Top Homeland Security official vows federal agents ‘will not back away’ from violent protests

PORTLAND, OR - JULY 21:A federal officer tells the crowd to move while dispersing a protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. State and city elected officials have called for the federal officers to leave Portland as clashes between protesters and federal police continue to escalate. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s number two at the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday defended federal law enforcement officers’ intervention in protests in Portland, Oregon, and other cities this summer.

Characterizing some of the protests as “mob rule,” Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told lawmakers that federal agents could exert force in other cities if violent protests break out.

“DHS will not back away from our responsibilities to protect federal property, the people using those properties, and our brave law enforcement officers,” Cuccinelli said at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

Ken Cuccinelli Credit: Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury
Ken Cuccinelli Credit: Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

Many of the protests in Portland have centered around the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. President Donald Trump dispatched Homeland Security agents to Portland in July to protect federal property and respond to demonstrations that he and Cuccinelli have characterized as stemming from violent extremist groups.

“This country cannot survive allowing mob rule to replace the rule of law … they are not just attacking a federal court house but they are attacking very foundations that make the enjoyment of our natural rights possible, the rule of law itself,” Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli’s remarks follow a wave of criticism from Democrats and local leaders in Portland about the presence of federal law enforcement in the city — where demonstrations escalated into nightly clashes between protesters and federal officers. Viral videos showed officers in military fatigues using pepper balls and forceful tactics to clear streets and grabbing protesters to drive them away in unmarked cars. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has blamed federal agents for escalating conflict.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Trump administration reached an agreement last week for the federal agents to leave the city in phases, allowing local police to address the situation. Portland has seen weeks of demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis in police custody.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of the committee, joined the hearing remotely and said she supports federal law enforcement. “They are protecting people who are coming peaceably to express their opinion and assemble, and at the same time having to deal with these rioters there to destroy property, to harm people,” Blackburn said.

When officers put on their uniforms, “they don’t know if there are going to be peaceful protesters or if there are going to be the disruptors and destroyers that show up that they are going to have to deal with,” she said.

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In late May, Memphis and Nashville both saw peaceful protests turn violent after dark, with damage to public and private property and police using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. In one outburst, people set Historic Metro Nashville City Hall on fire.

On July 4, thousands marched in Nashville in a Black Lives Matter demonstration. That night, Tennessee police arrested 55 violators for criminal trespassing. In both cases, organizers of the daytime protests said their groups were not connected with the destructive action at night. 

Legislative proposals

Congressional Democrats have decried the Trump administration’s involvement in the Portland protests. 

“If this subcommittee wants to protect Americans’ right to peacefully assemble, we should be focused on preventing federal officers from beating up protestors, tear-gassing them and shooting them in the face,” Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee that held the hearing, said at its outset. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Monday that his panel would investigate the federal government’s response, after reports that Homeland Security officials had gathered intelligence on protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations. 

“Let me be clear: reporting regarding the monitoring of peaceful protesters, creating and disseminating intelligence reports about journalists and protesters, and potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling,” Schiff wrote in a letter.

Senate Democrats introduced legislation last month that would block the Trump administration from deploying federal forces. Their proposal would prevent the use of unmarked vehicles and limit federal agents’ crowd control activities to federal property and its immediate vicinity, unless specifically requested by a mayor or governor. The bill has 42 Democratic cosponsors. Neither of Tennessee’s senators signed on in support.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Sen. Tammy Baldwin

Original cosponsors include: Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Angus King (I-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo). 

On the other side of the issue, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the chairman of the panel that held Tuesday’s hearing, introduced a bill last month that would put state and local officials on the hook if protestors establish “autonomous zones” that shut out police. It would allow citizens to sue state and local officials when they incur damages in those areas.