July 31, 2020 / 1:44 PM / 13 days ago

Portland protesters put out fires as feds withdraw

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Portland had its first day without tear gas in weeks after state police took over from federal agents guarding a courthouse that had become a battleground for agitators and tactical units.

Agents withdrew under a deal between Oregon’s governor and U.S. officials to end a deployment that saw escalating violence and a clash between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic mayors over the use of federal force in their cities.

Some people again tried to light fires at the courthouse on Friday but other protesters put them out, as a few hundred people demonstrated until around 3 a.m., Portland police said in a statement, adding that there were no arrests.

On previous nights, federal agents fired tear gas and other munitions to disperse crowds after “pure-on anarchists” shot commercial fireworks and hurled chemicals and incendiary devices, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott.

“Now we have a partnership, the state is doing its job, we’re doing our job,” Scott said in an interview.

Trump sent federal forces to confront what he called a “beehive of terrorists” who had lit fires and broken windows at the Portland courthouse since late May, when protests against police violence began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Democratic mayors said the deployment escalated tensions at largely peaceful anti-racism protests and was political theater for Trump’s “law and order” campaign ahead of the Nov.3 presidential election.

As injuries grew and hundreds of suburban mothers, veterans and healthcare workers joined demonstrations, Governor Kate Brown on Thursday sent state police to the courthouse and Portland police cleared a park used as a protest staging ground.

“Last night the world was watching Portland. Here’s what they saw: Federal troops left downtown. Local officials protected free speech. And Oregonians spoke out for Black Lives Matter, racial justice, and police accountability through peaceful, non-violent protest,” Brown tweeted.

Activists like Rashelle Chase hoped they could return to efforts to reform Portland’s police, who clashed with protesters before the federal surge in early July.

Federal law enforcement officers watch at a garage door after a vehicle left the Justice Center facility in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 31, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

“Violence breeds violence when you have federal agents using aggression against a vast majority of people who are not violent,” said Chase, 39, a Black mother and early childhood educator .

Portland officials took steps this week to meet protesters’ demands, with the city council approving a November ballot measure to overhaul police oversight.

Trump on Friday promised more money to national police chiefs who complained of laws limiting their power.

“We’re the opposite of defund,” Trump said at a White House event.

Department of Homeland Security agents remained on standby in Portland and National Guard troops could be sent in should state police be overrun, DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News.

A DHS spokesman said Wolf ordered his agency to stop collecting information on journalists covering the protests after the Washington Post reported the practice.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Asked if the deployment was part of wider operations against anarchists and anti-fascists, Scott said there were “significant concerns and threats” against law enforcement that his agency had learned more about through events in Portland.

He said agents there sometimes faced “chaos” in which it was difficult to distinguish between “legitimate protesters” and “imposters,” citing an example of someone with “press” written on their chest videoing at one moment and assaulting an officer the next.

“We would not, nor would we ever try to systematically track or monitor legitimate journalists or protesters,” he said when asked about intelligence gathering. “It’s a very, very gray area when that same person starts attacking you.”

Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay, Lisa Lambert and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Dan Grebler and Leslie Adler

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