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The clashes in Portland, explained

Protesters continue to clash with federal agents in Portland
Protesters continue to clash with federal agents in Portland 01:36

You've seen the videos: armored police shooting objects into crowds in Portland, teargassing the city's mayor and beating protesters who stand in the way of their tactical advances. But why are federal officers in Portland, and have they fueled violence as critics and city officials claim? 

How did Portland become the epicenter of protests against police violence?

Portland had seen nearly 40 consecutive nights of protests against police violence and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but city officials say the nightly demonstrations were dwindling when the Department of Homeland Security decided on July 4 to increase its presence around Portland's federal courthouse.

What happened at the federal courthouse?

On the night of July 3, a small group of people shattered a glass door at the federal building, which is within a block of both the Multnomah County Justice Center — home to a local jail — and a city police precinct, both of which had been earlier focuses of anti-police violence protests. Prosecutors later accused the group of attempting to set a fire.

The incident prompted the Department of Homeland Security to act on an executive order issued a week earlier by President Trump, authorizing the agency to prioritize enforcement against the "vandalism of government property." In the weeks since, the federal presence — dubbed "Operation Diligent Valor" — has ballooned to include at least 114 federal officers not usually stationed at the courthouse. 

As local officials decried the federal government's dramatic response to vandalism, blaming it for reigniting protests, dozens have been arrested at the nightly demonstrations, and at least one man claims to have been pulled by unidentified federal agents into an unmarked minivan while walking blocks away. He said he was released without charges.

Dozens more protesters, journalists and federal agents have been injured — one protester holding a stereo over his head suffered a fractured skull after being shot by a U.S. Marshal in the head with a so-called less than lethal projectiles. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was among those tear-gassed, and in a viral video, Christopher David, a 53-year-old Navy veteran, was shown being beaten by federal officers. In court documents, federal officials said at least 28 officers have been injured.

How much damage has been done to the courthouse?

Officials have estimated at least $50,000 in costs to clean up graffiti, broken glass and fix security equipment.

Are Portland police and federal officers working together?

The Portland City Council on July 23 voted to bar city police from working with federal law enforcement. They had previously coordinated responses to the protests.

Portland Protests Continue Unabated Despite Federal Law Enforcement Presence
Federal police confront protesters in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland as the city experiences another night of unrest on July 26, 2020. Spencer Platt/Getty

Who are the federal police stationed at the Portland courthouse?

Though courthouse protection is typically the purview of the Federal Protective Service and the U.S. Marshals, "Operation Diligent Valor" includes agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), according to a federal court declaration by Gabriel Russell, who is commanding the operation. The group includes members of an elite unit called the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, according to officials.

Why is Border Patrol allowed to patrol a Portland courthouse?

Portland, like most of the United States' major cities, falls within the so-called "100-mile zone" that defines CBP's jurisdiction, according to the University of Illinois Springfield professor Deborah Anthony, who has studied the agency's expanding operations in that corridor. She said CBP is free to operate within 100 miles of any border or coastline, a swath of land that's home to roughly two-thirds of the country's population.

"It's based on a statute from the 1940s that says border agents can search the border for aliens within a reasonable distance of the border or an external boundary. In 1953, a (Department of Justice) regulation determined that that was a hundred miles. Nobody seems to really know why they came up with a hundred miles, but that's essentially been the rule ever since," Anthony said.

At the time there were about 1,000 border agents nationwide, compared with roughly 21,000 today.

Can they really detain anyone inside the 100-mile zone?

No, Anthony said. "What they are supposed to be doing within that 100 miles is very limited. The charge of customs and border protection is facilitating trade customs and immigration law. And so they really are not supposed to be doing other types of operations, crime control, things like that, even within the 100 miles."

She said the agency's involvement in an operation like "Operation Diligent Valor" in Portland is unusual. "It's the first I'm aware of because as far as I'm aware, it has nothing to do with immigration." 

Why is the attorney general sending federal officials to Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque?

While President Trump appeared to have conflated the two operations on July 20, they are not exactly the same. His executive order and the Portland operation are ultimately focused on enforcement of federal law, on federal property. Attorney General William Barr's July 22 announcement pertained to officials with the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, DEA, and ATF potentially assisting local police in the enforcement of local laws, with an effort toward curbing crime in those cities.

Can federal officials go to cities and enforce local laws?

Only if they're invited, according to Ohio State University law professor Peter Shane. "There's no kind of overarching statutory authority for federal agencies, in general, to send federal officers to assist in local law enforcement," Shane said. "If there is a request for federal help, the federal government can provide that help, but there has to be a request."

Have the cities requested federal help?

No, the mayors of all three cities were among 14 to sign a letter condemning Homeland Security's role in Portland, and the mayors of Albuquerque and Kansas City have explicitly said they are not asking for federal cooperation in local law enforcement. The U.S. Attorneys in both cities have said federal agents will be focused on violent federal crimes. Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, said federal agents will be allowed to "work in partnership" with Chicago detectives investigating gun homicides.

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