By Steve Herman
U.S. President Donald Trump plans to expand the controversial presence of federal law enforcement on the streets of American cities to deter what he decries as unacceptable violence.
Trump, in comments to reporters on Monday in the Oval Office, remarked that federal forces on the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon, have done “a fantastic job” during the past three days.
Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler disagrees, telling reporters this week that the actions by federal law enforcement officials are “a blatant abuse of police tactics by the federal government” which Wheeler calls unconstitutional. The Oregon attorney general is asking a federal judge for a restraining order to prevent the federal agents from making any more arrests.
City and state officials say the para-military personnel, apparently drawn from several federal law enforcement agencies but displaying no identification, are exacerbating tensions with protesters. And more deployments are planned in other U.S. cities.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is planning to deploy about 150 federal agents to Chicago this week, according to the Chicago Tribune.
At least 71 people were shot, 12 of them fatally, from Friday afternoon to Monday morning in Chicago, according to the newspaper.
Trump mentioned Monday the possibility of dispatching forces to New York City, where he said politicians from the Democratic Party “have no idea what they’re doing.”
The president also indicated the situation is intolerable in Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland.
Protests vs riots
The president argues the additional law enforcement personnel are necessary because he claims local officials are “physically afraid” of the protesters, whom Trump characterizes as “anarchists.”
“They hate our country and we’re not going to let it go forward,” he said.
Many of the protesters have continued to demonstrate against systemic racism and police treatment of Black Americans. In Portland and other U.S. cities, peaceful protests have continued nearly every day, along with vandalism, clashes with police officers and some looting.
The president has called the protest violence, as well as homicides unrelated to the demonstrations, “worse than Afghanistan.”
Videos posted to social media from Portland have shown people — some contending they were not participating in protests — put into unmarked vehicles by federal personnel who are not displaying identification. Some of those detained say they were arrested without warning, held and questioned before being released without charges.
DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli acknowledged Friday to National Public Radio that federal agents used unmarked cars to pick up people in Portland, but said it was done to keep officers safe and away from crowds and to move detainees to a “safe location for questioning.”
Democrat lawmakers strongly oppose the actions.
The chairs of three House committees on Monday issued a joint statement decrying that “many of these federal officers have apparently been patrolling the streets in unmarked vehicles and arresting protestors off the street – in some cases without probable cause and without reading their Miranda rights – all while donning what appears to be military uniforms.”
Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Adam Smith, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee and Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the actions are “simply unacceptable, and it must stop.”
The committee chairs have sent a letter to the inspectors general of the Justice Department and DHS demanding an immediate investigation into the Trump administration’s “use of violent tactics against peaceful protestors in Washington D.C., Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere around the country.”
The American Civil Liberties Union says it is filing legal actions against DHS and the Marshals Service to stop what it calls “unconstitutional attacks” on protesters, journalists and legal observers.
“This is a fight to save our democracy,” said Kelly Simon, interim legal director with the ACLU of Oregon. “Under the direction of the Trump administration, federal agents are terrorizing the community, risking lives, and brutally attacking protesters demonstrating against police brutality.”
Federal agencies contend their actions are legal and they have broad authority to conduct them.
Trump has signed an executive order directing federal agencies to send personnel to protect federal property, monuments and statues, prompting DHS to form “rapid deployment teams.”
The use of federal force in Portland is “performative authoritarianism,” said Anne Applebaum, author of “Twilight of Democracy,” on CNN Sunday. “That’s designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter who wants to see this control put onto contemporary events.”
Anti-police demonstrations have been flaring up across the country since George Floyd, a Black man, died in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis in May.
Many of the marches have been peaceful, but some have turned violent.
Portland police declared a riot Saturday night after some protesters massed outside a police precinct building vandalized cars and bellowed obscenities at officers.
A Portland Police Association building was set on fire, but the flames were quickly put out. Portland police say seven people were arrested.
Trump, in recent comments at the White House and elsewhere, has been warning that the safety of America’s cities will deteriorate if he loses this November’s presidential election, accusing the Democrats of being soft on lawlessness.
“If Joe Biden got in, the whole country will go to hell,” Trump said to reporters in the Oval Office on Monday.
He has also accused Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, of wanting to “defund the police.” Biden has said he opposes that, but does favor conditioning federal aid to police departments, based on meeting “standards of decency and honorableness.”