Over the past week, Portland, Oregon, has become the somewhat unlikely epicenter of unrest over the death of George Floyd and the federal response to the protests that have sprung up around the country in its wake. At the moment, federal law enforcement officials and protesters are locked in a tense standoff that is centered in the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland.
CNN’s security correspondent Josh Campbell is on the ground in Portland, reporting on the situation. I reached out to him for some guidance on how we got here and how this all ends. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: How did we get here?
Campbell: The protests we are seeing in Portland largely began after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. A city known for its robust and spirited activism quickly joined other communities across the nation in taking to the streets to demand racial justice and police accountability.
Portland is different, however, in that the protest movement here took on another cause after President Donald Trump sent in federal forces around the July 4 holiday in order to protect federal statues. That influx of federal agents was met with anger by many demonstrators, who viewed the move as an attempt by the US government to occupy their city.
Since that time, a federal building downtown has largely served as the epicenter for ongoing protests – mostly peaceful, with periods of violence at night – as demonstrators continue to demand the Trump administration remove federal officers from the city.
Cillizza: What’s the state of the standoff now?
Campbell: Portland is now witnessing a standoff between protesters and an administration that continues to ratchet up its heated rhetoric to (falsely) describe the city as being in a state of total chaos and anarchy. While there have been incidents of rioting at night, including people launching fireworks at the federal building, setting fires outside, and allegedly attacking federal agents, the focal point of that activity largely centers on the city block housing the federal building. Despite the President’s descriptions, Portland is not a city under siege.
It is interesting to note that the conflict here in the city is not just between the feds and protesters. Indeed, many local city officials also want Trump’s cavalry of federal agents to leave their community. On Wednesday, I interviewed the city’s Democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler, who had very harsh words for federal authorities.
“This is clearly a waste of federal resources and it’s getting increasingly dangerous,” he said, referring to the teams of agents protecting the federal building, who routinely clash with some rioters at night. “We did not ask the feds to be here, we do not want them here. They’re not helping the situation, they’re not appropriately trained and we’re demanding that they leave.”
When it comes to guarding US government property, federal agents are basically on their own. The Portland police bureau, which is led by the mayor, has distanced itself from the federal effort and is only tangentially involved in efforts to patrol the protest area at night.
Cillizza: Explain what happened to Mayor Wheeler on Wednesday night.
Campbell: As I was interviewing the mayor Wednesday night among a crowd of hundreds of peaceful protesters, a group of rioters gathered near the fencing outside the federal building and began lobbing projectiles at the building and setting fires. In a pattern we have seen over and over, when federal agents in the building are provoked, or a fire set by rioters risks destroying the building, tactical officers will come out in full force and launch tear gas to disperse the crowd.
By now, I’ve been tear gassed more times than I can count while I’ve been covering this story, but due to their proximity to the epicenter of where the rioting was beginning to take place, the mayor and his security detail also got to experience the awful sensation of being tear gassed as federal agents threw gas canisters into the crowd.
Cillizza: What is the federal government’s role there?
Campbell: The federal government’s role during these protests is multifaceted.
On one hand, you have a mixture of federal agents from different agencies serving as guards and riot control officers at the downtown courthouse. At night, when a portion of the crowd turns violent, agents will often line up and push protesters back blocks away from the building using tear gas, rubber bullets and batons.
Some of their actions have come under great scrutiny after one protester was allegedly shot in the head with a less-than-lethal munition, and a Navy veteran was shown on a viral video being beaten outside the courthouse with a baton.
Behind the scenes, we are told that investigative teams from various federal agencies, including the FBI, are working to identify the key agitators who are instigating much of the violence.
Agents from US Customs and Border Protection also came under fire recently after a video surfaced showing two tactical agents arresting a man and taking him away in an unmarked van. While the agents did have police insignias on their uniforms, they ignored requests from bystanders asking them to identify themselves, which continued to fuel the Orwellian narrative that Trump’s federal army was snatching people off the street and taking them to unknown places.
After hours and hours of refusing our requests for comment on the incident, CBP finally issued a statement acknowledging the agents on the video were from their agency, and they indicated the man who was detained was suspected of being involved in criminal activity. A DHS official later said the man was released.
In addition to the optics of federal agents silently detaining people, the initial lack of transparency by the agency and slowness with which they have responded to basic requests for comment about their actions has caused widespread suspicion and anger by protesters. In part because of the incident, the Justice Department’s inspector general announced on Thursday that his office will be reviewing the actions of federal officers in both Portland and Washington.
Cillizza: How/when does this end?
Campbell: The truth is, there is no end in sight. It is classic entrenchment.
Trump and his political appointees at DHS continue to publicly describe Portland as being in a state of bedlam. Raising further questions about whether this is pure politics, the President is also threatening to send federal agents to other cities run by Democrats, which he has described as lawless. In a heated election year, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Trump’s exaggeration about the state of things on the ground in Portland is being done for partisan gain as he attempts to project his so-called “law and order” agenda.
Federal law enforcement officials tell us that as long as the downtown federal building in Portland remains under threat, the infusion of federal agents will remain. The acting secretary of Homeland Security said this week that if those agents were to depart, the building would burn to the ground.
The Portland mayor told me that claim is ridiculous. He is blaming the very presence of federal agents as fueling much of the outrage from demonstrators. The mayor said the Trump administration should do some introspection and reflect upon what role the influx of federal officers is having on his city.
And so, night after night, the protests continue. With federal and local officials at loggerheads, and demonstrators resolved to continue their efforts until federal agents leave, the pattern of protests and periodic clashes between authorities and rioters continues.