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Presence, tactics of federal agents in Portland, Oregon, prompt questions and criticism

State and local leaders in Portland, Oregon, are calling for the departure of federal agents sent in response to protests. Their presence and tactics -- including deploying tear gas, driving unmarked vans and wearing military-style gear -- have raised questions about the role of the federal government to police cities. Amna Nawaz talks to Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    State and local leaders in Portland, Oregon, are calling for federal agents sent in response to weeks of protests to leave the city. Those protests were first sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

    Since their arrival, federal agents wearing military-style gear, and sometimes driving unmarked vans, have unleashed tear gas into crowds, rounded up and detained protesters, and even shot one man in the head with a non-lethal round, causing serious injury.

    Their presence and their tactics have raised questions about the use of federal agencies to police cities, even when local authorities don't want them there.

    Jonathan Levinson has been reporting on all this for Oregon Public Broadcasting, and he joins me now.

    Jonathan, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We should point out that those protests have been largely peaceful. There's been vandalism, some property damage, but you have been following this. So tell me, when did you first notice there were federal agents, not local police. And who do we know that those federal agents are?

  • Jonathan Levinson:

    So, there's always federal agents at the federal courthouse.

    But there was an increased presence and they played a much larger role starting around July 4. And that's when sort of federal reinforcements came from the U.S. Marshals special operations group and Customs and Border Protections' BORTAC, which is essentially their SWAT team.

    And that night, July 4, and then since then, they have been playing a much more active role, clearing the protesters off the streets, in some nights right alongside Portland police and, as you mentioned, really venturing away from federal properties onto the city streets in order to effect arrests at times even.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And there have been a lot of questions around who those men are in camouflage.

    Do we now know who those agents are, what agency they're from?

  • Jonathan Levinson:

    So, yes.

    Just recently, about an hour ago, Acting Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli acknowledged that it was Homeland Security officers doing it, and basically said that this is a tactic they use.

    The U.S. attorney in Oregon here, Billy Williams, announced an investigation, or he requested that the Homeland Security inspector general launch an investigation into possible arrests being done without probable cause.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And there's a lot of questions about their tactics.

    You reported on the story of one protester, a man named Mark Pettibone. He says he was peacefully protesting on the evening of July 15, taken into custody in an unmarked car by armed men in camouflage.

    From what you have been able to report, what exactly happened to Pettibone?

  • Jonathan Levinson:

    So, Pettibone has been protesting a couple nights a week since all of this started.

    On — that was Wednesday night, he was protesting. It's sort of a festive atmosphere at these protests some nights. And this was one of those nights they were dancing. There was music. He said he was playing Frisbee for a while. Around 2:30 in the morning, he and a friend walked back to their car. And a few blocks away from where the protests are from the federal courthouse, a minivan pulls up. Four or five guys with rifles jump out. He said his beanie was pulled down over his head, blindfolding him, they tossed him in a van, and one officer held his arms above his head while they drove around a little bit.

    And, eventually, he was unloaded inside a building, which, only after he was released, did he learn was the federal courthouse. While he was in there, they searched his stuff. They photographed him. They read him his rights.

    He was under the impression that he was being arrested. He asked for a lawyer, and, very soon after, he was released. They didn't give him any paperwork. They didn't give him any indication that he had been charged with anything. He still isn't sure if he's been charged with anything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jonathan, less than a minute left.

    We should remind people, as we mentioned earlier, that city and state officials say they don't want these federal agents there. You have been in touch with the agencies. What are they telling you about their presence?

  • Jonathan Levinson:

    Well, the federal agencies say that they are here to quell, they have called it mob violence. They have called the protesters criminals.

    The governor has said that their presence is a provocation and that they are unwanted here. The mayor has said that they should stay inside their buildings and not come out, and, if they can't do that, then they should leave.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson joining us tonight with the latest on the protests in Portland.

    Thanks so much, Jonathan.

  • Jonathan Levinson:

    Thank you.

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