Facing federal agents, Portland protests find new momentum

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Noah Berger

Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters hold their phones aloft on Monday, July 20, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Federal officers actions at protests in Oregons largest city, hailed by President Donald Trump but done without local consent, are raising the prospect of a constitutional crisis one that could escalate as weeks of demonstrations find renewed focus in clashes with camouflaged, unidentified agents outside Portlands U.S. courthouse. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Mardy Widman has watched protests against racial injustice unfold in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, for more than seven weeks but stayed away because, at age 79, she feared contracting the coronavirus.

But that calculus changed for Widman when President Donald Trump sent federal law enforcement agents to the liberal city to quell violent demonstrations — a tactic he's said he'll use for other cities. On Monday, a masked Widman was in the street with more than 1,000 other Portland residents — a far larger crowd than the city had seen in recent days as it entered its eighth week of nightly protests.

“It’s like a dictatorship," Widman, a grandmother of five, said, holding up a sign that read: “Grammy says: Please feds, leave Portland.”

“I mean, that he can pick on our city mostly because of the way we vote and make an example of it for his base is very frightening," she said.

Far from tamping down the unrest, the presence of federal agents — and particularly allegations they have whisked people away in unmarked cars without probable cause — has given new momentum and a new focus to protests that had begun to devolve into smaller, chaotic crowds. The use of federal agents against the will of local officials has also set up the potential for a constitutional crisis, which could escalate if Trump sends federal agents elsewhere.

Federal forces were deployed to Portland in early July, and tensions have risen since: On July 11, a protester was hospitalized with critical injuries after a U.S. Marshals Service officer struck him in the head with a round of less-lethal ammunition.

Then, anger flared again over the weekend after video surfaced of a federal agent hitting a Navy veteran repeatedly with a baton while another agent sprays him in the face with pepper spray. Richard Cline, principal deputy director of the Federal Protective Service, told reporters Tuesday that the officers are part of the Marshals Service and that the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating.

Crowds in Portland had recently numbered fewer than 100 people but swelled to more than 1,000 over the weekend — and they're once again attracting a broader base in a city that's increasingly outraged.