Portland activists first got word of federal agents in the city a few days before they arrived. Through the organization Don’t Shoot Portland, Tai Carpenter would receive messages from hotel owners who had turned down contracts from people trying to house agents or from people saying they saw federal agents at the airport.
After about two months of nonstop protest since the death of George Floyd, Portland has now become a city of unrest and social injustice, as federal officials target, teargas and pick up protesters. Some say President Trump sent federal agents to the city as a trial for cities such as Chicago, where he has plans to carry out Operation Legend, a federal law enforcement initiative created “to fight the sudden surge of violent crime” in U.S. cities, according to the Department of Justice.
But why would he start with Portland?
“Trump knows he’s comfortable here. Portland isn’t this, a lot of people watch the show Portlandia or they think that Portland is this very liberal, mostly White, but very liberal place and it’s not,” said Ms. Carpenter, who is the board president of Don’t Shoot Portland, a social justice nonprofit that uses art and community engagement to create social and legislative change.
“Our mayor sits down with the Proud Boys, who are a very dangerous far-right extremist group. Our police bureau escorts White supremacists when they come to town so that they can protest and engage in violent behavior with counter protesters,” she said.
She said people weren’t surprised when federal agents arrived because there has been a long period of distrust between Black people and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). She said the bureau and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler were condemning the protests before the agents arrived.
“They were complaining about the graffiti. They were complaining that some protesters were angry and shouting and throwing water bottles in response to being murdered and systematically marginalized,” the activist said. “People are going to be angry and have a reaction, but the fact that they weren’t condemning the police for brutalizing people exercising their right to protest, it’s funny that now they’re trying to say that. They’ve changed their tune now because the spotlight is on Portland and they’re like, ‘oh wait, hold on. We’re supposed to be super liberal, right?’ ”
On the contrary, she said, Portland was founded as an all-White state, and Black people could not own property until the 1920s.
“Portland has a unique history, but I think it’s because of that, people are so defiant. Stop killing us. Stop. Why do we have to keep saying it? Portland has their list of names that have been murdered by PPB. We have our own list of countless community members who have lost their lives,” she said.
President Trump cited crime statistics to justify deploying federal agents under Operation Legend. Attorney General William Barr said 200 federal agents have already been sent to Kansas City, Missouri, along with $3.6 million in grants to help hire more police officers. Chicago will see a similar number of grants and agents, according to communication between the president and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“If Donald Trump wants to send feds to arrest the White drug traffickers and gun traffickers who are bringing guns into Chicago and into Illinois, fine,” said Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the faith community at St. Sabina. “We’ve heard for years that we know where guns come from, Gary, Indiana and Mississippi and other places. If we know where they’re coming from, my question is, why are we not stopping it?”
He sees what’s happening in Portland as an appetizer of what will happen in Chicago and other cities around the country.
Minister Ishmael Muhammad, the Student National Assistant Minister to the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, echoed Father Pfleger. He noted all of the problems that exist in the Black community that create the current conditions, including health disparities, food deserts, unemployment and the lack of education.
He quoted Victor Hugo, who said, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin but he who causes the darkness,” and he questioned the hidden hand behind conditions and crime in the Black community.
“Now we have this other pandemic of Black on Black crime, but all of this is focusing America and the world on the Black problem. So Allah who has permitted all of these circumstances has everyone talking about the Black problem,” he said. “But out of that now comes the solution that Allah gave through the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, that the only solution to our problem is separation.”
Minister Farrakhan has been warning for decades that America would send federal troops into Black communities, said Ishmael Muhammad.
“He warned us that when it starts, the slaughter will be so horrible, because they are not coming in to make peace. They’re going to come in with full force,” he said.
Many mayors and local officials are rejecting the president’s plan, including Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who tweeted, “If President Trump sends militarized federal agents to Baltimore City to attack our citizens by making illegal arrests, kidnapping people, assaulting them, or committing any other crime, they will be prosecuted by my office.”
Chicago Mayor Lightfoot has also expressed concern. Though she has approached Mr. Trump’s plan cautiously and hesitantly, she is allowing a partnership to help deal with Chicago’s crime.
“We welcome actual partnership, but we do not welcome dictatorship, we do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome unconstitutional arrest and detainment of our residents,” she said.
Afrika Porter, CEO of Afrika Enterprises, a consulting and public relations firm, said she’s optimistic about the mayor.
“I think we have a mayor that’s fierce and unafraid. When I think of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, I think of Shirley Chisholm,” she said. “I was nine years old watching this Black woman run for president of the United States of America. I will never forget it. I see Lori Lightfoot in that same way. She challenges the president, Donald Trump.”
Many have been issuing lawsuits against the federal agents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Don’t Shoot Portland.
“What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States. Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street, we call it kidnapping. The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered,” said Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
One ACLU lawsuit “seeks to block federal law enforcement from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists or legal observers.” Another one argues that “the law enforcement attacks on medics violates the First and Fourth Amendments.”
In response to the first lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon blocked federal agents in Portland from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or targeting force against journalists or legal observers at protests, according to an ACLU press release.
Ms. Carpenter said Don’t Shoot Portland has two class action lawsuits in the works and said that they are still taking statements from people who have been affected.
Similar to the language of the ACLU lawsuits, Attorney Barbara Arnwine called President Trump’s actions unconstitutional.
“By his own admission, he is singling out what he calls liberal, Democratic cities. That kind of unequal, discriminatory targeting of African-Americans, Latinos and Democratic strongholds is absolutely outrageous,” said Ms. Arnwine, president and founder of the organization Transformative Justice Coalition.
She said “secret police” exist in fascist and dictatorial nations to squash dissent and opposition.
“You cannot have freedom of thought. You cannot have a democratic process, a competition of ideas. You cannot have freedom of press and freedom of the right to assembly when you are having police, a secret police, unidentified police running around in militarized uniform intercepting, kidnapping and disrupting protests,” she said.
Several interviewees commented that the president’s actions are rooted in an attempt to play on the fears of the public in order to win reelection.
“This has nothing to do with protests, but it has everything to do with him rolling out and testing how he can disrupt the federal election in October and November,” Ms. Arnwine said. “I think this is all a test run for his ability to occupy, intimidate and scare voters during the electoral season, and we and every American should raise their voice in utter opposition.”
Interviewees also said that President Trump’s actions were a call back to Bill Clinton’s 1994 “three strikes” crime bill.
“That’s a part of their wicked policy, to blame the country’s woes and problems on the most vulnerable in the society, and they are the architects and they are responsible for creating the conditions and circumstances out of which violence has become a byproduct of,” Minister Muhammad said.
Father Pfleger said Americans have to be smarter and not fall for the cheap trick of the law and order card.
“Instead of sending the federal government to bring more military that we don’t need, send your housing department to help build some affordable housing. Send your department of human services to create jobs and funds for infrastructure. Send your office of economic development to help bring in and to support and build Black businesses,” he said. “Send in your department of health to develop health clinics and mental health access. You can send in the federal government. Just send in the right departments. We don’t need more militarism and law enforcement. We need investment and opportunity.”
For Ms. Porter, the Black community can do better at rebuilding the Black family and doing for self.
“Part of it, to me, is doing for self, which is part of what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us. We have to continue to do for self,” she said.
Minister Muhammad described the deployment of federal agents in American cities as the perfect storm set up to exterminate Black people.
“Since you don’t want us anymore, since you don’t care for us, we’re fine with that. But we want the opportunity to exercise independence and to be a sovereign nation. We do not want from you that which you are unwilling to give to us, but we want to do what your fathers did when they found conditions unbearable, intolerable, under the King of England,” he said. “And they separated from England to become a nation. That’s the only solution to the problem of Black and White. That’s the only solution to the problem of ignorance and despair and hopelessness in the Black community.”