Troops fire teargas at demonstrators during a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Oregon, the US, July 19 2020. Picture: REUTERS/CAITLN OCHS
Troops fire teargas at demonstrators during a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Oregon, the US, July 19 2020. Picture: REUTERS/CAITLN OCHS

Washington  — US homeland security officials said on Monday they had no intention of pulling back in Portland, Oregon, after a federal crackdown on antiracism protests that included the use of unmarked cars and unidentified officers in camouflage.

Weeks of protests in Portland over police brutality and systemic racism intensified as federal officers began cracking down on crowds last week, using teargas to disperse protesters and taking some into custody without explanation.

The department of homeland security sent law enforcement units to Portland to help guard US government facilities after receiving intelligence about planned attacks on July 4, department officials said.

“DHS [department of homeland security] is not going to back down from our responsibilities. We are not escalating, we are protecting,” Chad Wolf, department acting secretary, told Fox News.

About 1,500 demonstrators protested on Sunday night outside the federal court, which has been the centre of protests since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

There were more people than the week before, with some in the crowd angered by the news of the arrival of federal law enforcement officers in their city.

After protesters began knocking down sections of a large steel fence put up around the court building, officers lobbed flash grenades and then teargas canisters. The teargas continued intermittently past midnight.

Portland Police early on Monday said federal agents used teargas to disperse the crowd and moved to extinguish a fire that was lit within a portico of courthouse. Police did not engage with protesters and did not use teargas, the department said.

Wolf said federal law enforcement was doing its job.

“We're not going to apologise for it,” he said. “We're going to do it professionally and do it correctly.”

President Donald Trump condemned protests in Portland and violence in other “Democrat-run” cities on Sunday as his Republican administration moves to intervene in urban centres he says have lost control of demonstrations. Protests began across the country after the death of Floyd, one in a long line of Black Americans killed by police.

The clampdown in the liberal city has drawn widespread criticism and legal challenges as videos surfaced of officers without clear identification badges using force and unmarked vehicles to arrest protesters without explanation.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the department, said on Monday the federal officers wore the same uniforms every day and the crowds knew who they were. He also defended the use of unmarked cars as routine.

“Unmarked police vehicles are so common it's barely worth discussion,” he said.

Cuccinelli said if federal authorities receive the same kind of intelligence threat in other places, they would respond the same way. “It's really as simple as that,” he said.

On Sunday, Democrats in the US House of Representatives demanded internal investigations into whether the justice and homeland security departments “abused emergency authorities” in handling the Portland protests.

Portland's mayor called the intervention an abuse of federal power and said it was escalating the violence. Oregon's attorney-general filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies, saying they had seized and detained people without probable cause.

Cuccinelli dismissed local leaders' calls to leave the city.

“We will maintain our presence,” he said.


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