Federal officers who are protecting Portland’s courthouse under the orders of the Trump administration have revealed that they ‘fear for their lives’ after 61 nights of protests in the city, but demonstrators say they are fighting back to protect themselves from the agents.
President Donald Trump sent federal agents to Portland earlier this month and has since said he would be sending 100 more troops into the city to protect federal property.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand justice for black men and women who have died at the hands of police officers across the US, including George Floyd who took his last breath under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
And while many protests have been peaceful, some have turned violent for both officers and protesters.
‘It’s scary. You open those doors out, when the crowd is shaking the fence, and… on the other side of that fence are people that want to kill you because of the job we chose to do and what we represent,’ said a Deputy US Marshal who has been protecting the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse for weeks.
He requested anonymity because protesters have identified him and posted his personal information online.
‘I can’t walk outside without being in fear for my life,’ he said. ‘I am worried for my life, every time I walk outside of the building.’
The agent then said that downtown Portland has started to look a lot like downtown Baghdad.
‘I finally get outside at 7am, after being in the building since 3pm the day prior, and I look east and I’m like, “Oh, the world’s normal over there and people are driving to work and the city is clean and functioning,”‘ the Deputy US Marshal said.
‘And I look out on the street and it looks like downtown Baghdad.’
Federal property has been increasingly targeted as the city’s protests against racial injustice march on. But Trump’s decision has added fuel to the fire and re-energized Portland protesters who arrived by the thousands outside the courthouse Monday night.
Within the past few days, federal agents have seen as many as 4,000 people on a single night, the largest total so far.
The US Marshals Service decided last week to deploy 100 deputy marshals to fortify security outside the federal courthouse, according to an internal email obtained by The Washington Post on Monday.
The email indicated that the marshals began arriving last Thursday, ahead of a heated weekend that saw heavily armed federal troops repeatedly fire tear gas, flash bangs and pepper balls into crowds of protesters as they attempted to breach a fence surrounding the courthouse on Saturday and Sunday night.
Trump decried the protests and subsequent media coverage in a pair of tweets on Monday night, writing: ‘The Fake News Media is trying to portray the Portland and Seattle “protesters” as wonderful, sweet and innocent people just out for a little stroll.
‘Actually, they are sick and deranged Anarchists & Agitators who our great men & women of Law Enforcement easily control, but who would destroy our American cities, and worse, if Sleepy Joe Biden, the puppet of the Left, ever won.
‘Markets would crash and cities would burn. Our Country would suffer like never before. We will beat the Virus, soon, and go on to the Golden Age – better than ever before!’
The president sent a direct warning to protesters earlier in the night, tweeting: ‘Anarchists, Agitators or Protestors who vandalize or damage our Federal Courthouse in Portland, or any Federal Buildings in any of our Cities or States, will be prosecuted under our recently re-enacted Statues & Monuments Act.
‘MINIMUM TEN YEARS IN PRISON. Don’t do it!’
And prior to that tweet, Trump doubled down on his support for the federal agents’ actions in another post, claiming that federal properties in Portland ‘wouldn’t last a day’ without their presence.
Hours later the US Attorney’s Office in Oregon shared photos of items that had been confiscated from them over the weekend – including gasoline, hockey sticks, defense shields, leaf blowers, paint sprayers, cans of paint, and a jar prepped for a Molotov cocktail.
At 10.15pm Monday night, a man tried to climb the fence outside the courthouse and was quickly arrested.
Thirty minutes later, the fence rocked and leaned sharply as dozens of protesters pressed their weight against it, some of them throwing their bodies against it at a running start.
Monica Arce, a professional midwife, said that demonstrators are not being violent but are sending a message to Trump that his agents are not wanted in their city.
‘We are not here being violent or being destructive. We have a positive message – there is nothing to quell here,’ she said, referencing Trump’s statement that the agents were there to quell unrest.
‘The people of Portland are saying, “We don’t want this presence here and we don’t think we need them at all.”‘
Thirty minutes later, someone fired a commercial-grade firework inside the fence. Next came a flare and then protesters began using an angle grinder to eat away at the fence.
A barrage of items were then thrown into the courthouse, including rocks, cans of beans, water bottles and potatoes. Within minutes, the federal agents at the fence perimeter fired the first tear gas of the night.
Agents with the Federal Protective Service, US Marshals Service and US Customs and Border Protection have feared for weeks that they would be hit by a firework or flare or blinded by a laser.
Many were sent from out of town to reinforce the local agents – some are members of an elite Border Patrol tactical team sent in as reinforcements. But others were already stationed there and said they had chosen to live in the Portland area and call it home.
‘You see a lot of commentary on social media about, “Well, they’re wearing protective gear so that it’s not going to hurt them.” Okay, I’ll put the same protective gear on you and I’ll throw a brick at your head and you tell me if you feel comfortable with that,’ said a senior US Marshals Service official.
‘They can put out 10 seconds of something (on social media) that unfolded over several minutes, and those are the 10 seconds that look bad for us, whereas the rest of it would look bad for everybody,’ he said, speaking of the protesters. ‘They use what serves their narrative.’
Protester Eli Deschera, 21, of Portland, said: ‘I think what people fail to realize is, us in Portland, we’re still playing defense so anything we do, it’s a defensive maneuver. We are protecting ourselves at the very most and each other.
‘I think that using chemical warfare on civilians is anything but protecting and serving, which is what they’re supposed to be doing.’
One of the people at the very front of the fence was Travis Rogers, a US Air Force veteran who recently quit his job as a Medicaid case manager, in part because he would have been fired anyway if he got arrested for protesting.
Rogers said he has spent most days trying to take down the fence and screaming at the federal agents guarding it, asking them to explore their conscience.
After six years working for the military, Rogers said he felt better equipped than many to find talking points that might make the agents think about their mission more critically.
‘I think it is a good idea to try to plant some seeds in their heads for… them to go home and sleep on. These are people’s kids and mothers and wives and daughters that they’re gassing and they´re going to have to go home to THEIR mothers and wives and daughters,’ said Rogers.
‘I try to encourage them to think about the fact that they’re on the wrong side of history and that they will not be treated so kindly.’
In one incident, a firework exploded near a federal agent, leaving his hearing deadened and bloody gashes on both forearms.
By the end of the night, five other federal agents would be injured, including another who got a concussion when he was hit in the head with a commercial-grade firework. One agent was hospitalized. Several agents have lingering vision problems from the lasers.
After each night of protest, they seize dozens of homemade shields, slingshots, blocks of wood and chunks of concrete.
‘My friends have been hit in the head with hammers. I know people who have been shot with fireworks. It’s disgusting,’ said the Deputy US Marshal. ‘I’ve never thought I’d have to walk around in my office building wearing a gas mask to go sit in front of my computer.’
Outside, hundreds of protesters surged back from the courthouse with each new round of tear gas, dumped saline solution and water into their stinging eyes, vomited or doubled over to catch their breath, then regrouped to march back to the fence.
‘Stay together, stay tight! We do this every night!’ they chanted.
Middle school teacher, Azure Akamay, was coughing so hard from tear gas that she could barely speak.
‘I was just standing right on the corner… listening to the music and kind of didn’t even see it coming. I mean, there wasn’t any announcement or anything like that. By the time I just got to this corner here, I basically couldn’t see,’ Akamay said.
In the very front, those with gas masks formed a wall against the tear gas and pepper balls with shields and umbrellas.
Protesters who began wielding leaf blowers to push the gas back on the federal agents several days ago found that now the agents, too, had leaf blowers.
Kennedy Verrett, a composer and music teacher, had been teargassed twice since he’s been protesting.
‘When you are sent to protect property…’ he said of the agents, trailing off. ‘My ancestors were once property. No one protected them. Tear gas is nothing when you have lived in America as a black man for 40 years.’
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has repeatedly asked the Trump administration and the DHS to remove the federal troops, arguing that they have only made the situation in his city worse.
Wheeler joined the mayors of five other US cities in writing an appeal to Congress on Monday, asking to make it illegal for the federal government to deploy militarized federal agents to cities that don’t want them.
‘This administration’s egregious use of federal force on cities over the objections of local authorities should never happen,’ the mayors of Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque and Washington, DC, wrote to leaders of the House and Senate.
The mayors said they support legislative efforts to require notice and consultation with and consent from local authorities before deployments; require visible identification at all times on federal agents and vehicles unless on an undercover mission authorized by the local US Attorney; and impose limitations on federal agents’ crowd control activities to protecting federal property.
The letter came after demonstrations in several other cities descended into violence over the weekend.
Protesters set fire to a courthouse in Oakland, California; an armed protester was shot and killed in Austin, Texas; vehicles were set ablaze in Richmond, Virginia; and two people were shot and wounded in Aurora, Colorado after a car drove through a protest.
But as for Portland, the federal militarized officers will remain in the city until attacks on the US courthouse cease end.
‘It is not a solution to tell federal officers to leave when there continues to be attacks on federal property and personnel. We are not leaving the building unprotected to be destroyed by people intent on doing so,’ US Attorney Billy Williams said.