weekend,” he said.
In a letter to Wolf and Attorney General William Barr this week, Wheeler and five other Democratic mayors asked them to remove federal officers. They claimed that federal law enforcement is being deployed “for political purposes.” Republican President Donald Trump and his administration “continually attack local leadership and amplify false and divisive rhetoric purely for campaign fodder,” they wrote.
A flurry of legal action is aimed at curtailing or stopping the use of federal forces to enforce the law in Portland and other cities.
House Democrats called on inspector generals to probe the recent use of such force, charging that the departments of Homeland Security and Justice “appear to have increasingly abused emergency authorities to justify the use of force against Americans exercising their right to peaceful assembly.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit against federal agencies, alleging federal officers violated the civil rights of Oregonians by detaining them without probable cause.
And Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced an amendment to the defense spending bill that would limit the use of federal law enforcement officers for crowd control.
Several instances of alleged disproportionate force from federal officers are under investigation.
A number of media outlets and elected officials focused on the recent detention of a man captured on video. Footage showed several Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers approaching the man before guiding him to an unmarked vehicle and driving away.
Some officials falsely stated that the officers didn’t have unique identifiers or insignia; a review of the footage shows that they did.
Acting CBP chief Mark Morgan told reporters in Washington that utilizing unmarked vehicles is standard practice for law enforcement agencies across the country and the world. The subject in question was allegedly part of a crowd that shined lasers in the eyes of federal officers.
“We’re not going to allow somebody to walk up to federal property, assault a federal officer or agent, and because they walk off federal property, we’re not going to arrest or chase you,” he said.
Officials strongly rebutted the claims of unmarked individuals, showing reporters the uniforms that officers from each agency wear. Patches on the uniforms of CBP officers identify them as part of the agency, while they all wear unique identifiers.
Names were removed from some uniforms because 38 officers have been doxxed, or had personal details about them revealed, authorities said.
Tom Ozimek, Janita Kan, Ivan Pentchoukov, and Masooma Haq contributed to this report.